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Strictly Speaking

The Purpose of Human Language, Part 3

So, how did otherwise disagreeable individuals in an early human tribal community come to recognize necessarily distinct objects by the sounds that accurately represented them?

Nobody knows, or may ever know, but there are important clues from our biologically close relatives. In a sense that perhaps neither Charles Darwin nor Alfred Russell Wallace properly anticipated, fitness as a filter for natural selection may work both on an individual and collective level. It would be strange, given that modern monkeys emit characteristic screams warning for ‘eagle’ and ‘snake,’ if our prelingual ancestors did not create counterpart sounds. When danger presented itself to the group, a solitary upright bipedal animal would not benefit uniquely from silence any more than it would benefit from remaining motionless. Even now, when people are startled by unexpected gunfire or explosions, they scream and scatter. But a scream, while communicating an underlying primal fear, does not communicate any level of detail about the stimulus for that fear.

Benjamin Latimer has suggested that the progression of the primate laryngeal apparatus toward the configuration that is required to master a broad range of vocalization. There is a gene, FOXP2, associated with the capacity for human language, but spoken language, as opposed to signing, requires an instrument of variable sounds that is adept at creating them across a broad range.

This did not happen overnight. Not even in as simplified a tale of origins as the Bible are we told on what day God created language. But it seems unlikely that one day an entire pack of these creatures burst forth in fully articulated language. Even when the author Lewis Carroll invented what was clearly structured like a language, it appeared without an attached culture or history. For Carroll’s ersatz language no Rosetta Stone existed, at least beyond the mind of its creator. Its nature and details were sufficiently unfamiliar that even Greek would have been more comprehensible.

Pursuing the same tutored instinct, author and philologist J. R. R. Tolkien created an unfamiliar yet enchanting alphabet for his Hobbit trilogy. This was not an incredible leap of pure faith. Archeologists have exhumed the written records of many long dead civilizations. History begins in the transition between painting and written characters, but not to the exclusion of cultures without writing. More than eighty-five percent of cultures exist with only a spoken expression for communication. For nomadic peoples, where the roles and routines are fixed by the seasons and rigid social niches, a written literature may seem a pointless effort.

Written language does not immediately provide food or shelter or improve health. But the spell of storytelling seems to escape the hardship of nomadic life. Rich oral traditions, repeated and embroidered, reach back beyond their eventual written counterparts. Wherever tribal connections favor individual advancement, skillful schmoozing will become a facile means to an end, provided that meaning is embodied in an acoustical structure.

How did this happen?

Again, nobody knows, although ancient legends purport all kinds of human gifts to divine largesse. Or, as even a churchgoing, hard-praying Forrest Gump doubted, maybe not. Prelingual primates evolving toward a fully human range of expression must have developed at least a rudimentary suite of sounds for particularly useful objects: sticks and stones that not only break bones, but allowed primitive torches and hearth stones. In the hunt or for common defense, the mastery and portability would have provided another deterrent against creatures with instincts to flee fire. Fire, or any other essential element of a nomadic culture, would have forged for itself an early place in emerging tribal vocabularies.

Example must be not only real, but representative.

Here’s one: In the Academy Award winning film Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner communicates with his Amerindian hosts by using the sound they use for Buffalo: “Tonka.” Then he holds his fingers up like horns on each side of his head, depicting the sound’s meaning: buffalo. Finally he points toward where he has spotted them. So in “Tonka,” is another inescapably essential noun, the sine qua non of a culture of the plains Indian that depended entirely on the buffalo.

The absence of a familiar noun for buffalo would have reduced the process of communicating to a bizarre atavistic game of charades on the prairie. Whereas it is easy to imagine a developmental process of spoken sounds that expanded from a culturally essential element, it is more difficult to imagine a nomadic culture that converged on the essential via trivial pursuits. The harder a lifestyle is, the more economical and immediate its vocabulary must be. There is an inescapable congruity of form and substance that limited the size of vocabulary until agrarian settlements accumulated food stores and diversified technologies.

The requirement for the development of an increasing number of vocalized nouns likely started, to Descartes’ posthumous delight, directly from the need to name the sundry objects explored by the ancestral hand. Long before our predecessors evolved the biological flexibility to master a range of sounds, our brains had allocated a disproportional area of the cortex to the exquisite exploration, manipulation and projection of physical objects discovered in their environment. Vocalized language is not an essential prerequisite to the recognition of possibilities, alteration of naturally occurring objects into tools, or individual intellectual development.

Even without speech, humans are curious creatures. Deaf children have no less fascination in how tools and puzzles and gadgets work than do children with a full range of audible speech. And they, too, need ways to share their discoveries with others. Unsurprisingly, they do so by exhibiting, with those same hands that dominate more neurons than the speech center, a sign for each object. Their nouns, and other words, are shapes in space presented by the most flexibly chiral of all manipulators, the human hand.

All that the hand needs in order to effectively employ objects is a fully opposable thumb. Fortunately we have one, and this allows us to seize such objects in what is called a power grip. With the assistance of an equally capable eye, the hands can begin to alter naturally occurring materials. As in all species, some individuals will be more gifted in thinking, or recognizing possibilities, than others. But without language, the enlargement of manual skills from one generation to another is limited to the ability of observant apprentices to watch and emulate master craftsmen, or – more often in hardship cultures like the !Kung – craftswomen.

Unfortunately, what observation and emulation often does not communicate is a set of underlying “whys.” Why was a particular stone chosen as more suitable to forming a hand axe or spear tip? Why was a particular tree branch used as the starting material for a club or kindling to start a fire? Only when a master craftsman’s or agronomist’s reasoning can be codified into spoken form can it be transmitted not by observation, but by hearing. This brings us to another transformational aspect of speech as a medium of communication: unlike a deaf person, whose signing falls silent when hands are occupied with fabrication, a master artisan who speaks can both demonstrate his skills as well as elaborate on reasons, techniques, even alternatives – drawing into the realm of possibility objects that are not physically present, and actions that are not being employed at the moment of creation.

It is broadly proclaimed that mastery of fire was pivotally important to humans surviving the hardships of the last Ice Age. But far older remnants of hominid fires stretch south from Europe, reaching farther into Africa. Long before needed to stave off lethal cold, controlled fire banished the darkness to expose approaching predators and allowed firebrands to be used by sentries for self-defense. Fire extended the hours for socializing, sharing objects or inventions, and sharpening or replacing spear tips. Fire banished nocturnal darkness, allowed cooking of foods and experimentation with thermal properties of objects, from stones to clay. But if the neurological evidence is weighed, it gives manipulation primacy over pyrotechnology. If you unwittingly pick up a hot object from a stove, you will feel its shape before you feel its conducted heat. This is because the neural pathways for gripping and manipulating were wired in millions of years before the need of our primate ancestors to detect heat. Like all other animals except rhinoceri, humans are naturally afraid of fire, and should be. No doubt its mastery was achieved tentatively, by daring excursions to pick up dry sticks ignited by lightning or wildfire, or by poking long branches into flowing lava. Inventive and desperate, humans would eventually learn how to use fire to cauterize wounds, both extending individual lifespans and, thereby, protecting a critical size for social function in a species that, more than any other, needed to depend on one another in order for the collective to survive.

Yet even today we say, “Don’t play with fire.” But we don’t say, “Don’t play.” We are experimental creatures. We experiment, we discover, and we yearn to impress. In order to impress, we need something that allows us to express, to easily share our triumphs and discoveries. To do that, wee need more than hoots and barks and grunts. We need language.

In the trial and error of controlling fire and kicking hornet’s nests, there were doubtless more failures than successes. In order to endure, it is more important to survive at a familiar subsistence lifestyle than it is to follow a leader over a cliff who insists, “If birds fly, so can we.” In watching the peril of disinhibited humans today, it is not difficult to imagine a leader ever more conservative than any we see now. And it is easy to imagine humans as more emotional in a fearful environment than in a safer one. So as vocalization grew, it is easier to imagine a careful, emotional leader screaming, “Stop!” than, “Be careful as you approach the edge of the cliff.”

It is difficult to imagine a valid argument for the emergence of language that ignores what has become inextricably imbedded in it today: gestures and expressions. Especially gestures. Among our distant forefathers, there is one situation in which communication and coordination was at a premium, but so was silence: hunting. For these essential activities, whose outcomes meant prosperity or hardship, a series of commonly understood signs – such as pointing a direction and indicating a number of hunters to move in a certain direction by raising and pointing a corresponding number of fingers – would suffice without requiring even rudimentary speech.

As with deaf individuals, a sufficient range of utilitarian gestures may have measured out survival until spoken language. If a gesture were in place before the vocal apparatus and neural program essential to speech, it would likely be retained for familiarity while speech developed, and used as visible punctuation, adding emphasis or clarification. But when silence was an advantage, as in hunting, the commonly understood hand signs would continue as they had, perhaps for many hundreds of thousands of years. Time and experience would have taught that slow cooperative encirclement is more efficient, conserves more energy and creates fewer individual risks than pursuit of game by relay. When the hunters are few and the risks great, the economy of this method is no less valid today than it was a million years ago. Gestures comprise the communication of choice among elite forward forces, such as Rangers and SEALS.

Gestures are a form of visible emphasis. But they are also, like our appendix, vestigial reminders of a time when we did not speak, both because we could not speak and because any vocalization would give us away. From another perspective, sign language was the first form of code. It included all that was needed for the desired insiders to act, and gave away nothing to others who did not understand the gestures. By strange but inevitable coincidence, language is primal and tribal. Its unique form and sounds include embedded shibboleths that simultaneously include natives and exclude others. Sadly, language is both the great uniter and the great divider. To a multilingual speaker, the world is his or her proverbial oyster. To the monolingual tribesman, global limitations in communication exceed possibilities.
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