Paleoling, animal communication, etc.

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Thu, 15 Feb 1996 09:34:59 -0500

Thanks to Ralph Holloway for reminding us of the very likely connection between
the production of complex stone tools and the capacity for language. In his
books Language and Species, and the more recent Language and Human Behavior,
Derek Bickerton uses this plus other evidence to postulate the capacity for at
least "proto-language" in pre-sapiens hominids. Proto-language would be
language without syntax, in his view the sort of linguistic ability demonstrated
by humans at the two-word stage of language acquisition, which is also similar
to chimps/gorillas who acquire some sign language. Syntax appears with
sapienization, which is also when the more complex tool kit, as well as evidence
for more complex social relationships, appear.

I'd like to make one strictly linguistic point. While other animals, including
the non-human hominoids, have vocalizations which can have communicative
functions, only humans appear to have language. The crucial difference is that
vocalizations are both acoustically and psychologically continuous,
non-discrete. Language (words, phrases, etc.) is acoustically continuous, but
psychologically discrete. That is, we can take a word like cat and readily
segment it into 2 consonants (k, t) and a vowel (a). We can then reverse the
order, and say /tak/ (tack). We can also say /akt/ (act). All this even though
a sound spectrograph of these words shows no clear separation of the vowels and
consonants. This feature of human language (alog with others) was identified by
Charles Hocket as a "design feature" and called "duality of patterning." It is
exactly the capacity to do this, I think, which makes human language as we know
it possible.

In order to do this, we have to able to have, in our heads, abstract concepts
(k, t, a) which by themselves carry no meaning, but which can create meaning
when combined into words (and other meaningful units: prefixes, suffixes, etc.).
This way, with a small number of those inherently non-referential units
(phonemes) we can build literally as many meaningful units (words, etc.) as we
want/need. When, and how, did we acquire this capacity? For me, that's the
most interesting question.

Gotta go. Thanks for reading this. It's probably too long but I'd like
everyone to be clear, in discussing language, about exactly what language is and
isn't. And don't ask me about whales and dolphins...

Ronald Kephart
Department of Language & Literature
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, FL 32224
ph: 904-646-2580