Early language

Thu, 15 Feb 1996 11:34:29 -0500

On the subject of early language:

I think a large part of the problem has been the unspoken idea behind
all that that *if* they actually couldn't speak with the same "vocal
richness", that they didn't speak or have any language, and ignoring
that language is only a part of communication. (Actually we see most
everyday examples online of that fact that effective language is
sharply hindered when we're deprived of visual input -- we end up using
little smileys to try and make up for that problem, and they're really
primitive in their effectiveness compared to looking at someone's face
as they talk, or even their handwriting as they write.)

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find that we got better at
language as we went along during our evolution, but the first stuff that
came out on this subject, suggesting that Neandertals were necessarily
some sort of gibbering idiots, was way overdone. (They *might* have
been, but it didn't *necessarily* follow from the reconstruction

As Tanner pointed out (several places over the years, but these quotes
are from *On Becoming Human*, 1981): "it is only because the discussion
has been phrased in terms of (1) language rather than communication and
(2) gestural language versus vocal language that there appears to be a
controversy. An intergrated communicatory system, including a wide range
of nonverbal communication modes with speech, is what has evolved in the
human instance." (pg. 128), and also "What must be stressed regarding
chimpanzee communication is that, although the mode is expressive,
information about the environment is both sent and decoded. There is
therefore reason to assume that the ancestral population already
possessed some of the underlying mental capacities necessary for further
communicatory development, particularly with regard to the referential
function." (pg. 129).

In other words, most of the arguments about whether or not early
hominids, at whatever stage, had "language", present false dichotomies
while making their arguments. Since chimpanzees do fairly well at
communicating relatively sophisticated information, ala Menzel's
experiments in the 70s, or the Savage-Rumbaugh 1977 report on bonobo
gestural communication regarding positioning for sex, we don't need to
assume there's no usefulness to gradually improved skills in both vocal
and non-vocal non-verbal communication in these early populations.

And though, if we knew exactly what was going on at all these times
(get out your time machines), we might not say it was language *like
ours*, we would likely find reason to say they spoke *some sort* of
language, just as we now try to think of their lifestyle as not just
a pale imitation of our gathering/hunting, but as their own special
brand of g/h.

Jim Moore (j#d#.moore@canrem.com)