Re: [PALEO,LING] ] Re: Language, gesture, etc.

karl h schwerin (schwerin@UNM.EDU)
Wed, 21 Feb 1996 15:58:50 -0700

On Wed, 14 Feb 1996, Danny Yee wrote:

> Most primates use gestures and/or "words" for communication (I
> recommend Cheney and Seyfarth's _How Monkeys See the World_ for
> more on the subject), so it seems almost certain that the common
> ancestor of Homo and Pan also did. So there is no doubt in my mind
> that gestural and vocal communication preceded grammar (which, ape
> language experiments notwithstanding, no non-human animals appear
> to have). Whether the latter *developed* directly from the former
> is another matter, of course...
> > If word came after gesture did it substitute the gesture?
> > And if grammar followed the word did it substitute the word? Why couldn't
> > they just have been always together?
> Because many animals have vocal communication but no grammar; among them,
> almost certainly, most of our ancestors.
> Danny Yee.

I'm coming in on this thread a bit late, but I'm continually annoyed at
the lack of perspective on this issue. Danny is quite right in his
observations. As early as the late 60s it was recognized that the higher
primates *all* have complex systems of *communication* (not language).
Some macaques have 20 different calls, each with a specific 'meaning'
(hunger, danger, fear, location, I'm lost, this is our territorial
boundary, etc.)

Certainly early language would not have been as complex as modern
language (the OED lists several 100,000 English words, and doesn't even
deal with grammar and syntax). I've always been dubious that gesture had
much to do with vocal language, considering the two to be unrelated forms
of communication. Ania, I believe, has suggested that _body language_ is
an important part of communication, but this is yet another component,
quite distinct from _gesture_.

My hypothesis has been that the development of language was closely
allied with the development of toolmaking - that the abstraction
necessary in manufacturing a tool _type_ or maintaining a _tool
tradition_ is closely akin to the abstraction involved in creating symbolic
terminology. Again, the abstractions involved in Oldowan tool making
(a tradition which lasted a million years or more) or Acheulean tools
(lasting several 100,000 years) could hardly be as developed or complex
as those involved in creating modern computers or the internet. But they
were already embarked on that track. What I'm saying is that language
must have developed slowly, but incrementally, just as did technology.

That Neandertals could not replicate the _range_ of modern human vowel
vocalizations does not mean they did not/could not have language. It
just means the range of vocalizations would have been somewhat less -
but still significantly more than macaques or pongid species.

I must say that watching my 16 month old granddaughter communicate
gesturally has given some pause on these positions. She still uses words
minimally and unpredictably, has a very small vocabulary, but
communicates quite effectively her needs and desires. Some of this may
be because her parents have been so attentive that they respond
immediately to anything initiated by her. If I can recall my own kids, I
was less likely to respond to their cries, waiting to see whether it was
really a serious matter, and I think I also put more emphasis on verbal
communication than these parents do. it genetic, or cultural, or
a Jungian archetype?

Ron Kephart, you've had some provocative thoughts on this issue, what do
you think about these reflections? Anyone else care to comment?

Karl Schwerin SnailMail: Dept. of Anthropology
Univ. of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM 87131

There are people who will help you get your basket
on your head because they want to see what is in it.
-- African proverb