Re: Human Language. (long post)

Michael McBroom (
Sat, 28 Dec 1996 00:10:44 -0500

Diarmid Murray wrote:
> Yes, but does "true" language need to be acoustic? Surely signing
> systems like ASL are true language? Could it really be described as
> non-verbal or paralinguistic? And chimps can learn it from us, and,
> arguably, become as proficent as something approximating to a bright
> human pre-school child level: gorillas too.

We must be careful with the terms we use. "True language" is
ambiguous. Sometimes linguists prefer the term "natural language" to
emphasize language's innate origins. Since language as we know and
speak it appears to have evolved with the genus Homo, and occurs in no
other animal species extant, then "true language," in the sense that it
is a biological trait that we've inherited from our progenitors, must,
by definition, be spoken. Language exists, and has existed, with every
human culture we have come across. It's the one single constant that
appears to be truly cross-cultural. Not only that, no matter how
unrelated languages are to one another, they still fall within certain
classifications, and tend to follow general grammatical rules according
to the type of classification they fall within.

Sign languages, such as ASL, are effective replacements for natural
languages, but they are not the same thing, because they are not an
instinctive behavior the way spoken language is (cf. Steven Pinker's
_The Language Instinct_ [1994]).

Regarding your last claim about chimps, the data doesn't bear that claim
out. Apes who have been taught sign language communicate about as
effectively as a pre-language-acquisition-stage child (the language
acquisition stage usually occurs in the child's 2nd or 3rd year). My
daughter was pre-school age until this past September, and her language
abilities have been at a level that no ape could come close to
approximating for over two years.

In fact, the most interesting evidence that comes out of apes being
taught sign language is that they clearly never go through the language
acquisition stage that human children do. Prior to this stage, however,
ape and child spoken communication is remarkably similar. See Derick
Bickerton's _Language and Species_ (1990) for a fascinating discussion
of this topic. Pinker (1994) discusses it as well.

> In other words, they seem to grasp some grammatical rules, and create
> new combinations which can be understood, spontaneously, rather than
> simply producing a certain sign for a certain object or event.

Not so. The transcripts I've seen from ape sign language
interpretations show that there is a characteristic lack of grammar.
Typical "sign utterances" consist of two-word groups, in which the words
are freely transposed. In a two word group, whether the words are
grouped as "A B" or "B A", there's a 50-50 chance that the correct
combination will show up. The data actually seems to suggest that the
apes are throwing the words out at random, as if hoping the human
respondent will figure out what they mean.

> OK, ASL and the like are secondary developements in our culture, (and
> perhaps in our species), and the chimps have to learn it from us.
> But it does suggest that a lack of the physical equipment for modern
> human vocalised speech need not preclude highly sophisticated
> interactive communication (language?).

It suggests that, if we already have the *ability* to process natural
language, we can adopt it to other forms. Consider writing. Or
typing. If we did not have the ability to process language, I
personally doubt seriously that we would be able to comminicate fluently
in any other medium. (Please note that deaf people who use ASL still
have the ability to process natural language, even if they're not
skilled at speaking it.)

> Having a wild stab in true Usenet tradition, and it is Christmas, I
> would suggest that social tool-users like Erectus, probably even
> Habilis, would have had a sophisticated language involving signing
> and vocalisation, in addition to the usual non-verbals etc. The big
> question, when the morphological evidence was unhelpful especially,
> would be what was the balance. (And when and where and with which culture?).

Based on the evidence I've seen, it seems highly unlikely that H.
erectus had a sophisticated language. The vocal tract suggested by the
fossil evidence would have precluded the production of most of the
sounds we can produce. So, his phonemic inventory would have been
severly limited. Nonetheless, H. erectus had already undergone
considerable morphological changes in the vocal tract area, so there
must have been some sort of vocal communication going on. Chances are
much more likely that H. erectus used a fairly complex protolanguage
(see Bickerton [1990]), something more akin to a vocalized version of
the sign language used by the above-mentioned apes.

> Following on from this, it would be interesting to consider what
> changes in circumstance and/or lifestyle might seem to advantage any
> radical shifts in this balance, as evidenced morphologically. But I
> suspect that whatever Habilis had was "true" language, and the really
> interesting problems relate to examining the proposal. I'm sure
> there's plenty scope for a newsgroup dedicated to considering what is
> "true" language, if it does not exist already. And that's just for starters.

I remain convinced that the beginnings of language is that which caused
the genus Homo to split off from the Australopithecines. But I do not
believe that H. habilis spoke "true" language. He probably spoke a
crude precursor to language, but the language that we know today most
likely originated with (archaic) H. sapiens


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics