Re: Human Language. (long post)

Michael McBroom (
Thu, 02 Jan 1997 09:53:26 -0500

Susan S. Chin wrote:
> John Waters wrote:
> : > > If H. erectus could manage without language for nearly two
> : > > million years of its existence, why did H.s.s need
> : > > language?
> : >
> : > > Could it be that language wasn't actually needed by the
> : > > species, but arrived as a result of another long-term
> : > > evolutionary process?
> Michael McBroom ( wrote:
> : Fist off, John's original question is based on a somewhat false
> : premise. While H. erectus almost certainly did not have full-blown
> : language, he almost certainly did have some sort of "protolanguage"
> : capability (cf. Bickerton [1990]), which during his 2 million year
> : existence, no doubt progressed from rudimentary to complex.
> The increased cranial capacity seen in the evolution from Homo erectus to
> early Homo sapiens also suggests that the larger brained sapiens' cognitive
> abilities, thought patterns, were more complex in nature. These more
> complex thought patterns would require more than just the rudimentary
> language earlier hominid species may have used, the "protolanguage"
> referred to above possibly.

Just to throw a bit more in this direction from a linguistics
standpoint: One quite fascinating (and controversial) proposal that
Bickerton makes in the above cite (_Language and Species_ is the name of
the book) is that brain size expanded due, essentially, to the *lack* of
organization that is inherent with a protolanguage, due to its highly
simplistic grammar. He reasons that, in order to communicate
effectively with this difficult-to-use medium, progressively larger
brain sizes were selected for as the complexity of protolanguage

Inherent to true language, however, is its superior organization due to
a more complex grammar. The more complex grammar allows the user of a
language to learn a "template" rather than have to hammer out a set of
communicative priorities with each new and original vocalization. The
result is the ability to communicate with much less effort than before.
And an interesting side effect of this increased ease of articulation is
a *decrease* in brain size over time. If we look at some of the archaic
H.s. specimens and most Neanderthals, they have brain capacities that
exceed ours on average. The superior organization of the modern
cognitive/language system has allowed some "miniturization" to take
place. Food for thought, eh?

> One theory that I've heard related to this is the relationship between
> the increased technological complexity seen in the archaeological lithic
> record. Perhaps merely demonstrating how a particular tool is created...
> vocalized language facilitated this learning process. There must be a
> reference in the literature for this somewhere...

There are lots. I believe there is a necessary link here, but this is
far from a universally held view.


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics