Re: Human Language. (long post)

John A. Halloran (
5 Jan 1997 15:28:02 -0700

In article <> Michael McBroom <> writes:

>> >Nonetheless, the fact that adult humans are the only animals in
>> >existence with a vocal tract that represents a health hazard when one
>> >does something as fundamental as eat and drink, points to the overriding
>> >importance that language has been to our progenitors.

>> Other authors have pointed out that our ancestors
>> were primates who began following a wolf-like existence, but without wolves'
>> olfactory equipment for determining group membership and marking territory.
>> The visual-auditory senses had to assume this role among hominids.

>Perhaps, but this is mere speculation. What evidence do we have for
>this wolf-like behavior?

Pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers are supposed to have lived in groups not
exceeding 20 individuals. From throughout the world we find that people
divided themselves into clans with distinctive tattoos and even manners of
shaving their heads (see the picture in Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind).
In the Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume, by J. Paterek, under Tattooing
it says "It was employed not only for beautification but often as a means of
tribal identification." [p. 470] Even the famous Ice Man of the Swiss/Italian
Alps had several tattoos on his body, showing that clans in Europe also used
this method of clan identification. Furthermore, clans distinguished
themselves from other clans by identifying with a particular totem, which was
often an animal but could be some other phenomenon in their natural world.
Both tattoos marking the individual and totems marking a territory are visual
signs of belonging to a particular clan, replacing the olfactory cues that
wolves use.

It is a fact that wolves have developed a vocal tract that permits
long-distance vocalizations. I believe this is related to their hunting
lifestyle, in which they are able to range widely apart but come together when
prey is being attacked. Note that they cooperate socially using the
tail and many other signals without the need for abstract language. Evolution
of hominids since our vegetarian primate ancestors has been to be able to run
swiftly and enlargement of the brain to enable accurate throwing of missiles
(cf. the theories of William H. Calvin at These evolutionary changes
specifically have to do with hunting. Calvin describes the Acheulean biface
as a missile that could be used to attack large mammals at a waterhole.

>> It would be interesting to compare the carrying distance of the adult male
>> human voice to that of non-hunting primate voices. The ability to vocalize
>> over long distances may be tied to the new wide-ranging hunting lifestyle of
>> humans. Human males in hunting cultures become hunters when their voices
>> deepen in adolescence. Low-frequency calls are able to travel longer
>> distances than are high-frequency calls.

>There is nothing in your argument that requires the evolution of H.
>sapiens' supralaryngeal airway, which has been refined so that it can
>produce an expanded variety of vowel sounds and consonants.

Do you mean anything by this other than descent of the larynx?

>consonants, with the possible exception of nasals, liquids, and glides
>([n], [m], [l], [r], [w], [y]) will not carry much of any distance at
>all. Even the aforementioned ones will not carry very far, with the
>possible exception of the retroflex [r]. I dare say that H. erectus, H.
>neanderthalensis, even the Australopithecines would have been able to
>hoot and howl just as effectively as we can. Please note that the above
>mentioned species did not possess the same vocal tract morphology that
>we do -- theirs was much closer to that of current-day apes.

You know what throws cold water on Liberman's elaborate theory about the Homo
sapiens sapiens vocal tract developing to be able to produce more vowels? The
assertion by historical linguists that Proto-Indo-European only had one vowel!
In "The Primitive Features of a Protolanguage", Bernard H. Bichakjian asserts
that it had "a very limited number of vowels, presumably only one in its first
reconstructed phase.", namely the vowel e. PIE did have several laryngeal
consonants, however, that are no longer in modern languages. [in Geneses of
Language, ed. Walter A. Koch, Brockmeyer: Bochum, 1990, pp. 228-256.] If you
are interested in such research, another good article on evolution away from
primitive features in other language families is his "Evolutionary patterns in
linguistics", Studies in Language Origins, vol 2, ed. Walburga von
Raffler-Engel et al., John Benjamins: Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 1991, pp.

There have been reports that palaeontologists found in a Neanderthal skeleton
in Israel a rarely-preserved hyoid or tongue bone which indicated that
Neanderthal could have produced human vocalizations. If, however, the
Neanderthal larynx had not descended to the extent it does in Homo sapiens
sapiens, then I would point to the greater hunting lifestyle of Cro-Magnon
man, who was better adapted to running, and is supposed to have migrated with
the seasonal herds unlike the Neanderthals who foraged in a fixed territory
near a permanently inhabited cave.

This difference between Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthal man would be
significant because Cro-Magnon man would have a greater need to vocalize as
part of their social wolf-like existence hunting large mammals.


John Halloran