Re: Human Language. (long post)

Michael McBroom (
Mon, 06 Jan 1997 02:16:45 -0800

John A. Halloran wrote:

> >> 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.

Your last sentence, which is drawing a conclusion based on the ones that
came before, is *still* speculation. What do tatoos have to do with
language? How do tatoos represent wolf-like behavior? Are you saying
that because wolves live in groups of 20 or so individuals, and that
humans have too, that we must necessarily demonstrate adaptive
similarities, and that somehow tatoos represent them? Let's not leave
out scarification, either. That's still popular, you know. But if
we're really going to compare early hominids to carnivores that live and
hunt in packs, why not hyenas or lions, since humans originated in

> 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.

Do wolves "announce" the attack to the rest of their far-ranging pack?
Or do they attack in relative silence? I always thought they kept
rather silent when they got down to serious business, and that they were
too busy snarling and snapping at each other when it was time to eat.
Hardly the kind of "come and get it!" behavior that you seem to be

> 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.

More "just so" stories. What does this have to do with the human
supralaryngeal airway? Isn't Calvin also a big proponent of AAH?

> >> 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?

Thank you. Back on topic. The descent of the larynx is that which
leads to the choking hazard I had mentioned before. They descent of the
larynx also serves to open up the pharyngeal area, and allows the tongue
to move downward. But the arching of the basicranial area is perhaps
even more crucial, since it is what gives the tongue the freedom to
produce the three vowels with the most acoustic separation ([i], [a],
[u]) and the back consonants.

> Most
> >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.

Bichakjian's conclusions are highly controversial and have been almost
universally rejected. But even if we grant for the sake of argument
that he's correct (which he isn't), we cen stell meke erselves endersted
quete well even ef we heve enle ene vewel en er enventere ef sends. So
what? Arabic only has three phonemic vowels. But in Arabic script,
vowels are largely ignored altogether. Same with Hebrew. So, if one
can ignore vowels entirely in one's writing system, which do you think
are more important as carriers of information, vowels or consonants?
Unfortunately, consonants don't carry very well at all over distances,
so there goes your wolf theory.

> 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.]

I'll check this cite, but I suspect you're referring to what's known as
the "laryngeal theory." To be more accurate, we do not know exactly
what these consonants were, but we suspect they were both laryngeal and
velar. It is entirely INaccurate, however, to claim that these
consonants "are no longer in modern languages." Any language currently
spoken is a modern language, and I dare say that some language,
somewhere will have one or more of these mystery consonants, whatever
they were. Just because we don't know what they were, doesn't mean that
they don't exist!

> 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.
> 187-224.

"Evolutionary patterns in linguistics" sounds more like a diachronic
study of grammar or phonology. Careful, linguists use terms like
"evolution" and "genetic" in more than one way.

> 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.

This is known as the Kebara Hyoid. It was found in 1993, I believe. It
appears to be virually indistinguishable from the hyoid of a modern
human. But the hyoid is only one component, and by itself doesn't tell
us all that much. Please recall that the hyoid has a substantial amount
of cartilage associated with it, and the cartilage was not preserved.
Also, please recall that, since the hyoid is the only bone in the human
body that is not in direct contact with any other bone, there is
inherently more play that can occur. So, we still can't say with much
precision exactly where in the vocal tract it was located.

> 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.

You can't turn loose of this wolf thing, can you? I got an idea.
Howabout we dub Cro Magnon "Homo romulus." No? Howabout "Homo remus"
then? No? "Homo lupus?" Cro-Magnon is virtually indistinguishable
from modern Homo sapiens. For all practical intents and purposes,
Cro-Magnon *is* the same as modern Homo sapiens. I dunno about you, but
I have never gotten that sudden urge to howl like a wolf at the sound of
fire engines the way my dog does. And I doubt Cro-Magnon would either.


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics