Re: Human Language. (long post)

Michael McBroom (
Fri, 10 Jan 1997 21:16:36 -0500

John A. Halloran wrote:
> In article <> Michael McBroom <> writes:
> >
> >> What are the oldest skeletons that show evolution away from the primate vocal
> >> tract pattern?
> >There is evidence to suggest that the hominid vocal tract began to
> >deviate from the standard plan with the species H. habilis. This puts
> >the beginnings of language back some 2+ MY.
> How do you reconcile this with your opinion that Neanderthal man lacked
> speech, or is that your opinion?

No, it is not. I have never stated, nor do I believe, that Neanderthal
was incapable of speech. The evidence seems to indicate that the system
of vocal communication that he did have (I am still hesitant to call it
language, because this implies language in the way we use and perceive
it) was not as advanced as ours.

> Also, the comparative or historical
> linguists that I have talked to feel that languages as we know them have their
> origins in the Palaeolithic, which extends from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Here's a little hint for you: comparative and HISTORICAL linguists deal
primarily with HISTORICAL data. Further, "languages as we know them"
does not address the issue of language evolution in any way. In fact,
for the past 130 years or so, there has been an enforced BAN on the
discussion of language origins because of all the silly notions that
linguists began coming up with back then. (The 'bow-wow' theory, the
'ding-dong' theory, etc, etc.). This ban wasn't really pushed aside
until the 1960s or so, and some linguists still consider it a taboo
subject. Thus, many of these people who you no-doubt refer to don't
know the first THING about language evolution. Many are still parroting
guestimations that have been made by anthropologists, who based their
conclusions on artifactual evidence, and who know next to nothing about

> Why have the structures of language undergone so much evolution in the last
> 6,000 years if humans have had 2+ million years to perfect language?

One of the universal properties of language is that it changes over
time. There is NO evidence to indicate that language has been changing
for only 6,000 years. There is also NO evidence to indicate that
language has measureably evolved -- in a biological sense -- over the
past 6,000 years. Please do not confuse language evolution with
language change. This is easier said than done, however, since some
linguists will refer to the evolution of certain language properties
within a given language family. This is a different usage and meaning
of the term and should not be confused with the biological evolution of

See if you can find a copy of _Language and Species_ (1990) by Derek
Bickerton. It will answer many, if not most of your questions, and is a
fascinating read.

> >> Long-distance communication need not involve forming words involving
> >> consonants. The long-distance vocalizations of other species serve a valuable
> >> communicative function without requiring the enunciations that you describe.
> >If we were to have evolved with a vocal tract optimized for
> >long-distance communication, chances are that it would more closely
> >resemble that of the howler monkey, an animal that does not have a
> >descended larynx, yet is able to communicate over long distances quite
> >effectively.
> By stating merely that the howler monkey does not have a descended larynx, you
> imply that its vocal tract has not evolved much from that of our primate
> ancestors.

I did nothing of the sort. You're erecting a straw man to sustain your
baseless views.

> But this is not the case at all, it has evolved in a very
> different direction, and so does not contradict the need for the hominid
> vocal tract to have evolved in order to achieve long-distance communication.

You have not been able to demonstrate this need. "Just so" stories
don't cut it. All the physiological evidence indicates a vocal tract
that has evolved for precision and control, not volume.

> What do you think about how the human voice could become louder at any pitch
> because descent of the larynx created a larger resonating chamber?

Not much. Your question suggests that the human voice would be loudest
at its deepest pitch. This is most definitely NOT the case.
Furthermore, the size of the pharynx shrinks somewhat with an elevation
in pitch, but there is no decrease in volume, is there?

> >Give it up.

Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics