Re: Origin of Language

Philip Deitiker (
4 Aug 1995 16:41:05 GMT (Jacques Guy) wrote:
>I disagree with the notion that art or technology require language and are
>therefore evidence of language. An anecdote if you allow.
>Many years ago, when I was a student, I spent the summer holidays working
>for my brother, a mechanic. On one occasion he was watching an engine
>idling, rocker cover off. After a few minutes of just staring at the
>tappets, he said: "the compression on cylinder <such> is shot".
>Me: How do you know?
>Him: I just can see it. Can't you see?
>Me: What should I look for?
>There he shrugged his shoulders and blew his top:
>Me: No-one ever taught me! Just look! I learnt all by myself.
>He could not put into words what it was that betrayed a defective
>cylinder. He had learnt what I suppose was the telling pattern
>of the movements of the tappets from watching and observing,
>but had never translated this knowledge into language.
>And the compression on that cylinder did turn out to be shot,
>of course.

As a matter of fact he did, you just didn't interpret correctly. What he
was telling you is that in each cycle, 1 in N subcycles was aberrant,
detectable by sound. Knowing that he was probably listening for a
particular cylinder and looking for a defect in the cycling of the valve
lifters, or knew apriori that one of the spark plugs was fouling. The
fact that he was able to convey to you that it was a specific cyclinder,
and not the carberator, fuel filter, spark distribution, ect, was a
significant 'narrowing' of the problem at hand.
BTW, who introduced this fellow to the mechanical trade, where did he
learn the basics of engine mechanics, ect (Books read count as much
communications with others). The argument is that this fellow could do
very advanced engine diagnosis without language; however, what is not
said is how he learned the basics. Anyone can expound upon simple
understanding (taught) to produce an advanced understanding, but without
the simple understanding first, it is very difficult to reach the
advanced level.
As a counter, I will give the superb example of critical technology as
depicted in 'men of iron' (PBS). This program displayed how iron might
have been produced in the early iron age. At each step in the process of
slag making, there had to be coordination between 14 to 15 men (i.e where
to select the clay, how to build the air jets, how to pump the bellows,
ect, ect). The information was dissiminated from 2 old men who learned
the technology as boys. Without this guidence, and even having some
artifactual examples of the technology it would have been near impossible
to replicate the same technology. I think this example is a far better
example than you give because your mechanic only examines an aspect of a
machine which is already built, but for ancient people everything needs
to be built from scratch. The best boats, particularly required for ocean
going, are going to be produced from inherited technology (How to select
a tree, how deep to core it out, how thick the hull should be, whether to
add stabilizers, sealants for the outer hull). You'de hate to get out in
the deep blue and find a weak spot in your hull, that the sides are to
low, or that its not big enough to carry family, equipement, food. There
are other issues, like how was it conveyed, in a convincing manner, that
the was land well over the horizon? How was the trip cooridinated? Each
of these implies langauge.
Finally the issue of culture (which ties into the last two problems
mentioned). Culture is a social custom, and without the society the
culture has little significance, but culture would be extremely difficult
to derive without langauge, since culture ascribes _meaning_ to the
events and material. Art like language is innately tied to culture (not
by definition, but empirically). It is true that artistic expression can
occur without culture, but the expression of art is invariably affected
by its social context. In ancient times art conveyed the meaning of
predators, trills of hunting, the importance of the food or water
sources. In all likelyhood the meaning of the art made by one had to be
interpreted to others, or be misinterpreted. In the context of culture it
seems important that the interpretation be correct, or art would then
undermine culture not support it, and culture would cease to exist.


The cultural aspects are equally important