1.10 linguistic beings

Names for the things is what made us humans. It may have been the result of a casual and fortuitous girls’ play. It was not necessarily caused by some gene mutation or brain growth or the emerging of syntax: such developments were rather result, not cause.

As said before, disposing of names for the things does five things with an animal:

  1. It creates a feeling of distance
  2. It opens the path of grasping (understanding) the things
  3. It creates a feeling of power over the things (for example the fire)
  4. Transferring and accumulating knowledge
  5. Brainstorming, solving problems, devising plans.

Having several names for several things is by itself not enough to become a linguistic creature. Look at the family Washoe. This is the group of chimpanzees who were made to learn ASL (American Sign Language) when they were young and in a human family setting, presently living at the CHCI of Central Washington University of Ellensburg, in the lifelong care of Roger and Debbie Fouts[1]. The Washoe chimpanzee family is able to use 250 different names for 250 different things.

When the teachings of Washoe were not so rigidly limited to student teachers who were only allowed to communicate with her in sign language, but when that teaching had been like Penny Patterson did with Koko: communicating with sign language but also with spoken words (like we do that with our pets), Washoe would certainly have learned to use 1000 sign words and also learned to understand 2000 spoken words.
Koko, died June 19, 2018, not only knew more explicitly to sign what she wanted: “You key there me cookie” but also to express her sadness when her pussy had escaped and was drove to death: “Cat, cry, have-sorry, Koko-love, un-attention, visit me” .

The 37-year-old bonobo Kanzi was taught by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh to communicate using a keyboard with lexigrams. Once a researcher who had worked with gorillas showed him videos of Koko. Rumbough was astonished to see Kanzi beginning signing to this researcher.

What makes an ape into a linguistic creature? In other words, what transforms animal gesture communication into a language?
250 or even 1000 separate sign words, you may consider this as proto-language? Can you consider Washoe and Koko as starting people?

In our view, they are indeed comparable to our ANBOs during the million years that they had not yet started using the fire.
But after our ANBOs could spend their nights around the campfire did their proto-language develop into language.
Language is a stock of words, a vocabulary, an inexhaustible stock of names for a countless number of things: making one’s whole world into something that can be experienced primarily as a world of named things. As a word world.

How do we produce our present spoken vocabulary?
With phonemes: sounds that have no meaning of their own (the vowels and consonants of the alphabet), but are the building blocks of an endless number of words. We produce those phonemes with our speech apparatus: throat, tongue, lips and cheeks. But apes cannot produce enough similar phonemes, because their throat is too short and their tongue too narrow. Experiments in training a young chimpanzee to speak resulted in p-p for papa and c-p for cup, pronounced without vowels.
The most serious handicap however is that apes cannot really control their voice. Their cries are neurologically driven by the limbic system: an evolutionary older part of the brain, the same that also produces our own cries of pain or anguish or rage or ecstasy. When we hit our thumb with a hammer, we cannot withhold a cry of pain: the older parts of our brain are beyond conscious control. Mind this situation being tortured!

How could our ancestors – even Neanderthals may have been sign language communicators, be it with a rich !click-vocabulary – build up a stock of gestured words without being physically able to produce vowels?
In his groundbreaking research on modern sign languages of the deaf (such as American Sign Language, ASL) William Stokoe[2] has showed that gestured languages can be just as flexible in combining gestures as spoken languages can be flexible in combining phonemes. Stokoe named the sign language alternative for phonemes cheremes: gestures without intrinsic meaning which by combing them can be used as building stones for an endless number of gestured words.
Just like we speak all our words by uttering a limited number of phonemes in countless different combinations, modern ASL achieves something similar by combining 55 cheremes (base gesture elements).

So the gestured ‘sign’ language of our ancestors may have evolved from simple gestures denoting specific objects, into a stock of names
a vocabulary, using combinations of cheremes.
Making an unlimited number of ‘words’ from a limited number of base elements: small and quick hand configurations, hand locations and hand movements.

To illustrate this development, let me briefly go into a nice parallel: the similar development of script (written language). 8.000 years ago, ever more people in the Middle East lived as farmers in villages. Each family contributed a part of the yield of their fields and cattle to the ‘temple’ (the common hall for religious anniversaries, for meetings and barter with other villages, and for emergencies). To prevent parasitical behavior and envy, the temple functionaries needed to register each family’s contributions exactly. In early Sumeria, these notes were engraved in the clay of the storage urns (later of clay tablets). The first notes were pure imitations, drawings. These were at best ‘minimal art’: a representation divested of all that was not strictly necessary for identification.

In due course, these representations became more and more stylized symbols. This was the start of Sumerian writing: pictograms, simple representations of what was meant. A simple depiction of a head stood for <head> and two wriggling lines for <water>. But soon these two symbols combined meant <drinking> and even <drink>. In this way, the pictograms became more and more schematic. The big jump came when some pictograms got a sound value, mostly the initial sound of the word-symbol. Soon there was a complete alphabet. The symbols did no longer point to some specific object, but came to represent just sounds – initially mostly consonants. By combining these by themselves meaningless symbols, now every possible word could be written easily. Such written language made it possible to record personal messages, enactments and laws, oral traditions, heroism of the successive kings, important events, scholarship, philosophy, everything. This written language started the historical era (before the invention of script, it was prehistory).

The earlier development of signed language may have followed a similar route. The cheremes (snippets of sign language) initially came into human communication as very simple and direct gestures. In due time, some gestures got the function of syllables: they evolved into building stones (cheremes) for signed words. Didn’t those cheremes make the gestured communication slower? After all, instead of making one primitive object-sign, you now had to combine some small gestures (cheremes) to indicate the same object. This question can be answered in two ways.

In the first place we can refer to the universal linguistic abbreviating propensity: the aversion to repeat an already uttered word or sentence element – and when you repeat it nevertheless, you do it mainly to give it extra emphasis.
We may assume that from the beginning there was a natural tendency (just like in modern sign language) to make the language gestures as fast, and as simple as possible.
Communication efficiency: when just the start of a gesture is already enough to be understood in the context, you don’t need to finish the whole gesture.
The faster you can produce gestures, the shorter the time you need to make your point or to contribute to a discussion.

In the paragraph about the first use of fire, we speculated about the Australopithic population to which we could attribute the wonderful innovation of controlled use of fire. We found Kadanuumuu (estimated 1,5-1,8 m. high) a good representative because of his human-like posture, much taller than “Lucy” (1,1 m. high, dated 3,2 mya), and yet hundreds of thousands of years older. We supposed the use of fire here because such a taller population of Australopithecus afarensis must have had better food at his disposal. In its turn, control of fire in our view assumes the presence of linguisticness: feeling of power over the things.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor kadanuumuu Excavations between 2005 and 2008 in the Afar Region of Ethiopia uncovered an upper arm, a collarbone, neck bones, ribs, pelvis, sacrum, a thighbone, a shinbone and an adult shoulder blade. The partial Australopithecus afarensis fossil is dated 3.58 mya and nicknamed Kadanuumuu, (“Big Man” in the Afar language). The photo here shows an arm bone to muse about: apart from throwing stones, this very 3.58 mya bone must have been used to gesture with companions. Kadanuumuu as a linguistic being!

‘Ardi’, Australopithecus ramidus, from 4,4 mya Afar Rift Ethiopia, had an ape-like short thumb. The hominid species Australopithecus sediba, recently found in South Africa, was presumably from A. africanus origin and possibly a transitional species to H. habilis and even H. erectus. It has a human-like thumb but is only 1.98 mya, 2.42 mya younger than Kadanuumuu. Somewhere during those 2,42 mya long interval, the more human-like thumb of Sediba must have evolved. The skeleton of the much older Kadanuumuu, “Big Man” provides no hand- or foot bones, so in fact we cannot know yet what kind of thumbs he may have had.

  1. See www.cwu.edu/~cwuchci
  2. William Stokoe (1919-2000), Professor at Gallaudet University of Washington, DC, was the creator of the linguistic study of the sign languages of the deaf. Before, the sign language used by the deaf was generally believed to be a corrupt visual code for spoken language, or elaborate pantomime. Stokoe’s first and eye opening book was Sign Language Structure (1963) and till the end of his life he was the indefatigable champion of the language of the deaf.
  3. Cheremes emerged in thousands of generations of dancing/singing the creation story of their world. The story grew in detail and complexity; so did the gestured representation and performing.
  4. The research of Stokoe and others on signed language reveals how easy it is to produce adjectival or adverbial and other elements of syntax with modification of or additions to the gestured words by facial expression and posture changes: “Adjectives need neither to precede nor to follow nouns as physically distinct elements but can appear simultaneously as modifications in the performance of the sign language word. Likewise, adverbial modification of gesture action is natural effect of the way that visible gestures are performed.” Other grammatical elements of language such as the pattern of Subject-Verb-Object emerge spontaneously and inevitable in a social phenomenon as language: one cannot participate when one doesn’t know the meaning of the spontaneously emerged words, as little as one doesn’t follow the spontaneously emerged rules.

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Used abbreviations

GHs: gatherers/hunters (the phase from 2 million years ago to 10.000 years ago)

AGRs: agriculturers (the phase from 10.000 years ago till now)

NT(s)Neanderthal people

MSA(s): Middle Stone Age people (African NTs)

AMH(s): Anatomical Modern Humans (H sapiens people), like we are

(m)ya: (million) years ago

ANBOs: Ancestor Bonobos (ape-men), our earliest human ancestors

Paleos: all scientists that are important for our story.

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