Posts Tagged ‘ASL’

13. lingual creatures


Our species is the only one in nature which controls fire. This unique capability was directly related to the fact that our ancestor-australopiths were the only species to become linguistic creatures, developing names for the things. Let me expound the new concept of linguisticness that I already mentioned before.

A linguistic creature experiences his world as a named world. It knows his world just like all other animals know their world. But with names for the things, it can confer about those things with companions: two know more than one, and a whole group can solve big problems. As mentioned before, names for the things created a (feeling of) distance between the namer and the named thing, the (experience of) distance between a creature and its environment. Between subject and object: our ancestors became the first and only creatures who could objectify things. Objectifying generates (a feeling of) power over the things. It resulted in the use of fire, and this in turn facilitated the jump forward of nightly gestural group communication. It generated a new kind of power over other species of animals, making our ancestors into the ‘hooligans’ of the savanna.

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.

Having several names for several things is by itself not enough to become a lingual 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 some 300 different names for 300 different things. You may call this proto-language, but this does not necessarily mean they experience their world as a “named world”. What makes an ape into a lingual creature? In other words, what transforms animal gesture communication into a language?

Apart from the fact that the language competence of these apes-in-prison lacks roots in an inborn disposition like ours: inherent to language is a stock of words, a vocabulary, an inexhaustible stock of names for a countless number of things – linguists (language philosophers) speak of generivity. This makes one’s whole world into something that can be experienced primarily as a world of named things, and makes the consciousness of an ape with such a language competence into a linguistic consciousness.

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.

How could our ancestors – even Neanderthals may have lacked the modern speech apparatus – build up a stock of gestured words without being physically able to produce phonemes? 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 or 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 simple as possible, if only for communication efficiency: when just the start of a gesture is already enough to be understood, 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 some cases however, the use of cheremes (even when these were as small and fast as possible) may have resulted in more complexity. For instance, instead of one gesture for the object “ tiger” you might now need to use a combination of three quick cheremes to indicate the same object. So why would people opt for increasing complexity? Here the second answer comes forward. The price one may have paid for a little more complexity, at the same time bought a huge advantage: thanks to using cheremes, the number of possible words and expressions now became really limitless. While primitive sign language might have had a gesture indicating “tiger”, it may not have had gestures specifying “reddish tiger” or “wounded tiger” or “a cloud in the sky shaped like a tiger”. The use of cheremes made it possible to say (gesture) all this, and more.[3] Eventually, they made it possible to discuss even abstract concepts for which no simple gesture would ever have been adequate. How important this was, we will see when discussing the evolution of the creation story as a central factor in the evolution of mankind.

Now three other questions occur that have to be answered. Firstly, is it admissible to infer ancestral behavior from the cultures of present-day hunter-gatherer tribes? The humanosophic answer is: yes we may, because there is a continuum between our modern behavior and that from our ancestors, a continuum that is transmitted by genetic inheritance, tradition and inveterate habits. Old usages and practices and customs stay alive till they no longer fit. The same goes for language characteristics: deeply rooted in communication practice, they are transmitted from generation to generation as a vital part of a culture.

But if is this a valid comparison, then may we also assume that the signed communication of our ancestors developed towards the same level of sophistication (especially regarding the emergence of cheremes) [4] as modern sign languages such as ASL (American Sign Language)? Our deaf populations possess modern human brains, don’t they, and are integrated into a modern urban culture that requires more sophistication, for example in order to discuss the stock exchange by ASL? The humanosophic answer is: yes, we may, because the modern sign language is a flower out of the seed from the gestured linguality of our Early Human ancestors. In essence, it is the same flower as we can see sprouting when our modern babies pick up language from their environment, irrespective of whether this is gestured or spoken language.

The third occurring question is: why would people eventually switch from gestured to spoken language? The answer is that signed language may be adequate, but less so when you have your hands full, or in a situation that you can only hear each other. For this reason, from the very beginning visual communication has been supported by making sounds such as guttural and dental clicks, labial sounds, and emotional cries. Even from the beginning of gestured communication, such vocal additions were structural word parts. So we may suppose a continuum between the most primitive gestured communication and the ‘click!’-languages of nowadays San people of southern Africa (and our own gesturing even when we are talking on telephone). There has been, however, a turning point in this continuum: the rise of the ability to communicate with sounds alone, without gestures. We will talk about this in the paragraph Anatomical Modern Humans.

To summarize: 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 humanlike posture, much taller than “Lucy” (1,1 m. high, dated 3,2 million years ago), 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 linguality.


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-million-year-old and nicknamed Kadanuumuu, ("Big Man" in the Afar language).

Fragment of Kadanuumuu’s lower arm bone  to muse about: apart from throwing stones, this very 3.58 mya bone may have been used to gesture with companions. Kadanuumuu as a lingual creature!

‘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 humanlike thumb but is only 1.98 million years old, 2.42 years younger than Kadanuumuu. Somewhere during those 2,42 million year-long interval, the more humanlike 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. Hopefully, ongoing archaeological research will clarify this.

[1] see

[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. Chomski’s speculation that grammar is the essential characteristic of human language doesn’t make sense. Names for things is the essential characteristic.