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It is often said that speech is what distinguishes us from other animals. But are we all talk? What if language was bequeathed to us not by word of mouth, but as a hand-me-down?
The notion that language evolved not from animal cries but from manual and facial gestures--that, for most of human history, actions have spoken louder than words--has been around since Condillac. But never before has anyone developed a full-fledged theory of how, why, and with what effects language ...
It is often said that speech is what distinguishes us from other animals. But are we all talk? What if language was bequeathed to us not by word of mouth, but as a hand-me-down?
The notion that language evolved not from animal cries but from manual and facial gestures--that, for most of human history, actions have spoken louder than words--has been around since Condillac. But never before has anyone developed a full-fledged theory of how, why, and with what effects language evolved from a gestural system to the spoken word. Marshaling far-flung evidence from anthropology, animal behavior, neurology, molecular biology, anatomy, linguistics, and evolutionary psychology, Michael Corballis makes the case that language developed, with the emergence of Homo sapiens, from primate gestures to a true signed language, complete with grammar and syntax and at best punctuated with grunts and other vocalizations. While vocal utterance played an increasingly important complementary role, autonomous speech did not appear until about 50,000 years ago--much later than generally believed.
Bringing in significant new evidence to bolster what has been a minority view, Corballis goes beyond earlier supporters of a gestural theory by suggesting why speech eventually (but not completely!) supplanted gesture. He then uses this milestone to account for the artistic explosion and demographic triumph of the particular group of Homo sapiens from whom we are descended. And he asserts that speech, like written language, was a cultural invention and not a biological fait accompli.
Writing with wit and eloquence, Corballis makes nimble reference to literature, mythology, natural history, sports, and contemporary politics as he explains in fascinating detail what we now know about such varied subjects as early hominid evolution, modern signed languages, and the causes of left-handedness. From Hand to Mouth will have scholars and laymen alike talking--and sometimes gesturing--for years to come.
"From Hand to Mouth is informative and entertaining. . . . [It] will raise awareness about the importance of gestures and the crucial role they play in communicative interactions."--Dario Maestripieri, American Scientist
"Corballis makes the case that the evolutionary origins of language are in gestures rather than in speech.. . . An engaging story."--Choice
"An engaging, highly readable and provocative account of the evolution of human language. . . . In short, this is an important book on an important topic. . . . From Hand to Mouth should be studied by everyone with a serious interest in the origins of language and read by others who want an evolutionary account that is as entertaining as it is informative."--Joseph B. Hellige, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society
WHAT IS LANGUAGE?
I am beguiled by the frivolous thought that we are descended, not from apes, but from birds. We humans have long sought features that are unique to our own species, with an especially keen eye for those that show us to be superior to others. Many special qualities differentiating us from our ape cousins have been proposed, but often, disconcertingly, these are found in our feathered friends as well. Like us, birds get around on two legs rather than four, at least when they're not flying (and some of them can't). Parrots, at least, have a consistent preference for picking things up with one foot, although in a mocking reversal of human handedness most of them prefer to use the left foot (most humans are right-handed and right-footed). Some birds prudently store food for the winter, and there is evidence that some of them can remember not only where they store food but also when they stored it, suggesting a kind of memory-known as episodic memory-that has been claimed as unique to our own species.1 Birds make tools. They fly, albeit without purchasing airline tickets. They sing. And some of them talk.
Perhaps it is the last point that is the most interesting. Most birds far outperform mammals,including our immediate primate ancestors, in the variety and flexibility of the vocal sounds they make, and one can see (or hear) some striking parallels with human speech. The vocalizations of songbirds are complex and, like human speech, are controlled primarily by the left side of the brain.2 Although birdsong is largely instinctive, birds can learn different dialects, and some of them can even learn arbitrary sequences of notes. In order to learn a particular song, the bird must hear it early on, while it is still in the nest, even though it does not produce the song until later. This crucial window of time is known as a critical period. The way people learn to speak also seems to depend on a critical period; that is, it seems to be impossible to learn to speak properly if we are not exposed to speech during childhood, and a second language learned after puberty is almost inevitably afflicted with a telltale accent. Some birds, like the parrot, can outdo humans in their ability to adapt their vocalizations, and not just by imitating human speech. The Australian lyre bird is said to be able to produce a near perfect imitation of the sound of a beer can being opened-which is perhaps the most commonly heard sound where humans congregate in that country.3
But of course birdsong differs in lots of ways from human speech. The ability of birds to imitate sounds probably has to do with the recognition of kin and the establishment and maintenance of territory but has nothing to do with conversation. Birds sing characteristic songs for much the same reason that nations of people fly characteristic flags or play national anthems. The remarkable ability of species like the mockingbird to imitate the songs of other birds has no doubt evolved also as a deceptive device to give the illusion of a territory filled with other birds, so that they may occupy that territory for themselves.4
Among most species of songbirds, it is only the males that vocalize, whereas women are said to be the more verbal members of our own species; we strong, silent chaps don't seem to have much to say. The vocalizations of birds, and and hope they are only kidding. indeed of other species, are mostly emotional, serving to signal aggression, to warn of danger, to advertise their sexual prowess, or to establish and maintain hierarchical social structures. Some of our own vocalizations serve similar, largely emotional ends. We laugh, grunt, weep, shriek with fear, howl with rage, cry out in warning. But these noises, although important means of communication, are not language, as I explain below.
In any event, it would of course be irresponsible of me to claim any real kinship between humans and birds. There is a remote sense in which we are related to them, but to find the common ancestor of birds and humans we would have to go back some 250 million years (and it couldn't fly), while the common ancestor of ourselves and the chimpanzees existed a mere 5 or 6 million years ago. I am therefore compelled to adopt the more conventional, down-to-earth view that our descent was not from the creatures of the sky but from the more restricted arboreal heights of our primate forebears. Those seductive parallels between characteristics we fondly imagine to be unique to ourselves and their taunting counterparts in birds are most likely the results of what is known as convergent evolution-independent adaptations to common environmental challenges-rather than features that were handed down from that 250-million-year-old common ancestor. But if there is any one characteristic that distinguishes us from birds, and probably from any other nonhuman creature, it is indeed that extraordinary accomplishment that we call language.
The specialness of language
Unlike birds, people use language, not just to signal emotional states or territorial claims, but to shape each other's minds. Language is an exquisitely engineered device for describing places, people, other objects, events, and even thoughts and emotions. We use it to give directions, to recount the past and anticipate the future, to tell imaginary stories, to flatter and deceive. We gossip, which is a useful way to convey information about other people. We use language to create vicarious experiences in others. By sharing our experiences, we can make learning more efficient, and often less dangerous. It is better to tell your children not to play in traffic than to let them discover for themselves what can happen if they do.
Even birdsong, for all its complexity, is largely stereotyped, more like human laughter than human discourse. Give or take a few notes, the song of any individual bird is repetitive to the point of monotony. Human talk, by contrast, is possessed of a virtually infinite variety, except perhaps in the case of politicians. The sheer inventiveness of human language is well illustrated in an anecdote involving the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner and the eminent philosopher A. N. Whitehead. On an occasion in 1934, Skinner found himself seated at dinner next to Whitehead and proceeded to explain to him the behaviorist approach to psychology. Feeling obliged to offer a challenge, Whitehead uttered the following sentence: "No black scorpion is falling upon this table," and then asked Skinner to explain why he might have said that. It was more than twenty years before Skinner attempted a reply, in an appendix to his 1957 book Verbal Behavior. Skinner proposed that Whitehead was unconsciously expressing a fear of behaviorism, likening it to a black scorpion that he would not allow to intrude into his philosophy. (The skeptical reader might be forgiven for concluding that this reply owed more to psychoanalysis than to behaviorism.)
Be that as it may, Whitehead had articulated one of the properties of language that seem to distinguish it from all other forms of communication, its generativity. While all other forms of communication among animals seems to be limited to a relatively small number of signals, restricted to limited contexts, there is essentially no limit to the number of ideas, or propositions that we can convey using sentences. We can immediately understand sentences composed of words that we have never heard in combination before, as Whitehead's sentence illustrates.
Here is another example. A few years ago I visited a publishing house in England and was greeted at the door by the manager, whose first words were: "We have a bit of a crisis. Ribena is trickling down the chandelier." I had never heard this sentence before but knew at once what it meant, and was soon able to confirm that it was true. For those who don't know, ribena is a red fruit drink that some people inflict on their children, and my first sinister thought was that the substance dripping from the chandelier was blood. It turned out that the room above was a crèche, and one of the children had evidently decided that it would be more fun to pour her drink onto the floor than into her mouth.
This example illustrates that language is not just a matter of learning associations between words. I had never in my life encountered the words ribena and chandelier in the same sentence, or even in the remotest association with each other, yet I was immediately able to understand a sentence linking them. Rather than depending on previously learned associations, language allows us to connect concepts that are already established in the mind. It operates through the use of rules, known collectively as grammar. I hasten to assure the nervous reader that grammar does not refer to the prescriptive rules that some of us struggled with in school but rather to a set of largely unconscious rules that govern all natural forms of human speech, including street slang. In this sense, there ain't no such thing as bad grammar, and it don't really matter what your teacher tried to teach you. Even so, I need to torment you with a short grammar lesson.
A grammar lesson
Something of the way in which grammar operates to create an endless variety of possibilities is illustrated by a familiar childhood story, in which each sentence is built from the previous one:
This is the house that Jack built.
This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
. . . and so on, potentially forever, although limited in practice by constraints on short-term memory. In these examples, the phrases qualifying each character in the story are simply added: the cat that killed the rat, the rat that ate the malt, the malt that lay in the house, the house that Jack built. But qualifying phrases can also be embedded, like this:
The malt, which was eaten by the rat that was killed by the cat, lay in the house that Jack built.
And phrases can be embedded in phrases that are themselves embedded, although too much embedding can create a kind of linguistic indigestion that makes a sentence hard to swallow, as in the following:
The malt that the rat that the cat killed ate lay in the house that Jack built.
This ability to tack clauses onto clauses, or embed clauses within clauses, is known as recursion. Mathematically, a recursion formula is a formula for calculating the next term of a sequence from one or more of the preceding terms. Clauses like that ate the rat and that killed the cat are relative clauses, and a simple formula dictates that a relative clause can be defined (or "rewritten") as a relative clause plus an (optional) relative clause! This formula allows relative clauses to be strung together indefinitely, as in "The House That Jack Built." Grammar is often expressed in terms of rewrite rules, in which phrases are "rewritten" as words and other phrases, and it is this rewriting of phrases as combinations involving phrases that gives grammar its recursive property (see figure 1.1). Perhaps the most minimal example of recursion in literature is that penned by the American writer Gertrude Stein in her poem Sacred Emily :
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, is a rose.
This isn't quite as simple, perhaps, as it looks at first glance-note that cunningly placed comma.
It is also clear that rules rule, and not just associations. We may learn poems or everyday expressions by heart, simply associating the words together, but when we generate new sentences we do not rely on past associations between words. In the last of the above sentences about the house that Jack built, the words malt and lay are associated in the meaning of the sentence but are separated by eight other words-and of course even more words could have been inserted, had we chosen, for example, to mention that the rat was fat and the cat lazy. Yet the speaker and the listener both understand that the malt did not kill or eat, but in fact lay in the house that Jack built, at least until greedily devoured by the rat. Our ability to construct and understand sentences depends on a remarkable skill in the use of rules. Even more remarkably, perhaps, we apply these rules without being aware of them, and even linguists are not agreed as to what all the rules are and precisely how they work.
Linguists also like to draw a clear distinction between grammar and meaning. We can understand sentences to be grammatically regular even if they have no meaning, as in the sentence Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, constructed by the most eminent linguist of our time, Noam Chomsky. Indeed, we can recognize a sentence as grammatical even if the words don't have any meaning at all, as in Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky":
T'was brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.
But note that some of the words (was, and, the, etc.) are regular English words. These words are called function words, as distinct from the content words that refer to objects, actions, or qualities in the world. Suppose we insert nonsense words in the place of the function words:
G'wib brillig pog dup slithy toves
Kom gyre pog gimple ak dup wabe.
Utt mimsy toke dup borogoves
Pog dup mome raths outgrabe.
Now we have no idea whether this is grammatical or not. This illustrates that function words play a critical role in grammar, providing a kind of scaffold on which to build sentences. Function words include articles (a, the, this, etc.), conjunctions (and, but, while, etc.), prepositions (at, to, by, etc.), pronouns (I, you, they, it, etc.), and a few other little things. Content words, by contrast, are easily replaceable, and as speakers we are always receptive to new words that we can easily slot into sentences. We live in a world of rapid invention, and new words, like geek and dramedy (a drama that doesn't know whether it's funny or not), are coined every day. Another word I encountered recently is pracademic, referring to the rare academic who is blessed with practical skills.
Of course, different languages have somewhat different rules, and no one claims that each language has its own set of innate rules. Forming a question in Chinese is not the same as forming a question in English.
Excerpted from From Hand to Mouth by Michael C. Corballis Excerpted by permission.
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