The Gestural Origin of Language

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Overview

In The Gestural Origin of Language, Sherman Wilcox and David Armstrong use evidence from and about sign languages to explore the origins of language as we know it today. According to their model, it is sign, not spoken languages, that is the original mode of human communication.

The authors demonstrate that modern language is derived from practical actions and gestures that were increasingly recognized as having the potential to represent, and hence to communicate. In other words, the fundamental ability that allows us to use language is our ability to use pictures or icons, rather than linguistic symbols. Evidence from the human fossil record supports the authors' claim by showing that we were anatomically able to produce gestures and signs before we were able to speak fluently. Although speech evolved later as a secondary linguistic communication device that eventually replaced sign language as the primary mode of communication, speech has never entirely replaced signs and gestures.

As the first comprehensive attempt to trace the origin of grammar to gesture, this volume will be an invaluable resource for students and professionals in psychology, linguistics, and philosophy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The gestural theory of language origins was once considered mere speculation by philosophers. In the hands of Armstrong and Wilcox, however, this theory gains greater force and clarity. After reading their articulate and accessible book, I find the conclusion inescapable: language could not have begun otherwise." —H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Professor, Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies, Gallaudet University

"Syntax is still the Holy Grail of language-origins research, and it's exciting to read a detailed and plausible explanation of its evolution as grounded in social processes of action, perception, and change over time— and most definitely not in innatism! This book, in sum, is a beautifully realized synthesis of theory and data; it will advance our understanding of language origins, and of the intricacy and rightness of the view that ALL language is ultimately gestural." —Barbara J. King, Class of 2007 Professor of Anthropology, College of William and Mary, and author of The Dynamic Dance

"This volume is a stunning example of the insights that scientists with close working familiarity of Deaf people and their natural languages bring to the study of how language evolved and how children develop language skills. Armstrong and Wilcox succeed brilliantly in their efforts to present a 'genuine explanation' in these perennial debates." —Stuart Shanker, Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, York University, and President, Council of Early Child Development

"David Armstrong and Sherman Wilcox are well known to a wide community of linguists as imaginative and determined proponents of a claim that the visually mediated languages of the deaf - sign languages, in other words - offer critical clues to the hidden origins of human symbolic communication. In The Gestural Origin of Language they update this increasingly compelling thesis in terms that are not merely rhetorical. Given the relevant advances in linguistics plus a host of convergent insights from anthropology, neuroscience, genetics, developmental and animal psychology, we have a new game. From now on, linguists hoping to explain human language will simply have to learn how to chew on, and digest, more than one kind of apple." —Frank R. Wilson, M.D., author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

"An important book. The authors, who have added solidity to the gestural theory of how language first evolved, are part of a sea change in the way we view language and indeed ourselves."—American Scientist

"Once I read Armstrong and Wilcox's compelling account, it was easy to have a 'How could language emerge any other way?' epiphany...I urge anyone interested in language or any other aspect of human behavior for that matter, to read the rich argument provided in the book and come to their own conclusions."—Ruth Church, in Human Development

"There are many aspects to Armstrong and Wilcox's book that deserve attention...a comprehensive review of the data suggesting that sign language is in most ways equal to spoken language."—PsycCritiques

"The gestural theory of language origins was once considered mere speculation by philosophers. In the hands of Armstrong and Wilcox, however, this theory gains greater force and clarity. After reading their articulate and accessible book, I find the conclusion inescapable: language could not have begun otherwise." —H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Professor, Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies, Gallaudet University

"Syntax is still the Holy Grail of language-origins research, and it's exciting to read a detailed and plausible explanation of its evolution as grounded in social processes of action, perception, and change over time— and most definitely not in innatism! This book, in sum, is a beautifully realized synthesis of theory and data; it will advance our understanding of language origins, and of the intricacy and rightness of the view that ALL language is ultimately gestural." —Barbara J. King, Class of 2007 Professor of Anthropology, College of William and Mary, and author of The Dynamic Dance

"This volume is a stunning example of the insights that scientists with close working familiarity of Deaf people and their natural languages bring to the study of how language evolved and how children develop language skills. Armstrong and Wilcox succeed brilliantly in their efforts to present a 'genuine explanation' in these perennial debates." —Stuart Shanker, Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, York University, and President, Council of Early Child Development

"David Armstrong and Sherman Wilcox are well known to a wide community of linguists as imaginative and determined proponents of a claim that the visually mediated languages of the deaf - sign languages, in other words - offer critical clues to the hidden origins of human symbolic communication. In The Gestural Origin of Language they update this increasingly compelling thesis in terms that are not merely rhetorical. Given the relevant advances in linguistics plus a host of convergent insights from anthropology, neuroscience, genetics, developmental and animal psychology, we have a new game. From now on, linguists hoping to explain human language will simply have to learn how to chew on, and digest, more than one kind of apple." —Frank R. Wilson, M.D., author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

"An important book. The authors, who have added solidity to the gestural theory of how language first evolved, are part of a sea change in the way we view language and indeed ourselves."—American Scientist

"Once I read Armstrong and Wilcox's compelling account, it was easy to have a 'How could language emerge any other way?' epiphany...I urge anyone interested in language or any other aspect of human behavior for that matter, to read the rich argument provided in the book and come to their own conclusions."—Ruth Church, in Human Development

"There are many aspects to Armstrong and Wilcox's book that deserve attention...A comprehensive review of the data suggesting that sign language is in most ways equal to spoken language."—PsycCritiques

"Culling evidence from studies in paleontology, primatology, neurology, signed languages, and writing, the authors presented the gradual evolution of languages."—Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195163483
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/19/2007
  • Series: Perspectives on Deafness Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.20 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

David F. Armstrong received bachelor's and PhD degrees in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania and has worked at Gallaudet University since 1980. An Associate Professor, he currently serves as the University's budget director. Since 1999, he has edited the journal Sign Language Studies, and he has published extensively in areas related to deafness and the origin and evolution of language.

Sherman E. Wilcox is Professor and Chair of the Department of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico. The author of several books including Gesture and the Nature of Language with co-authors David F. Armstrong and William C. Stokoe, Wilcox has lectured and taught extensively on signed languages, gesture, and the evolution of language, in Brazil, France, Italy, and Spain. His scholarly research focuses on the nature of the gesture-language interface in signed languages.

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