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Origin of human language (was Re: Some questions on phonology)

From:Jörg Rhiemeier <joerg_rhiemeier@...>
Date:Wednesday, October 15, 2008, 20:10

On Wed, 15 Oct 2008 20:23:09 +0100, R A Brown wrote:

> John Vertical wrote: > [...] > >> What kind of animals lived in Europe back then that people might > >> imitate? Those are probably the sounds they'd use. Keep in mind the > >> climate in Europe at that time was much colder. > > > > I believe you missed one major animal group of the area from your list: > > the > > hominids :) > > Also, of course, the first hominids emerged in Africa, not Europe, so > what animals existed in Europe is somewhat irrelevant, methinks.
> > When discussing the origins of language, there commonly seems to be some > > kind of an assumption that before the advent of speech, humans didn't > > vocalize anything. > > Sigh - indeed, this does often seem to be so. But I have argued strongly > against this before on this list. It seems to me that animals have a > very long history of communication, starting way, way before even > hominids appeared.
I also never understood the frequently discussed detour via gestures which many language origins theorists propose. Chimps communicate with oral sounds, humans communicate with oral sounds, why shouldn't early hominids? Escapes me. Sure, human language is very different from chimp calls, but why cannot the intermediate stages be vocal-auditory as well?
> > But take one look at chimpanzees, and they certainly seem > > to still use their larynxes a lot... who's to say that "pre-language" > > didn't > > develop alongside ancestral warning calls & the like, heck, those could've > > even serv'd as fodder for emerging linguistic evolution. I gess the > > thought > > may remind a bit too much of stereotypical Cavemanese (ooga booga nom-nom > > aargh!), > > Quite so - that was exactly my reaction also.
Agreed. While early hominid pre-languages probably were as little like stereotypical caveman talk as the early hominids were like stereotypical cavemen (to boot, I have read multiple times that "guttural" sounds like [u] or [g], which are so common in stereotypical caveman talk, would have been ratherd difficult to them and may thus have been missing from their speech), they probably were vocal-auditory rather than gestural, and intermediate in complexity between the calls of non-human primates and full-fledged human languages (indeed, more complex than stereotypical caveman talk - _Homo erectus_ language certainly wasn't less developed than what chimpanzees can do, and they can do quite a bit!).
> > but why would humans need to have ever been the, to hijack a > > comment from the Proto-Indo-Neanderthal discussion, mammalian counterpart > > to > > mockingbirds? > > Exactly - no reason at all! In fact if early hominids were "mammalian > mockingbirds" that would surely imply a reversion to a state inferior to > chimps and, I suspect, (most) other primates.
Right. There is no valid reason to assume a "mockingbird stage" in hominid language evolution. _Australopithecus_ probably communicated in a way similar to modern chimpanzees; from there, the systems of calls gradually became more complex and more grammatical until the first full-fledged languages emerged about 100,000 years ago or so. It is possible that early hominids used calls reminiscent of other animals' sounds to refer to the animals in question, just as there are onomatopoeic words in modern human languages, but that's not the same as a "mockingbird stage".
> I have not read much on the language acquisition of infants. But I > recall my grandson (now three) who from a very early age 'spoke' almost > non-stop as soon as he could articulate a reasonable range of sounds. > The only trouble was that to those around it was a continuous stream of > 'nonsense' - and the variety of sounds was quite surprising; it included > consonants not found in English. Eventually, of course, meaningful words > began to appear and now all his "pre-language" has gone, giving way to > fairly standard English. > > It's said by some that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. I wonder if in > a similar way my grandson's language behavior didn't to some extent > recapitulate glossogeny. What I mean is that out of a matrix of > chattering, somewhat chimplike, with a very wide range of sounds, early > hominids eventually came to give certain sounds more and more specific > meanings until we got words which grammatically related to one another > in meaningful utterances.
The notion of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny has been questioned, but some of the ideas I have found on human language evolution are, if anything, much less parsimonous than that. It is very well possible that the language acquisition behaviour of children *does* reflect, to some degree and certainly not all too accurately, the evolution of language in the genus _Homo_. It is probably the best guess we can wager on the matter without slipping into groundless speculation.
> Of course, without time-travel, I guess we'll never know.
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Herman Miller <hmiller@...>