Sunday, 26 October 2008

The acquisition of language

The very earliest human societies did not have a system of writing. Instead they relied on a tradition of oral literature [1] in which they recited and sang stories. In a pre-literate age, oral storytelling was a way to preserve knowledge, history and culture, a method which survived the invention of writing and provided the basis of the epics attributed to Homer, the epic of Gilgamesh, the Finnish Kalevala, etc.

To understand the roots of literature, of course, we need to understand the roots of language.

How we developed language

Language is unique to humans. It evolved only in ourselves, in only one way (which we are still trying to figure out).

Like many species, our primate cousins use all manner of grunts, calls and other noises to communicate with one another, often accompanied with gestures and other body language. These convey a variety of meanings understood by the whole group: to raise an alarm about an approaching predator, threaten a rival, announce the discovery of food, indicate contentment, etc. The earliest humans must have used a similar system of communication. The Finnish researcher Lea Leinonen even found that people could recognise the emotional content of calls made by macaque monkeys, suggesting that we have a common ‘primate inheritance’ in how we communicate emotion vocally.

The great apes, however, have a limited range of vocal behaviour even compared to other primates such as geladas [2], and birds are more vocally gifted than any mammal. The roots of language in primate communication are interesting, but there is a tremendous qualitative gulf between language and all other known forms of animal communication. This is not simply a matter of greater complexity. As the neuroscientist and anthropologist Terrence Deacon has pointed out [3], there are no ‘simple’ languages used by other species; however sophisticated animal communication gets, no animal other than humans uses words. The real key difference is that unlike us, they never developed symbolic communication.

The origins of language in human beings lie in our evolution through labour.

Just as tools developed dialectically with our brains and hands, toolmaking assisted our acquisition of language — language may itself be seen as a kind of tool. The more we explored our environment, acquired power over it, and entered new relationships with it, the more our communication needed to embrace new concepts. The comparatively rudimentary communication used by animals to signal alarm, threat, and so on was no longer adequate. The process was summarised by Engels:

The mastery over nature, which begins with the development of the hand, with labour, widened man’s horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown, properties of natural objects. On the other hand, the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by multiplying cases of mutual support, joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to one another. Necessity created the organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed by modulation to produce constantly more developed modulation, and the organs of the mouth gradually learned to pronounce one articulate sound after another.[4]

Engels observes that some other animals have the capacity for speech — most famously the parrot — but:

The little that even the most highly-developed animals need to communicate to one another can be communicated even without the aid of articulate speech.[5]

Animals’ ability to acquire language was studied by researchers at Columbia University from 1973 when they brought up a chimpanzee, from birth, with a human family. Mischievously named after Noam Chomsky, Nim Chimpsky was treated like a human child and picked up 150 characters of sign language. But despite spending four years in this environment, he did not develop any advanced language skills. The experiment seemed to confirm Chomsky’s belief that human language behaviour was too complex to learn from the environment alone: the linguist also needed a human linguistic intelligence, able to absorb language into a pre-programmed structure.

In the 1990s, researchers at Georgia State University revealed that a bonobo (or pygmy chimpanzee) named Kanzi was capable, remarkably, of understanding spoken English. In addition, they claimed he could create sentences — in other words, had grammar. Using symbols, Kanzi created two-word combinations which, the researchers argued, tended to place an action word before an object word. He would therefore say ‘hide ball’ rather than ‘ball hide’. What the researchers could not overcome was that Kanzi’s linguistic skills approximated to those of a child of two, and only a vast amount of human intervention got him even to that stage. Like Nim Chimpsky, Kanzi showed general intelligence and cleverness, but no evidence of an ability to use language beyond the most basic level. Given that chimps do not possess language or even the physical equipment for it, this should surprise nobody.

Many animals have developed means of communication which are much more sophisticated than Engels and his contemporaries would have assumed. This doesn’t stop us concluding that language, like labour, is a human characteristic: even though Kanzi shows us that there is no cast iron dividing line. Language would not have been possible without certain biological changes such as the descension of our larynx, which extended the vocal tract and enabled us to make much more complex sounds than, for example, our great ape cousins (we make most of our vocal sounds by contracting the laryngeal muscles). This was partly aided by our upright stance. Also, our dietary trend away from chomping plants towards meat-eating gave us smaller teeth and jaws that affected the shape and capability of our mouths, lips and vocal tract. But biology on its own explains little. Humans are not the only species to have a descended larynx — we share this feature with, for example, lions, deer and some aquatic mammals. It was the extension of our consciousness through labour that introduced to us new relationships that could not be adequately communicated using the vocabulary of primate sounds, and demanded something different.

These processes, like all processes, interact with one another and develop side by side. Engels again:

First comes labour, after it, and then side by side with it, articulate speech — these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which for all its similarity to the former is far larger and more perfect... The reaction on labour and speech of the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of judgement, gave an ever-renewed impulse to the further development of both labour and speech.[6]

Toolmaking — the creation of human-made objects — taught us abstraction: the more we made objects with characteristics so similar that they shared a function, we discovered the need for a name, not just for, say, an individual spear, but for ‘spears’ in general. Thus we created an abstract category of ‘spears’ that united many objects with similar characteristics. Humans had managed to turn objects into concepts. This followed from the separation of human beings from nature: we learned to translate ourselves and our works into abstract terms.

At some point we probably began to break up our utterances, in which a single cry or call represented an entire message, into constituent parts. Instead of a call for ‘big eland’, we might have split the concepts of ‘big’ and ‘eland’, and then been able to combine those elements with other separate elements. According to archaeologist Steven Mithen, this meant we could “create an infinite array of new utterances. This is the emergence of compositionality, the feature that makes language so much more powerful than any other communication system.”[7]

The social character of language

The new level of communication helped us to develop our social organisation by sharing experience and improving technique. At the same time, language is itself social in origin. Neither aspect ‘caused’ the other, instead they developed in combination. Language is inevitably social in character, because humans are a social species. Marx and Engels understood this:

Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men... Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.[8]

Primates are unusual in that they live in tightly-knit groups. This helped to provide protection against predators much more formidable than ourselves. The more group members there on watching for predators, the greater is the chance they can be avoided, and the more help there is on hand to drive them away. For primates that are starting to eat or even hunt meat, it is also to their advantage to have several hunting parties searching simultaneously to increase the chance of success — once the big meat package is found, it can be shared amongst all the group’s members.

Group living was a positive adaptation, but it introduced new complexities, such as the need for hierarchies and alliances to regulate internal competition over food. As the size of human social groups grew over the millennia, so too did the complexity of social behaviour. All primates use vocalisations to communicate a variety of signals, but language, propelled by particular human needs, took this to an unprecedented level. A sobering aspect of the descension of the larynx is that the lower tracheal opening makes it easier for us to choke upon food. That we were prepared to trade this potentially fatal problem against language tells us a great deal about how important it was to us.[9]

The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has estimated that the number of people of whom we could have social knowledge grew from 50 per group six million years ago to 150 for early Homo sapiens. He argued that primates place great social importance upon grooming as a means of building alliances and gaining social information [10]. As group sizes increased, the amount of time needed to groom effectively became untenable. Language was the replacement — instead of limiting our communication to when we tidied each other’s dirt and parasites, we shared social information in a much more efficient way, without needing social contact with the people under discussion. Group size, brain size and language ability all increased as we evolved. Homo sapiens communities may also have experienced greater differentiation in roles, exchange with other groups, and other more complex social needs that encouraged language.

It is very difficult to fix a date for the first use of language because there is no way for it to be preserved. It cannot be less than 195,000 years ago, the age of our first fossil evidence for anatomically modern humans. The genetic leap seen in Homo habilis 2 million years ago may already indicate a vocal ability beyond that of other primates, and this ability will have increased with subsequent evolution. True language may first have been possible in a rudimentary form as long ago as Homo erectus. In Neanderthals the vocal tract, hyoid bone and other indicators were present, making language likely. Given the genetic similarity of all Homo sapiens, from 60,000 years ago to today, and the universality of language to all human populations, it is hard to see how language would not have been one of the faculties that our ancestors took with them from Africa before they dispersed across the world.

Nonetheless, the clear qualitative difference between early and modern human minds makes the question of how gradually or suddenly language was acquired, and how it relates to the rise of art and culture, a matter of ongoing debate. Some archaeologists have proposed that there was a ‘human revolution’ of art and culture around 40,000 years ago, and it would be astonishing if we had not had language at that time. This timescale for the first appearance of art dates it considerably later than the likely first appearance of language. Recent evidence from Africa has led some archaeologists to suggest that the ‘revolution’ might have started much earlier, begging speculation on whether the two are related, but evidence for consistent symbolic activity dating further back than 40,000 years is slight.

Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, which claims that the capacity to learn language is to some degree innate to all (modern) human beings, has yet to be proved. An alternative to Chomsky’s theory has been put forward by Terrence Deacon [11]. Children have such a gift for acquiring language that it seems it must be innate, but Deacon argues that children’s predisposition is of a different sort. Just as computer scientists developed Graphical User Interfaces such as Microsoft Windows to make intimidating computers easier for the general public to use, so language has adapted to the natural biases of human learning. The reason animals can be trained to perform spectacular ‘tricks’ is that the human trainers select from among the animal’s natural repertoire of behaviours and simply encourage them. Languages are very changeable and evolved spontaneously, not by design — those that can be quickly learned by children by conforming to their expectations will tend to be passed on more than those that are difficult. The elements universal to all languages, writes Deacon, actually arose independently in each language, which may seem hard to believe until one thinks of each language adapting to the same, universal set of human biases. These biases — such as the neurological bias that generates similar colour terms across all societies — may be very weak, but over many millennia of evolution their cumulative effect becomes determining. So language is acquired via a social evolutionary process, not a rigid pre-programmed structure.

Additional support for the case against Chomsky’s idea has been outlined by the anthropologist John Hawks:

There are strong evolutionary reasons to doubt the existence of a Universal Grammar. In short, no single language uses all (or even most) of the rules included in Universal Grammar. So the phenotype (behavioural expression) of nearly all the people in any human population must not include many of those rules. If this is true there is certainly no way that natural selection (which can operate only on phenotypes) could result in Universal Grammar being included in most people’s brains.[12]

It remains possible that a kind of common template for language did develop, given the profound importance of language for our evolution and social organisation. But this would not mean that language may be seen mechanically or biologically. Such a view makes language autonomous and genetic, denied its link to real life and to its human, creative character. That language has a social character is so obvious it should scarcely need saying, as the very purpose of language is communication between people. Bourgeois linguists sometimes however try to make language a self-contained system independent of society. Such an approach fails to prioritise real language as it is spoken by real people.

Language in fact is subject to change — in its words, grammar, etc — and the origin of this change cannot be understood without a social and historical context. The Marxist view was summarised neatly by Marnie Holborow: “Language arises from the social demands and needs of the material world and also, through human cooperation and activity, contributes to the transformation of that world. It is then itself transformed as human society changes.”[13] Or in Deacon’s words, “Language is a social phenomenon. To consider it in purely formal, psychological or neurobiological terms is to strip away its reason for being.”

Language is not inevitable

To finish, it is important to note that it would be wrong to see language as the pinnacle of an inevitable evolutionary process towards more complex, higher forms of communication. It is tempting to try to apply this ‘progressive’ aspect of the dialectic to the sweep of evolution, but to do so is inappropriate. Evolution is about organisms finding a best fit to their environment, and most living things have never ‘progressed’ beyond a single cell. It is simply that at one point in our development, language happened to help our species fill a particular evolutionary niche. As Deacon puts it, “the niche was just there, and was eventually filled.”[14]



[1] Given that ‘literature’ implies writing, the term is an oxymoron, but we do not have a better one. One possibility would be Pio Zirimu’s term ‘orature’.
[2] See for example Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals (2005).
[3] Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Human Brain (1997).
[4] Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals (2005).
[8] Marx and Engels, from ‘Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks’ in The German Ideology (1845).
[9] A contrary view has been put forward by British palaeontologist Margaret Clegg, who found by studying medical records that death by choking on food is extremely rare. Mentioned by Mithen, ibid.
[10] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (1997).
[11] Terrence Deacon, op. cit.
[12] John Hawks, ‘Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species (Jan 2005).
[13] Marnie Holborow, ‘Putting the Social Back Into Language’, adapted 2006 from a chapter of her book The Politics of English (1996). Holborow’s essay is a good short introduction to the Marxist theory of language.
[14] Terrence Deacon, op. cit.

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