From: Dan Moonhawk Alford
Date: Tue, 5 May 1998
I have proposed some of the following using the meaning-first principle, and the rest I'm expanding on now in this summary and scenario of the evolution of language -- partly as a way of answering Matt's plea to return to the topic, and partly because I'm still preparing a presentation on this topic. Please feel free to comment on any of the pieces.
And I go beyond that, claiming that the relationship-bound flow of meaning at any given time is primary -- what the term 'language' has become, for me, and especially in a title like "Evolution of Language," has to do with the phenomenologically felt inclusion into meaning-flow. And 'languageS' are auditory or gestural (i.e., ASL) or written forms designed to aid meaning-flow in complex circumstances.
2. I posit in an ecological way, backed up by ancient philosophies from many parts of the Earth, that the other creatures of Nature participate in this same meaning world, each in its own way. This is offered not in the way of conjecture, but as a reality check from the indigenous cultures of the globe, who tho historically separated all pretty much agree on this. All of my work, published and forthcoming, is designed to exemplify this balance between Western and indigenous knowledge. Thus I join with indigenous thinkers around the globe, in quest of the mythical whole which inevitably gets squeezed out of linear Western equations of reality.
3. Given therefore a meaning/form reality set in an individual/ Nature context (where the relationships are not A + B (1+1=2) but a more ecological relationship of A x B (1 x 1 = 1-squared), in dynamic transaction rather than static representation), we can form an alternative context to that usually seen in Western speculations -- 'pre-humans already transacting within a meaning realm, along with the rest of Nature' -- against which we then can vicariously observe human speech appearing.
4. Defending that, according to AT&T research statistics, up to 93% of the forms-which-convey-meaning are already present before this BIG LEAP of speech occurs (that part of the lived meaning conveyed in face-to-face communication by body posture and gestures, facial gestures, interpersonal space, the emotions conveyed through the tone of voice despite any words used -- not to mention the context in which the utterance happens, much less the totality of historical interactions and shared experiences between the two speakers ...). In other words, instead of human language starting from zero, as according to most of linguistics, it starts with our tank nearly full. Words account for only 7% of the totality, according to this view -- carefully dis-ambiguating non-verbal meaning rather than adding up lexical meanings.
THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED, as the Cheyenne teaching says, and what was a wholeness of meaning interaction gets fragmented, and somehow more emphasis gets placed on the fragments than the wholeness.
5. Into this we insert homo loquens -- was it 100-200,000 years ago? Or, as more recent evidence suggests, including Neanderth*l in the mix for the first time, more like 400,000 years ago? The evidence concerning Neandert*al involves agility of the tongue as revealed by nerve bundles, which suggests specialized use requiring fine motor skills.
Even without speech, it would be no great leap to give to Neandert*als the ability to form a local sign language augmented by emotional vowel sounds, submerged in the Natural meaning realm. And there may have been other proto-races as well; there seem to have been three distinct species of Homo around about 40,000 years ago.
Did only the ones who elaborated newly found speech survive? Is that the missing Darwinian evolutionary key? Was the larynx dropped to the same level in all three? Had cortical lateralization as a bio/physiological process yet set in, or was that only in the kind that triumphed? These are the questions that plague my own questioning.
6. At some point, speech SYSTEMS emerge as a function, I believe, of social distance. The closer two people are, the fewer words are generally needed to support the meaning-flow. The less people have in common, the more words are necessary to support the meaning-flow. Self-Family-'Tribe'-Strangers is the best breakdown that I can see to describe this complex of systems (where 'Tribe' means friends/acquaintances/co-workers in an urban environment, and 'people like us' in current more rural environments), and strangers describes the formal, elaborated forms of English which are learned, as against the social forms of English which are acquired.
In some way, the quality of talk is dependent on the quantity of listeners, (where 'quality' refers to the four levels I've posited, and the quantity of potential speakers for each level expands exponentially (few intimates in anyone's life, more friends, an unlimited amount of strangers)) -- a function of social distance. The more tenuous the relationship, the fewer experiences can be counted on as shared, and therefore the more words and sophisticated grammatical structures are necessary to get everyone on the 'same page'.
So as children, growing up through time, we babble to ourselves, then begin talking to our intimates, then expand outward to friends and acquaintances, and finally -- with education -- learn the particular dialect of English that communicates to the widest possible group of strangers for a particular task.
And each level contains its own rules, its own grammar by which utterances are interpreted in the meaning realm; no grammar of one level may ever be applied to output of another level without destroying meaning. In fact, when idiomatic/formulaic speech is used, a tension is set up between the alpha-level (idiomatic) meaning and the beta-level (literal) meaning at times. Idiomatic meanings cannot be gotten with literal decomposition as the method. (I.e., he fell off the wagon)
7. Our budding homo loquens is raised in a family within a tribe, and there is already a social language going on within that tribe -- sounds that refer to shared experiences, not unlike the 'telegraphic' utterances that get passed between old friends even today, utterances which outsiders may not be able to decipher because they sound 'vague'. Whenever strangers are encountered, and come to live, it is their job to learn the local language -- "When in Rome" -- and by the time this face-to-face language-learning is complete, relationships have been formed. So you never talk to 'strangers' in your own language. In this (what I call) SOCIAL form of language, knowledge is wrapped in stories and what we might call 'gossip'.
This leap equates, for me, to the leap from NO HUMAN LANGUAGE to HUMAN LANGUAGE. The next part deals with the Tower-of-Babel move from some possible one human LANGUAGE into many human LANGUAGES, which I see as an outgrowth of both citification (multiplying of numbers of strangers) as well as seasonal migrations for rural folk.
"Any two mutually intelligible dialects will become, separated by space and time, mutually unintelligible." Linguistics as we know it cannot really enter the fray until this moment, and carries the ball fairly nicely from here on, and strangers develop more elaborated systems to "get on the same page" even when they don't have commensurate experiences that would otherwise allow that. It allows people to talk the words with a complete lack of understanding while at the same time allowing people with even minimal commonality of experience to be of one mind on something.
8. And as I have already shown, my linguistic characterizations of the four developmental levels of language indeed are commensurate with Piaget's four developmental stages of thinking -- made even more important by Slobin's characterization of 'thinking for speaking' as an important concept for cognitive studies. And beyond that, the proposal of levels of languaging also conforms to what we know of the domains of each brain in our human brain complex, as well as to kinds of knowledge which are processed within each accepted level of brainwaves. Is there anything convincing I've left out for such a task?
9. Dragging listers kicking and screaming into 20th century quantum science is beyond this post, so as not to unduly bias this one with unconventional quantum linguistics ideas.
My self-appointed task is to create a plausible scenario about the evolution of human language from what came before. While I find most of the postings informative and interesting, 99% are off-task as far as I'm concerned. I need to concentrate my efforts for publication, and will therefore not so quickly jump into frays for a while (please contain your enthusiasm! ;-)) I remain intensely interested in any helpful criticism of my scenario.
warm regards, moonhawk