Monday, February 13, 2012

On the Origins of Language

David Bellos has produced an interesting book on languages and translation: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. We discussed some of his topics in an earlier article: Words Matter: Christopher Columbus, the Bergman Effect, and Google Translate. Bellos finishes his work with a discussion of the origins of speech and language that provided a rather different perspective than is normally encountered.

Bellos begins by reminding us that the way a faculty, such as language, is used today, does not necessarily relate to how or why it originated. Those who study language tend to forget this fact, and, starting at the present, try to extrapolate back in time. That can be misleading. Bellos indicates the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel where "the whole earth was of one language and of one speech" as a misleading point of departure for early studies.

Much research seems to focus on the demonstration of a single origin for human speech. As an example, consider an article in The Economist.

"It has been known for a while that the less widely spoken a language is, the fewer the phonemes it has. So, as groups of people ventured ever farther from their African homeland, their phonemic repertoires should have dwindled, just as their genetic ones did."

"To check whether this is the case, Dr Atkinson took 504 languages and plotted the number of phonemes in each (corrected for recent population growth, when significant) against the distance between the place where the language is spoken and 2,500 putative points of origin, scattered across the world. The relationship that emerges suggests the actual point of origin is in central or southern Africa (see chart), and that all modern languages do, indeed, have a common root."

This is the data presented to justify that conclusion.

One can draw a line through any set of points, but that does not prove a correlation. What this data seems to prove is that researchers will work very hard to reach the conclusions they set out to reach.

Belos would be dubious.

"But behind these scholarly (and often schoolmasterly) pursuits lay a single barely questioned assumption—that all languages are, at bottom, the same kind of thing, because, at the start, they were the same thing. In fact, there is rather better evidence of the contrary."

The article goes on to make this claim:

"That fits nicely with the idea that being able to speak and be spoken to is a specific adaptation—a virtual organ, if you like—that is humanity’s killer app in the struggle for biological dominance. Once it arose, Homo sapiens really could go forth and multiply and fill the Earth."

While it is true that mankind has made great use of language skills, this suggests a Darwinian explanation for the origin and development of language. But there is no organ, virtual or otherwise, for language. It is an adaptation of more fundamental attributes.

"There is no form of language in the world that is ever spoken aloud without accompanying hand movements. Indeed, the greater the effort of concentration on live speech, the more the speaker needs to move his or her hands....Hand movement is profound, unconscious, inseparable part of natural speech."

Natural speech does not include reading from a sheet of paper or from a teleprompter.

There is also a correlation between manual activities and the lips and mouth.

"Conversely, delicate fingerwork of a nonlinguistic kind almost always prompts a movement of the lips. Have you watched anyone threading a needle? Few people can do it without pursing or twisting their mouths."

The most fundamental activity of man has always required coordination of activities between hand and mouth: eating.

"Speaking can be seen in this light as a parasitic use of organs whose primary function is to ensure survival. But what, then, was the original function of this wonderful, additional, alternative use of lips and tongue and of the muscles that control breathing and swallowing? In what way did it correlate with other uses of hands and arms?"

The notion that speech and language took such hold in human societies because it was fundamentally associated with survival does not seem to follow.

"The plain fact of linguistic diversity suggests very strongly that speech did not arise to communicate with members of other groups of like beings. If that was what it was for, our ancestors got it badly wrong."

"Similarly, there is no particular reason to think that language first arose in order to allow members of the same group to communicate with one another. They did that already—with their hands, arms, bodies and faces. Many species clearly do. You can watch them at it in the zoo."

In fact, humans, military and civilian, when they are hunting prey, revert back to simple signaling and sign language, in ways that would be familiar to any of the other apes.

So what then drove the development of speech? Bellos provides this suggestion.

"Language is a human way of relating to other humans"

"Among the larger primates such functions are carried out through the much studied practice of grooming. Grooming bonds mother and child, it bonds males in hierarchical rank (the pecking order, it establishes bonds between males and females prior to copulation, and it generally binds together the entire clan or group of cohabiting animals."

There are limits to the size of such a society, with fifty-five being an estimate of the maximum. Above this the group splits up and the bond is broken.

"When it does, no cross-grooming is possible: you belong to either the old group or the new one. You do not pick fleas off the fur of chimps that are not of ‘your kind’."

While speech can certainly be used to communicate information, the original intent of language was not the transfer of data, it was for the

"....establishment, reinforcement, and modification of immediate interpersonal relations."

A means of transmitting socially useful information, beyond grooming, would allow for groups to grow much larger.  The means of vocal communication would likely be unique to a group, and would be a part of the identity of the group—a means of differentiating itself from all other groups.

"To put this broad understanding in a nutshell: language is ethnicity."

"Ethnicity in this sense has nothing to do with lineage, heredity, race, blood group, or DNA. It means how a social group constitutes and identifies itself."

Bellos uses Britain as an example of how this group-dialect tendency persists today.

"The bewildering variety of diction that can be heard among the inhabitants of the British Isles gives a spectacular demonstration of the fine-grained group-membership function of the way people speak....In Britain, you just can’t escape the messages about region and class that come from anyone who opens his or her mouth."

Bellos view of the functions of language might explain why regional dialects continue to persist even when a common dialect is imposed through schooling. People choose to communicate with other groups using the "national language," but continue to use their own dialect to communicate with each other.

The unifying ties of a unique group language could be viewed as a societal benefit. But the same forces would also tend to accentuate the "otherness" of members of a different group—that is another ethnic group. This later effect could have contributed to some of the less savory chapters of human history.

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