I’ve been reading a biography of Augustus Caesar and taken its warning. Probably no life in the ancient world is better documented, and yet there are many things about that period which are hidden behind a perpetual fog. It’s a reminder of the vanity of this blog which seeks to understand things that are completely undocumented and hidden behind the great screen of time. There are no sharp boundaries or turning points in our story. So the question I have been probing all this week (see 1 2 3) of just where to place the boundary marking an end point for speech origins is sure to have a vague answer.
Derek Bickerton’s certainty that the boundary is where the “biological envelope” governing syntax appeared seems unsatisfactory. Even if we knew for sure there was such an envelope, our experience with creole languages suggests that there was period, probably a long one, when languages were growing richer, more expressive, more able to handle special circumstances. Even if the speaker of 100,000 years ago had the mental wherewithal to read Proust (and I’m inclined to think they did have that level of intellect) their speech was unlikely to have the vocabulary and variety of syntactical forms to permit such profound and intimate expression.
It is hard to accept Bernard H. Bichakjian’s argument at the Stellenbosch conference last October that language continues to “progress” to the present day, if only because progress seems like such a vaporous concept in these cases. And yet is there any reason to suppose that structural possibilities really reached their limit a hundred thousand years ago and that Homer, St. Mathew the Evangelist, Scheherazade, Cervantes, Fielding, and Faulkner have just been rattling their cages? I for one remain extremely dubious. As a matter of personal autobiography I can say that learning to write clearly has been a lifetime’s work. Instincts should come more readily to hand.
The difficulty seems to be that any person of letters must master, not Language, but a language. Maybe the abstract structure has been there all along, sitting as quietly as a pearl in an oyster bed, but I’m trying to master English structure and vocabulary. That means I have to first encounter those things, then recognize their meanings, and then recall them when needed. Language is the product of a linguistic community rather than a special genius. Shakespeare worked hard at his plays, but every student knows they still have to pay full attention to understand the man. That’s why a Cro-Magnon Proust would have been stymied no matter how rich his built-in syntactical generator. Without a common understanding on how to combine eighteen perceptions into one sentence your sensitive cave dweller cannot be understood when he tries.
The origin of speech is probably best understood as the origin of speaking communities, just as the evolution of some trait in a species best understood as the rise of a population carrying a trait. I have cited Nicholas Ostler’s thesis that a language does not grow through the assertion of power, but through the creation of a larger human community (see: Words Rubbing Together) and I think that hits something square. Sentences are not generated in a vacuum. Networks of people, linked through joint attention as they speak and listen about the topics at hand, are the source of speech.
Looked at from the perspective of a speaking community Bickerton’s and Bichakjian’s stances don’t seem quite so resolutely polar. Bickerton is right, we had to evolve the common biological ground that lets us acquire the local language, no matter which speaking community we were born into.
At the same time, Bichakjian is right that we had to find ways of speaking that made comprehension easy to use, for both speaker and listener. If one linguistic community has easier rules than the ones adopted by a neighboring community, it has an advantage. This advantage is especially true if one language is easier to learn than another. Terrence Deacon in The Symbolic Species develops the argument that while the brain was evolving to handle language, language itself was evolving to fit the brains that were handling them.
An implication of this co-evolutionary view is that there is no reason to suppose that speech has always been learned by three-year-olds. If we imagine Homo habilis of two million years ago exchanging a few words, we don’t have to also imagine toddler habilis doing the same thing. Speech, for a long time, might have been something that came later and required direct instruction, like learning to throw a spear effectively. Thus, along with a common biological ground, all linguistic communities had to develop a common learning efficiency.
We can say then that speech origins (and the focus of this blog) were complete when:
- All children were born with the biological equipment necessary to enable them to learn whichever language their linguistic community spoke.
- All languages had evolved to the point that a three- and four-year-old in any community could learn to speak.
Granted, of course, that we are unlikely to know when those two situations had been achieved.
NOTE: Dr. Bichakjian has written me off list:
I stand behind the excerpts that you have quoted from my paper and from our correspondence, but I cannot agree with the interpretation you have given to my notion of potential for language.
I indeed reject the idea of our being imprinted with a grammar, which has been claimed for almost 50 years while not a shred of evidence has been found in support of it by the experts in the biological sciences, and while the existing data suggest just the opposite.
I don’t think that rejecting the idea of our being imprinted with a grammar makes me “a radical exponent of the tabula rasa theory of knowledge.”
I have said instead that we are endowed with a potential for language, but I have never sequentialized the evolution of the potential and the evolution of language. Of course there was a cross-fertilization process, but that never led to our becoming imprinted with a grammar. I even have a paper, which has just come out, on “The Co-Evolution of Language and the Attendant Faculties.”
Whether the evolution of that potential is still ongoing today, I don’t know, and cutting edge neuroscientists also know very little about the possibly ongoing evolution of the human brain. As a linguist, I can only observe the ongoing evolution of language. It could very well be that when it had reached a certain level, the potential for language, which up until then had co-evolved with language, entered a period of stasis or slow progress, while language continued its course. We also don’t know how long, thence how slow, that early evolution of the potential for language was. So, perhaps it is still ongoing, but so slowly that we cannot gauge it.
Your writing “Bichakjian meanwhile tells of a people born with not much more in their genetic favor than a flapping tongue” borders on the caricature, and it is in direct contradiction with what I have said and you quoted: “Humans, during their evolution, have acquired central and peripheral features that make language possible.” How can you reduce “central and peripheral features,” i.e. all the speech organs in the brain and elsewhere in the body to “not much more … than a flapping tongue.”?
The sentence, “Bichakjian's story signifies something: the shift from an inefficient, holistic and complicated, analog kind of language to an energy-saving, unfolding and complex, digital type of language.” is with one exception OK. The exception is that I have never said that earlier forms of language were inefficient. They were less efficient. That’s not the same thing.
About Latin noun phrases. There is nothing shocking about what I wrote. Classical Latin would normally use an infinitive phrase, not a subordinate clause. Cf. rapacem te esse semper credidi (Pl. Poen. 1385). Only a Late Latin author would write Semper credidi quod tu rapax es.