Yesterday’s post presented Dessalles position that we developed full, syntactical speech in order to check for inconsistencies in what speakers tell us. In so doing we could form coalitions of reliable allies. Today’s post discusses why I am not satisfied with that account.
The switch from protolanguage (drawing attention to figures) to language (drawing attention to figure and ground together) permitted the change from assertive communication to “argumentation.” By argumentation I don’t think Dessalles means that a hominid Bickerson family could argue about whose fault it was that junior was such a devil. Instead he is talking about making and testing your case. That capacity to reason back and forth is what Homo erectus lacked and we have.
It is the final great insight into speech origins presented in the Dessalles account of speech origins.
I want to go over more of yesterday’s post because I think Dessalles has pointed the way to having a surer grasp of just what meaning is.
It is strange that meaning should be so mysterious. We can tell whether speech is meaningful or not, but it is painfully difficult to say just what meaning is. Now, however, I think Dessalles has brought us much closer to recognizing what’s present or absent when sentences are meaningful or meaningless. We are much closer to understanding just what it is that we do with speech that baffles every other existing form of life on the planet.
The obvious difference between protolanguage (presumably spoken by Homo erectus) and normal speech is the presence of syntax. But what does that give us? If erectus says ‘me Ishmael,’ what does sapiens gain by saying ‘Call me Ishmael’? Dessalles asserts, “Syntax is not an obvious and expected extension of protolanguage, but rather an unexpected and peculiar development of prehuman communication” (p. 194).
A more technical difference between protosemantics and the semantics of human speakers is predication. “Protosemantics,” writes Dessalles, “is solely referential, whereas semantics is predicative” (p. 212). We can see the difference in the Ishmael variations above:
me Ishmael: This remark points. In fact, I find it hard to imagine somebody saying these words and not pointing to himself.
Call me Ishmael: This time I imagine the speaker first tapping my shoulder, for the reader is the unvoiced subject of this sentence. In this case I’m receiving instructions although more frequently sentences are about something. Sentences typically point at least twice first as a reference (you) and then something about the reference (call me Ishmael).
Protolanguage points; full language points and then points out. The one word leopard points and the natural reply is where. A sentence—that leopard is stalking impala—points to the leopard and then points out something about it.
(Note: This post is the fifth in a series of posts exploring the contents of Jean-Louis Dessalles' book,Why We Talk. For a summary of what came before see Why We Talk: Summary. I had been posting these summaries every Wednesday, but that way promises to take forever. So I'm going to do a bunch in a row and see how that goes.)
Homo erectus survived between one and two million years and during all that time the species seems unlikely to have had the grammatical skills of a three year old. At best they may have spoken what we would call a pidgin:
But as the man in the Geico commercial notes, they were smart enough to spread across Asia and use fire.
Post #1: Dessalle's book says too many thinkers take language for granted, and he began his remarks by presenting some reasons for thinking seriously about why we have a system that permits the generation of an infinite number of novel remarks. No other animal ever needed such a thing
Post #2 : Dessalles examained the question whether language is a cultural invention that spread like writing or a biological faculty spread through genes and concluded that its origins are biological. In particular, he noted that people have a strong urge to speak and that there are times when it cannot be held back. Language can be understood as a unique biological property.
Post #3: When considering the source of biological properties, evolution, the critical point is"local optimality," the idea that evolution does the best it can, under the circumstances. This idea will prove central to Dessalle's future discussions.
Post #4: An example of reasoning from local optimality is Dessalle's consideration of the sounds of speech. Computers exchange information at very high rates of transmission, and if exchanging information was the function of speech we should expect to operate much more quickly. As it is our slow pace indicates we have not been selected to maximize information exchange. Selection seems to have been favoring some other function.
Post #5 described protolanguage, a pre-syntactic form of speech with a protosemantics that enabled speakers to direct attention to objects without saying anything about them. Protolanguage did allow for one image to follow another. Presumably something like protolanguage served Homo erectus for over a million years.
Post #6 presents the difference between true language and protolanguage. Language has predicates, combining into one sentence a theme that changes or is located and a reference point against which the theme is set.
Post #7considered the achievement described in the previous post. Dessalles has shown how in a single sentence with true language a speaker can draw attention to both the figure and ground that make the full gestalt of a perception.
Post #8 outlined Dessalles' explanation for why Homo went from protolanguage to full language. It enabled listeners to check speakers for truth and thus enabled people to form coalitions with reliable, informative allies.
Post #9 offered my reason for doubting the explanation given in post 8, although there is no question about the importance of Dessalles' book.
One of the narrow ledges this blog has to cross without falling over the side is the issue of human difference. Veer too far in one direction and the link between humanity and the rest of the biological world is forgotten; swerve a bit too generously the other way and the distinction between humanity and the rest is trivialized. Two stories in the New York Times this week show how tricky it can be to maintain your balance.
The first story was a discussion of the origins of human morality. Are they biological? Many researchers into ape behavior say yes; moral philosophers, even ones like Peter Singer, who defend animal rights as (essentially) equal to our own turn, are less biologically oriented. (Story here.) The other report was titled “Brain Injury Said to Affect Moral Choices,” and says that damage to an area of emotional judgment can leave people making utilitarian choices that people without the brain damage do not make. (Story here.) It didn’t say whether the rationalist moral philosophers interviewed for the first story might favor some brain surgery, turning people into more utilitarian thinkers.
If love makes the world go round, why hasn't selfishness put a stop to the spinning?
A mystery of speech that keeps poking its head into this blog is that it is profoundly unselfish. If you take Darwinian concepts literally (and you should), there seems to be no benefit in blabbing useful secrets. If Joe wants to tell where the wild figs grow, Jacks is happy to listen, but why should Jack respond by telling of an even better fig garden? Selfish rationality should result in everyone keeping mum. Speech should not evolve.
This question is never far from my mind, and comes forward now with double strength because I have been reading a series of articles that appeared in last June’s Behavioral and Brain Sciences (lead article here) on the evolution of cruelty in human affairs. Frankly, the amount of stark cruelty it depicts—ranging from hyenas eating wildebeest alive, to Caesar Augustus amusing himself by watching boxers fighting with a metal studded gloves—is a bit hard to take. But the point is serious. Cruelty we have everywhere. How can something based on its opposite appear and persist in such a world?
Post #1 opened “Here’s a book that says too many thinkers take language for granted,” and presented some reasons for thinking seriously about why we have a system that permits the generation of an infinite number of novel remarks.
Post #2 reported Dessalles' consideration of whether language is a cultural invention that spread like writing or a biological faculty spread through genes. He concluded that its origins are biological. In particular, he noted that people have a strong urge to speak and that there are times when it cannot be held back.
Post #3 considered the source of biological properties, evolution. The critical point in that material was "local optimality," the idea that evolution does the best it can, under the circumstances. This idea will prove central to future discussions. )
I’m going to begin with a question inspired by thinking about what Dessalles has to say, but which he himself did not ask:
Suppose you listened to recordings of unusual animal sounds interspersed with recordings of people saying things in languages you have never heard before. Do you think you could tell which sounds were speech?