Pidgin speakers use the closest contemporary approximation to protolanguage, but it is hard to find records of their language because they are in such a low status in their societies. The picture shows migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi and surely they use some pidgin to communicate with one another, and just as surely both their employers and the migrants despise the pidgin they speak.
Derek Bickerton’s most important contribution to the study of language origins was the idea of a protolanguage that was spoken before full language appeared, and it remains the most important idea in his new book, Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans. Put simply, protolanguage is a simple language, but Bickerton is more specific than that and puts the matter more formally. He also reveals that he had a series of e-mail exchanges with Noam Chomsky on the subject of protolanguage and, as he tells it, he came out on top.
Human language as studied by generative grammarians (and Bickerton belongs to that group) is defined as the set of sentences that can be produced by the hierarchical rules that govern the language’s syntax. There are also a set of rules that govern the construction of words (e.g., cat+s to pluralize English nouns, dis+approve to change a word into its opposite). But these rules assume the existence of a conceptual ability that animals lack. [Is this true? To follow Bickerton’s and Chomsky’s argument we must assume it is.] As Bickerton put it, “Language must have evolved from a prior system, and yet there doesn’t seem to be any such system out of which it could have evolved” [p. 35].
Bickerton’s solution was to suggest that first came a protolanguage, that’s a language without syntactical or word-construction rules. When protolanguage began, it used words to express thoughts that apes were capable of having. The use of these words themselves made the speakers aware of their limitations leading to an understanding of words that enables them to be used in compound or syntactical form. (Hence the book’s subtitle. Early humans are making language, while language is turning speakers into more modern humans.)
The formal difference between protolanguage and true language is that protolanguages puts words together like beads on a string, without rules (at least beads on protonecklaces are so strung), but they share a unique property as well. In both proto- and true language, words are combinable. As Bickerton puts in, “Languages combine lawfully and protolanguages combine lawlessly” ,
Bickerton discusses Chomsky’s rival theory at some length (see: Chomsky’s Theory of Language Origins). Chomsky not only believed that protolanguage did not happen; he doesn’t believe it could have happened. In this area, however, Chomsky is at an unusual (for him) disadvantage. Bickerton is an expert on pidgin languages and the earliest forms of pidgin combine as lawlessly as a protolanguage would. Thus, as Chomsky raises theoretical and logical arguments against protolanguage, Bickerton can point to real-world counterexamples. The result of this dispute is that Bickerton is able to produce a much more dynamic theory than Chomsky imagined.
Both Chomsky and Bickerton begin with the proposition that our pre-linguistic ancestors, like other animals, had concepts that “won’t Merge.” Merge is a theoretical process by which words are strung together according to rules. As I say, I’m not going to trouble myself here with the truth of the proposition. Generative grammarians as a group accept it.
In Bickerton’s theory the human lineage began talking, using protolanguage. Protolanguage, lacking rules, does not require Merge. The talking began, says Bickerton, as a means of recruiting others to help scavenge carcasses. It sounds possible, although my time on the Serengeti persuaded me that carcasses are a very short-lived phenomenon. Bickerton seems to think he is absolutely right, but he has no better reason for thinking so than that he has a good story.
Over time (and this time could be two million years), talking itself turns lawless speech into lawful speech. The experience of speaking turns concepts that won’t Merge into concepts that will.
In response to this change in concepts, the brain is rewired to better handle linguistic rules. Bickerton does not insist on this point, seeing it as only plausible.
With the new powers of linguistic organization complex thoughts and planning become possible. Modern humanity has arrived.
Chomsky’s theory has many of these same steps but they are not dynamically arranged. A mutation simply transforms animal concepts into mergable concepts. Another mutation rewires the brain so that complex thoughts and planning become possible. Then still another mutation allows people to start expressing their thoughts aloud (i.e., they start talking).
You can see from this that both Bickerton and Chomsky are trying to explain the same thing—how to get from animal thinking to linguistic thinking—but only Bickerton approaches it as an evolutionary process. So that gives him a leg up, but at the same time, he does not surpass the limits of his field.
It should be obvious that the origin of language is a multi-disciplinary subject. If you want to put forth an account of how language began, no matter what your background you have to broaden your scope and think about questions that don’t come naturally to a person of your inclinations, interests, and training. Everybody, of course, has to look into the story of evolution, but that should be just the beginning. There is by now a very long list of things besides language that distinguish humans from apes. Here is a partial one:
Anatomy: upright biped, hairless, eyes white instead of black, different hyoid bone, lacks chest air sac, brain enlarged and moved above brow…
Genetic: FOXP2 mutated …
Life cycle: breast-feeding period reduced, childhood period between infancy and juvenile state, adolescence between juvenile and adult state, elongated post-menopausal state in women…
Social structure: identity goes beyond self to membership in larger communit(y/ies); relationships between community members include duties, trust, support; mother lets (and expects) others to care for infant; adults and infants play together; joint attention common; emotional bonding activities common…
Some of these differences may be relevant to the origins of language, but Bicketon ignores them as a group. Instead he argues that people started talking using simple (lawless) combinations and evolved (culturally and/or physically) the ability to make syntactical (lawful) combinations. He had to work this point through in more detail than it merits on its face, because of the skepticism of professional colleagues who deny that language could ever have been simpler. (Even there he stays with his own work. David Gil’s paper presented in Barcelona last year reporting on modern, syntactically simple, languages did not make it into Bickerton’s bibliography. (see: Complex Grammar Has a Simple Solution.)) Many books and papers on language origins leave me going wow. In this case, I was back to an old ninth-grade reaction… well, duhh.
Note: It’s a paradox, I suppose, but in relation to this book I keep thinking, and another thing… so next week I will discuss one other aspect of Bickerton’s book: his list of requirements that any theory of language origins must satisfy.