The conference on “ways to protolanguage” held in Torun, Poland this week provided a good, maybe even grand, view of where thinking about the protolanguage concept stands. It was so successful that it left me doubting the concept’s further utility. Like Wittgenstein’s ladder, we’ve used it to climb to new heights. Now let’s toss it aside.
It is hard to imagine a plausible evolutionary scenario in which language does not first appear in some primitive, or protolanguage, form. So even though there was wide disagreement on its nature, the Torun presentations tended to agree that there had been a protolanguage. However, there is an argument against it. A couple of years ago the linguist and expert on Noam Chomsky Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini wrote me in an e-mail:
The protolanguage issue is quite moot, in my opinion. Animals can surely do categorization, and chimps (as David Premack has shown many years ago) can analyze objects into features (color, shape, texture etc.). Something like conjunction of features and a symbol-object correspondence can be granted. But in order to have a language of thought, the creature needs predication, and that comes with Merge, and with edge features, so possibly the protolanguage already was language. In other words, no protolanguage.
That talk of “Merge” and “edge features” refer to modern syntactic concepts, which is why work like that of Ljiljana Progovac (see: A Protolinguistic Fossil) is important. By providing examples of language that “defy the principles of modern syntactic theory” she offers up empirical evidence that language predates those principles.
Note, however, that Piattelli-Palmarini is talking about “a language of thought,” embracing Chomsky’s proposal that language evolved first as a tool of thought rather than communication. I don’t know what they would say about the comment that Progovac’s verb + noun compounds were conceptually “quite elaborate.” Elaborate, asyntactical concepts imply that thought does not need wiring for syntax after all.
Controversy over gesture-first hypothesis
There was a whole panel on the idea that language began as a gesture-only system and later added linguistic vocalizations. The two main presentations on the conference’s first day both favored this position (see: Protolanguage Builds on Mimicry and Protolanguage was Symbolic). The chief argument is simple: ape gestures are voluntary while their vocalizations are not. Yet I confess to remaining unpersuaded. First, it replaces one hard thing with another. We still have all the problems of the speech triangle and how a communication system of control and hierarchy maintenance became a system of exchanging information about a topic. If it was done initially by gestures, we still have to further explain how a system of vocalization became the species-default medium.
Next, speech itself is not just an oral medium. It uses voice, gesture, and facial expressions. At the Barcelona conference last year Susan Goldin-Meadow gave a wonderful presentation on how speakers use gesture. She showed a film of all sorts of pantomiming gestures, topped with a sequence in which a blind woman used very clear gestures while giving directions on how to get somewhere. Sign-language users apparently must forgo the pantomime for syntactical accuracy and use their hands in a more formal way. I’m not sure how sign-language users make up for this reduction of pantomime gesture and would welcome input on the subject.
Also, voice itself is a two dimensional medium. One dimension uses the words and syntax that are found in language’s written form. But there is a whole other dimension, generally just called “tone of voice,” that is not put into the written form but is crucial to speech. It’s this tone that makes sarcasm immediately understood when spoken, while sarcastic writing is frequently taken literally. Some of this tone, barking for example, clearly traces all the way back to animal communications, but much of it is peculiar to humans. I have long suspected that the tone dimension is older than the word/syntax one because when the two dimensions contradict we seem to naturally trust the tone, although logically there is no reason to favor one over the other. This notion is supported by the way tone of voice comes in so much earlier in infant speech than words and syntax.
Even so, this is an area of energetic dispute and it is best not to be too dogmatic about it.
Protolanguage arose at about the time of first Homo or last Australopithecus
Terrence Deacon’s presentation included a strong argument for why the relatively recent date (c. 100,000 years ago) for language origins favored by many archaeologists is unlikely. In my own case I did not need much persuading, having left the Barcelona conference 18 months ago with the sense that the empirical evidence makes it almost certain that speech existed half a million or even 800 thousand years ago. I still see the hundred or even sixty thousand year date from time to time in the popular press, but that means nothing.
Nature of protolanguage uncertain
As it stands, protolanguage is a concept, a likely one based on the way evolution normally works. There seemed very little agreement on what protolanguage was like. It all depends on what you think language is. Protolanguage then becomes an early version of the full pie. It seems to me that the work of the protolanguage concept may be done and it is time to put the term aside. It was useful for hammering the big-bang theory of language leaping full-blown from the head of some recent Homo sapiens, but now protolanguage is beginning to look a bit anti-evolutionary itself. Prototypes are early versions that set the standards for later ones, but the concept of a type is Platonic rather than Darwinian. Protolanguages were not early versions of what we’ve got today, they were their own thing, evolved to serve the purposes of their day. We should keep in mind the great theme of Stephen Jay Gould’s work: evolution is not a synonym for progress. Language went through many changes. We naturally think of them as stages to the glory that is us, but let’s not load the deck any further than we already have by calling some earlier form of human activity a proto-anything.