“Bodily mimesis” (i.e., using one’s body for mimicry or representation) provided the social and cognitive prerequisites for the emergence of protolanguage, linguist Jordan Zlatev from Lund University in Sweden, told an audience today in the keynote address that began a three-day conference on protolanguage in Torun, Poland. When Derek Bickerton first proposed a protolanguage in 1990 the idea was to account for language by providing an intermediary step without requiring some leap “so vast and abrupt that evolutionary theory would be hard put to account for it.” But now we know so much more about the differences between ape and human abilities that we need to find a way to account for the leap from speechlessness to the protolanguage level.
To prove his point that protolanguage requires preparation Zlatev showed a slide listing the difference between animal communication and language:
- Animal communications are genetically controlled while language is learned from experience.
- Animal communications are automatic while speech is voluntary. (Note: chimpanzee gestures do appear to be under voluntary control.)
- Animal communications depend on a particular stimulus while speech is independent of context. (Note: chimpanzee gestures can be made in a variety of contexts.)
- Animal communications produce a fixed response while responses to language are flexible.
- Animal communications have a two-way relationship (signaler, respondent) while language uses a speech triangle (speaker, listener, topic).
- Animal communications have little to no grammatical organization while language has a highly developed syntax.
After presenting this valuable list, Zlatev produced a list of the differences between animal communications and protolanguage. Except for the last item about syntax the two lists were identical. All of these other traits which distinguish language also distinguish animal communications from protolanguage (which in Zlatev’s presentation appears to match the language of about a 24-month-old human child). Zlatev asserted that “there is no plausible evolutionary scenario according to which language could ‘evolve’ from animal signaling,” and that “even present-day theorists of innate Universal Grammar require some ‘broad’ pre-adaption or prerequisites.” Quoting Merlin Donald, Zlatev said, “There are fundamentals missing from the primate mind, without which protolanguages could not emerge.”
So where did the prerequisites of protolanguage come from, if they were not already present in the last common ancestor of the human and chimpanzee/bonobo lineages? Agreeing with Donald, Zlatev points to “mimesis”: mime, gesture, imitation. A familiar example of mimesis is pointing to indicate something. Another example might be a slashing motion with the hand, indicating how to chip at a stone, converting it into a cutting device.
The simplest form of mimesis is imitation. For example, an infant seeing a mother smile at it, will smile back. A baby seeing someone stick out a tongue repeats the gesture. Young chimpanzees also imitate their elders. Zlatev’s presentation began with a picture of a man pulling on his mouth and a young chimpanzee doing the same thing. This kind of imitative action
- Connects external perception (seeing) with internal perception (body awareness).
- Is voluntary and imitative but at the same time is differentiated from the action we imitate.
- The performer of the action intends it to be understood as standing for something else.
These conditions are not met by the original mimetic actions—e.g., seeing mama smile and smiling back—but develop out of those basic imitations. At least they develop that way among humans. Among chimpanzees basic imitation fades away as the apes grow older. Among human infants the linkage of external and internal perceptions leads into voluntary control of mimetic actions, but not among chimpanzees. (This claim has to be carefully understood. Chimpanzees do make voluntary gestures such as patting the body of another or slapping the ground to catch attention. But these gestures are not mimetic, i.e., do not require linking external and internal perceptions.)
Zlatev, thus, traces the divergence between chimpanzee and human development to what he calls “dyadic mimesis,” the stage where voluntary, representative actions appear. An example of it might be an infant who plays pat-a-cake with its mother. The activity is imitative and voluntary, requiring joint attention.
Zlatev makes the interesting point that protolanguage itself, that is language at the level of a 24-month old, can be leaned by “enculturated” apes who have been raised and trained by humans. So the problem in development is not in intelligence but socialization and motivation.
Bodily mimes, Zlatev thus proposes, develops the imitative, joint attention, and triangular relationship that supports protolanguage. Apes do not go through this process and thus, even when they are taught protolanguage, are not able to use protolanguage creatively, or find new uses for it, or think with it, or tell any kind of story with it.