Back when this blog was starting out I reported on a paper given by Judy Kegl (now Judy Shepard-Kegl) at a conference in South Africa. Kegl is an expert on sign language and had observed a new sign language emerge at a school for the deaf in Nicaragua. She listed four innate qualities that lead to language: (1) love of rhythm or prosody, (2) a taste for mirroring (imitation), (3) an appetite for linguistic competence, and (4) the wish to be like one’s peers. I found this an interesting and plausible list and have wondered why I don’t see more references to it. Rereading that old post has made the silence more comprehensible. It is entirely human and childish and has nothing to do with computation, or syntax, or conditioning.
The scene it brings to my mind is of a playground during class recess. The kids are lined up playing jump rope, chanting their rhymes as the rope twirls. Dashing in, making their leaps and dashing off. It is non-serious, but recognizably human. Other animals rough-house and tumble together but they do not form rhythmic play groups. We are too pompous to look to playgrounds for information about our own natures.I was reminded of that old post when I read a paper by Wendy Sandler, “What comes first in language emergence?” which is included in a volume entitled Dependencies in Language. She offers the following provocative sentence:
The pattern of emergence we see [in sign languages] suggests that the central properties of language that are considered universal—phonology and autonomous syntax—do not come ready-made in the human brain, and that a good deal of language can be present without clear evidence of them. [page 65]
She explains that in established sign languages, words do have a “phonological” structure. That is a set of ways of holding the hand and using the face and body to create and differentiate words. She offers this example from Israeli sign language. The signs for send and tattle call for the same hand gesture, but one is held away from the body and the other is close to the mouth. The spatial location is the equivalent of a spoken distinction between cattle and rattle. One phoneme makes all the difference. There are also body movements that achieve the same effect as intonation. Established sign languages have a clear duality of patterning, i.e., a level of repeated signs that are meaningless in themselves but gain meaningful when combined in agreed upon ways.
A recently developed sign language, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) shows that the first signers did not have these “phonemes” from the beginning. Even now when the first signers are old they still use only hands to make words and do not make distinctions based on location or body movements. A dictionary of 300 signs in ABSL fails to show any “evidence of a discrete, systematic meaningless level of structure.”  Among the youngest signers, however, indications of phonemes have begun to appear, not so much to differentiate between words as to make articulation of a word easier. I must comment, however, that ease of articulation may vary by culture. I was always taught that we said an apple instead of a apple, because it is easier to say if you slip a consonant between the two vowels. Then I found myself trying to explain the rule to Swahili speakers where double vowels are routinely articulated as two consecutive sounds with no consonant in between. So the issue of ease of articulation suggests to me that some culture-bound norms may be making their way into ABSL. But this is beside the main point which is that a language at the beginning needn’t have a meaningless layer. It might start with whole words.
This suggestion is a radical departure from standard linguistics which puts phonology at the base of the pyramid supporting a language and meaning up at the top. At the same time, it may not surprise parents whose children start saying individual words long before they master the rules of pronunciation. I can even look back on my own Swahili training which had me uttering phrases right away, even when sound system was so baffling I had a hard time just repeating a new polysyllabic word. So Sandler’s position is simultaneously radical yet not surprising.
After words we get syntax and prosody (intonation, timing and stress). Classical linguistics puts syntax before prosody but Sandler says in ABSL prosody came first. The earliest signers had no way of expressing complex sentences but put a pause between one or two-word phrases. By now the signs are much more complex, but the kind of syntax that imposes a Chomskyan structure on sentences has yet to appear. So once again Sandler finds the reverse of the linguists’ expectations. Although again I don’t suppose many parents will be surprised. Children don’t start using syntax until age 3, but tones of voice and intonation are immediately apparent.
We have to be cautious about these arguments. It is not immediately clear that signing and speech follow the same path. Children make many meaningless sounds before they start using words and our remote ancestors may have babbled for a million years before they got around to forming words. A number of linguists, most prominently Dereck Bickerton, have studied the creation of creole languages. The initial vocabulary comes from an existing pidgin which combines words from multiple languages so there too we have words before phonology. I wonder what Bickerton would say about prosody before syntax.
The critical point is the commonsense one that from the beginning the effort of human communicators is to produce meaningful utterances. Meaning in the form of words comes before a settled phonology, and when words start appearing in strings, meaning again precedes any abstract structure. The idea that these findings could surprise anybody shows us how far linguistics strayed from the plausible when it decided to study structures first and meanings later.