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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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John Roth

Something has been puzzling me about this for some time. Protolanguage seems like too course a concept: Darwin famously said that evolution proceeds by small steps, and protolanguage seems to posit two giant steps: first protolanguage, then full language.

Another thing that I seem to be missing: discussion on how language works in the brain. It seems fairly obvious that if someone says: "there's a rabbit to your left," that there must be a connection that lets me associate "left" with a location in my personal space so I can turn my head in that direction.

I remember seeing some diagrams of connections puzzled out by tensor diffusion MRI, and how there are fewer in chimps than in humans, and even fewer in macques. Getting back to Darwin, it seems rather obvious that these connections would have appeared via random mutation and then been valuable enough to be fixed by selection.

Is anyone addressing this?

John Roth
BLOGGER: There is extensive work going on in trying to understand (a) the role of the brain in language use and (b) the differences between human and ape brains. From time to time this blog reports on some of their findings. You might also be interested in a blog (neuroanthropology,net) that tracks the relationship between brain and culture.

Derek Bickerton

There seems to be some misunderstanding here. I never ever saw protolanguage as a TYPE. Quite obviously it couldn't have been a type , since it must have started with a mere handful of units and increased those numbers, perhaps quite considerably, before morphing into something more like the languages of today. Whether it added structure, and if so, how much or of what kind, remain open questions. So obviously protolanguage evolved, and very gradually too, over maybe as much as 2my. I also fail to see much sense in the claim that the protolanguage concept has lost its usefulness and it's time to throw it away. To replace it with what? Nothing? In that case we're back to square one. Something? Well, what? What could be more informative about the stages language must have gone through before it became true language? You run the risk of turning attention away from the most crucial (and unresolved) issue of all--how anything remotely resembling language ever got started. For a clearer understanding of all these issues, you should really read "Adam's Tongue"--which I don't think was ever reviewed on this site, or was it?
BLOGGER:Thanks for making a point I should have made. The notion of protolanguage as a type was not in the original concept, but seems to have slipped in (implicitly only) with other users of the idea. At this point I think the protolanguage concept has gotten people away from the notion that language appeared as a fait accompli with no serious evolutionary steps. For that the idea has done good work.. Dr. Bickerton says, "I also fail to see much sense in the claim that the protolanguage concept has lost its usefulness and it's time to throw it away. To replace it with what? Nothing? In that case we're back to square one." But I don't think we're back to square one. We are saying language began at a much simpler level than it did today and that it slowly evolved into the many languages we see today. We will always speak of stages, but we should not take the stages too literally because we can always insert more stages inbetween. It is not literally like a geometric curve in which there are an infinite number of points along the line, but there are too many for us to ever identify fully.

As for Adam's Tongue, I did review it, a bit skeptically, despite the fact that I was never sent a review copy: see: 1, 2, 3. I also reviewed, very favorably I think, Bastard Tongues, here.

James Harrod

Dr. Bolles,

Thanks for making available information on the Protolanguage conference. I look forward to reading all the material you have put on line.

I also went on line and read the conference programme.

As one who has been working on the reconstruction of protolanguage origins over the two million plus years of human evolution -- see my site for publications -- I am surprised (or not) that the conference presentations appear not to highlight the extensive research that has already taken place on actual reconstruction of 'protolanguage' (sensu lato). This includes (1) the reconstruction of macro-language families, such as Nostratic and Afro-asian; (2) attempts to work from macro-family reconstructions to their earliest form, sometimes called 'Global' or 'Proto-Sapiens'--see journals such as Mother Tongue, Santa Fe Institute, and numerous publications, including the brilliant work of Pierre Bancel and Alain Matthey de l'Etang reconstructing language of UP Europe kinship systems as of the Crow-Omaha type; (3) reconstructions of root stems of a global 'primordial language' based on phememic analysis by the anthropologist-linguist Mary LeCron Foster; and (4) my own research over last twenty years reconstructing the semantics of the European Upper Paleolithic geometric signs as 'movement-forms' along with its phememic correspondences for reconstructing an oral UP language (publications on

Without taking into account such reconstructions and their methods there is no verification check against the random speculations on language origins, which have been going on for centuries.

From my own and these other researches it appears that hominid language has been evolving since at least Homo habilis. My research indicates that 'dual patterning' (arbitrariness of signifier/signified relation, Saussure), a feature of most all current languages, arose gradually and crystallized with 'Proto-sapiens', while, earlier phememic and gesture movement-form protolanguage elements and systems survived alongside of the early dual patterned language(s).

I look forward to reading more about the Conference, and will be looking especially to see if any of their findings support or require revision of the aforementioned reconstructions.

James Harrod
BLOGGER: Thanks for all that. Just one thing, don't call me Doctor.

Jesus Sanchis

Mr Bolles, thank you very much for your detailed account of the Torun Conference. It seems that the concept of proto-language has been one of the burning issues in that conference, and it will probably continue to be so in the near future.

James Harrod has introduced another concept: 'proto-languages', in plural, i.e. the reconstruction of imaginary linguistic ancestors from the evidence of current or ancient languages. Personally, I think the whole idea of reconstructing proto-languages is basically impossible. Nostratic, as a super-family, is also a super-abstraction of proto-languages, which are mere abstractions.

Now, going back to 'proto-language', in singular, I'm also quite sceptical about this concept. A 'proto-language' is supposed to be different from 'language', that's why some scholars prefer to use the term. And if it's not 'language', then what is it? Is it not 'language' or is it not what many linguists of today and many linguists of the last couple of centuries, or even from earlier times, expected? Are we discussing the 'language' of humans or the 'language' of Chomsky or Saussure?

Mr Bickerton talks about "true language". What is this true language? 'Language' as we know it today? He also suggests something interesting: "it must have started with a mere handful of units and increased those numbers, perhaps quite considerably, before morphing into something more like the languages of today". I agree with him. I think language must have started with a few nouns and a few imperatives, and little more. The increase in vocabulary, in both the nominal and verbal sides of language, and the development of more varied ways of expressing notions such as time and space, must have put human language in a critical position: how can you possibly handle an ever increasing number of nomina and verba and of linguistic variabiblity? Can you just memorise the whole set, or is it not just easier if you do what humans have always done: use logic? I think 'grammar' is just a logical response to the increase in size of human language. There's nothing special about recursion or parameters; they are examples of a human response to a given problem. Grammar as we imagine it (or the 'true language' that some linguists talk about) is an additional tool, a necessary solution that makes language (a communicative tool in itself) apt for social use: rather than having an unlimited number of nouns, verbs and functions, humans have implemented a series of patterns using analogy and logic. There's no need for an LAD or for any intrinsic linguistic rules or mechanisms.


The terminology is still in flux, but a clear distinction exists between non-linguistically organized Pantomime and Co-Speech Gesture. With linguistic organization, the gestural components of Pantomime have two options. One is to reorganize and become subordinated to (not replaced by) the lexical items that make up syntactic structures. This first option yields the multi-media speech plus CSG, illustrated by the blind woman, that is the species-specific default.

The other option, in visual languages, is to grammaticalize into lexical items. This monomedia second option yields lexical items that share the same visual medium as the co-occurring gestural elements. They easily incorporate into syntactic structures of various types, even individual signs, so there is no reduction in semantic content.


Uzza, if you can, I would appreciate you taking the trouble to expand on the content of your comment (and maybe use slight less technical language). I find the distinction interesting but just out of reach. Thank you.


Sure: however you call it you got your pantomime, which is just acting stuff out, and you got the kind of gestures people make when they talk, which is organized all different, and I called that CSG. When people talk they still gesture but it's CSG, not pantomime. Even if you're blind you still point and stuff, cuz spoken language ain't just sounds, see, it's multi-media!

Or, in sign language, instead of pantomime you got signed words, but you still got gestures. You make them both with your hands, so it's easy to mix them together. You can even have signs that are part word and part gesture, and you don't lose nothing. Like your sentence can use the sign for airplane gesturing how to fly around. That help?


The way I have looked at it for years is as follows. There are at least 4 types of gesture and we use them all, all the time and all mixed up. (1) there is illustration gestures - like mime or drawing a picture in the air (2) there are emotion gestures - similar to facial expressions and given without much consciousness - example the palm up 'I'm vulnerable' gesture (3) there are symbolic gestures used like words - very culturally conventional, with dialects, and when used with speech there is often a pause in the speech while the gesture is made, the extreme would be sign language (4) there are rhythmic gestures used to synchronize the speaker and listener - like a conductor's baton beating out the beat so that we are all together.
All these types are important to communication and so integrated into spoken language that it is actually difficult to speak naturally with your hands tied. We do not communicate with just our tongues or just our hands or just language - we communication with our whole beings.
Does this fit with how you view the separation of pantomime and gesture? I don't see why you put all gestures together in CSG and leave out just only pantomime.


We're using different typologies. ☺ Let gesture = any movements of the face, hands, body. In the absence of language, the pattern of organization these gestures exhibit is that of pantomime. When used with or as language these same gestures exhibit different patterns of organization. When used with speech, the pattern is that of CSG. With signed languages something similar occurs.

EBB states that sign languages reorganize the gestures of pantomime into a more formal way of usage. I agree but question his assumption that this is a reduction. Some components of pantomime reorganize to become the lexical items and syntactic structures of sign language. Other components retain their pantomimic organization, and these are incorporated into the former so that there is no reduction.


So what does it mean sign language users “forgo pantomime for syntactic accuracy”? Doesn't all language use do that, by definition?

It's not just the hands that are used in a more formal way, it's the entire body particularly the face. Eyegaze establishes the speech triangle by indicating a speaker, speakee, and topic. (Vygotsky needn't run out in the street to point out an oncoming bus, thanks to our much-lauded sclera) Add a predicate, such as the easily pantomimed “coming” and you have a sentence consisting of a topic and a comment.

Imposing linguistic constraints on those pantomimed gestures (e.g. coordinate the hands with the vocal tract) modifies them to yield syntactic accuracy. For speech, phonological rules shape the speech gestures of the vocal tract, leaving manual gestures to express the co-occurring pantomime. For sign language, phonological rules convert certain aspects of the pantomime into well-formed non-manual grammatical signals (face) and manual lexical items (hands), leaving other aspects free to continue expressing pantomime.

When a baby points at her mother and says 'mama', in ASL, it's analyzed as a sentence: pronoun + adjectival predicate; in English, the hands and face are ignored and it's analyzed as a one-word utterance, with no syntax. May be the analyst is the only one forgoing pantomime?


BLOGGER: Maybe so. Not knowing ASL myself, I'm forced to rely on second-hand sources (so to speak).



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