Blog Rating

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

« The Laws of Evolving Animal Communications | Main | Brains and Vocalization »


J. Goard

Depending upon what precisely is meant by "symbols", (5) -- or (4) with "signs" in place of "symbols" -- could have preceded (1). Consider something like the nominal classifiers of ASL:

Make a [1] handshape (index finger extended) with your right hand, and a [bent-V] handshape (index and middle finger curved down halfway) with your left. Man and (terrestrial) animal. Now move your hands to the left. Man chasing animal, animal running away. This would satisfy (4) and (5), but the nominal signs are largely iconic and used to express a transitive action iconically.

A lot can get done with iconic signs and pointing/attention-directing devices, even transitivity and verbal aspect. "Chasing for a long time" could be indicated by repeating the motion many times, together with an iconic facial expression such as panting, and so on.

With this pattern established, some later innovator might put two index fingers against his head like horns, and immediately make the animal classifier, to show what kind of beast he's talking about. He might hit his chest, or point to another another person, before making the human classifier. Or after the horn sign, somebody might extend thier arms to convey its size, and so on. This might even be the beginning of phrase structure (6), as the iconic size sign might conventionally come to be made after the iconic animal sign, and this constituent before the action with the animal classifier.

As you suggest, none of the above story implies anything like (3) (in the sense of "phonology" applicable to modern sign languages, i.e. same handshape, motion, or position used in multiple semantically unrelated symbols). Nor does it imply (2), since a large lexicon could have developed gradually well after (4), (5), and (6) were well established. Indeed, basic grammatical constructions may very well have provided a kind of scaffolding from which observers could deduce newly encountered symbols. (I was with X when he caught a certain kind of monkey. Now he's using the chase-catch pattern with others who weren't there, but he's preceding it with a sign I've never seen before. Hmm...)

I find this to be a much better story than one wherein hominids developed a vast number of arbitrary sound-meaning pairings for isolated referents, and then later figured out how to put them together systematically. Naturally, I don't claim a high degree of certainty. All I say is that there is a substantial plausibility gap.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Bookmark and Share

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Visitor Data

Blog powered by Typepad