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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

« Montreal Anyone? | Main | Emergent vs Localized Processes »


Uill Frasiel

Which came first the ability to
speak, or the physical ability
to hear spoken sound?

Homo heidelbergensis fossils
(Spain) from several hundred
years ago show they had the
change to the inner ear
bones, required to hear
the frequencies involved
in hearing speech.
BLOGGER: First, you meant several hundred thousand years ago. Heidelbergensis is generally data from 800 to 500 thousand years ago. Second, I would be very surprised to learn that ear and speech sounds did not co-evolve.

J. Goard

Something else I see missing here is discussion of the human capacity for iconicity. For example, we appear to be vastly superior to other animals at associating drawings, even crude sketches, with referents. (So much so that we usually don't realize what an amazing thing we're doing, as Magritte needed to point out for us.)

For this linguist, the key point in favor of a gestural origin is its vastly greater potential for iconicity:

Upright 1 handshape = person
Horizontal 1 = dead / sleeping person
Bent V = small animal
Y = bird
Upright V = animal with horns
Upright forearm = tree

Two hands to express transitivity (notice how hand-dominance plays a role in modern sign languages).

Manner of motion to express verbal aspect.

Many straightforwardly iconic relations (spatial prepositions, size comparison, possession).

There is nothing remotely resembling this kind of a bridge for speech. What potential for sound symbolism does exist appears ridiculously remote from the communicative needs of early language users, whereas iconic gestures go to the heart of those basic needs (viz. different natural kinds of cratures and objects, and how they physically interact).

This is the strongest argument for me, but, as you mentioned, it is augmented greatly by evidence from other apes.

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