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

« Riding A Two-Horse Shay | Main | Babel’s Dawn Turns Four »



I only browsed through the document but I didn't really understand how she dealt with Ann Mac Larnon and Gwen Hewitt's (1999, 2004)findings on thoracic vertebral enervation hypothesis which enabled the fine respiratory control necessary for extended speech or song form of complex proto-song as Fitch (2010: 335) argues. See seems to discuss it favourably but doesn't seem to adress their finding that this change must have occured before the split between modern humans and neanderthals somewhere in the 300-400kya margin, which seems to fly in the face of her argument. When writing about NEanderthals, She states that "It appears that the descent of the larynx
was not part of the developmental pathway for ancestral hominids,
casting doubt on their ability to maintain spoken language"(p. 92). But she doesn't seem to mention the work of Fitch and others showing the high flexibility of the larnyx in vocalizing animals, indicating that "even the earliest vocalizing hominids could attain a vocal tract configuration adequate for producing many clear, comprehensible phonemes by simply doing what all mammals do: reconfiguring the vocal anatomy while vocalizing." Fitch 2010: p. 317)
Again I only browsed through the document, but IMO these are important counter-arguments to her position that should be discussed

David Fried

I entirely agree that language in some form must be as old as genus Homo, but I'm mystified by your statement that:

"First comes control of vocalization, then comes development of vocabulary and syntax. Why not have them coevolve? Probably there was some overlap, but if vocalization was not already well under control when speech began it probably would not have been useful enough to persist."

Of what possible use was the fine control of vocalization before speech began to evolve? This seems to me to be an almost unanswerable argument for language coming first, in the form of sign. You have repeatedly noted the significance and uniqueness of the human interest in directing the attention of others--and that begins with pointing. One can imagine an ever more precise and syntactical gestural language accompanied, as you say, by babbling and/or musical vocalization; a developing association between sound and sign; and sound eventually becoming primary. The evident advantages associated with that shift would drive the evolution of ever finer vocal control. Without some such scenario I just can't see any reason why human articulation should evolve.

I really mean this as a question. Can you point me to some discussion of this issue?
BLOGGER: I love getting passionately felt , informed comments like this one and expect to dedicate my book to the commenters on this blog. Pre-linguistic vocalizations are not widely discussed, but they are not completely ignored either. My first clue pointing me in the direction of vocalization preceding words came from John Lock and Barry Bogin’s great paper “Language and Life History.” Almost four years ago I reported, “They propose an unusual selection mechanism, parental selection. Normally, parents do what they can with what they’ve got although sometimes they ignore the runt of the litter. But in cases where mothers give birth to only one live infant at a time they have little choice. Humans infants, however, are unusually dependent for a long time, leaving them subject to the dangers of negligence and abusive anger. To lessen these risks, it is in the infants’ interest to strengthen the bond between infant and parent.

This strengthening is accomplished by children’s soft vocalizations, babbling coocoo, mama, bobo, etc. With these sounds they catch and hold a parent’s attention without making demands of the sort that crying imposes. This process resulted in the evolution of a species with greater vocal flexibility than is found in other primates.

These soft vocalizations can “trickle-up” from infant to parent. Although we usually think of infants imitating their care-takers, it often works the other way around as well, with the mother imitating the baby. “One reason they do this may be to control their infant’s attention. … [One study found] that infants ‘pay special attention … when the mothers themselves imitate an action which the child has just performed.’” (p. 266) Thus these baby sounds can trickle-up to the parents and become regular features of vocabulary; it is the baby who is the instrument of evolutionary change.”

Dean Falk’s book “Finding Our Tongues” is also very good on pre-verbal vocalizations. She notes for example that motherese is universal in pre-linguistic speech, but not in meaningful speech.

I confess to a bias in this field because long ago I wrote a book, “So Much to Say,” about the language of children from birth to age five. That project impressed me greatly with the importance of pre-verbal vocalizations.

I don’t think I’m contradicting my own very strong opinion in insisting on the importance of the speech triangle. On the contrary, pre-linguistic vocalizations are crucial for developing joint attention.

Also, let’s not forget the empirical data. Louse DNA indicates a massive loss of body hair 3.3 mya, but Homo didn’t appear and start cooperating for another half-million years at least. They had to have some way of maintaining the old social bonds during that long period.

David Fried

Thanks, and I'll be following up on the sources you mention, as well as looking forward to your book.

As I believe I once mentioned here in another context, my views on these issues were heavily influenced by an unusual experience--watching (only intermittently, alas--we live far apart) my goddaughter, who is profoundly deaf, acquire first ASL and then reasonably good English speech. What was unusual was that Nelly spent the first five years of her life in a Bulgarian orphanage, isolated from other deaf children, and without any instruction in either sign or speech. (In the brief time I was there I never even witnessed any "home sign.") These days American and I assume other First-World deaf children who can be helped by cochlear implants receive them in infancy.

I went along on the trip to Bulgaria fearing a "Miracle Worker" experience--a prolonged inability to associate signs with objects or categories. In fact Nelly's understanding of the association of new ASL signs like "bread" or "airplane" with the objects/categories they represent, and her ability to use them productively, was instantaneous. (I begin to wonder whether the "water, water" scene in the "Miracle Worker" wasn't BS.)

Nelly received a cochlear implant at 5 but it was not properly tuned and functioning until she was well past her sixth birthday. Again I anticipated that she might never acquire proper English grammar and syntax, the alleged "window" for such acquisition having largely closed; she's only 11 now, and isn't quite there yet, but so far my concerns seem unfounded. This is particularly interesting because I am told that Nelly's command of ASL grammar and syntax is imperfect, almost certainly because of inadequate exposure to fully competent native signers where she lives.
BLOGGER: Thanks for that report.

(and I too suspect that Helen Keller story about water was baloney, although Keller does tell it. Walker Percy began his mediations on language with that scene, which I always thought was a mistake.)


What reason is there to doubt Helen Keller's 'water' story? It has practically nothing to do with associating signs with categories. She would have been able to do that, and use some speech, when she lost her hearing at 19 months. By the time of the water incident she already knew and used a number of signs.
Finally, Anne wasn't signing, she was fingerspelling words.
aye tee ess see oh em pea ell ee tea ee ell why dee eye eff eff ee are ee en tea.
BLOGGER: The Helen Keller story is quite amazing, so full of astonishing things that nothing can be dismissed on the grounds of sounding dubious or melodramatic. At the same time, the water story is particularly melodramatic, and I would be cautious in trying to build an argument from it the way Walker Percy did.

Susan J Lanyon

You might find this article useful ...

Hairlesness fits in well with a sudden emergence of an neotenous human.



Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Bookmark and Share

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Visitor Data

Blog powered by Typepad