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The wrong way to understand the origin of human language

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From “Monkey Lip Smacks Provide New Insights Into the Evolution of Human Speech” (ScienceDaily, May 31, 2012), we learn:

New research published in Current Biology by W. Tecumseh Fitch, Head of the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, supports the idea that human speech evolved less from vocalizations than from communicative facial gestures.

Intriguingly, chimpanzees also make communicative sounds with their lips, including both loud lip smacks and lip buzzes (“raspberries”). These lip gestures appear to be under voluntary control, and can be learned (unlike hoots or grunts). Similarly, orangutans can learn to whistle: again a sound produced using the lips and tongue, rather than the larynx.

Together, these data from our primate cousins support the idea that the origins of speech might be found in an evolutionary combination of “traditional” phonation (sounds produced by the vocal cords, in the larynx) with rapid, learned movements of the vocal tract, which have stronger similarities to primate facial signals than to their innate calls. But the origin of the “singing” component of speech, which requires voluntary control over the larynx, remains mysterious.

This theory gets us somewhere only if we redefine the problem. That is, if we focus away from complexity of human thought and language and toward which techniques were chosen first.

That’s somewhat like trying to understand the history of pictorial art solely in terms of whether ochre or charcoal came first. Or petroglyphs.

Of course it would be possible to construct a language from lip smacking. A number of human languages make use of clicks, and American Sign Language demonstrates that it can be done with the hands alone. Some totally paralyzed people have communicated using only the wink of an eye.

The fact is, monkeys never did construct a language through lip smacking, but humans have constructed languages using a variety of body parts. Why monkeys can’t and didn’t, and humans can and did is the scope of the problem. It’s probably not resolvable in a materialist paradigm, in which researchers are condemned to go on looking for distinctions that make no difference.

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3 Replies to “The wrong way to understand the origin of human language

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    So they are again saying communication by using sounds came before there was something to say!
    Was there a long period of half-way there pretty good language ish while waiting for primates to get smarter?

    Language is simply a aspect of expressing our thoughts.
    it is our thoughts that separates us from animals.
    We think like mini Gods. Not god but rather close as we are made in his image.

    Our languages are just segregated combinations of sounds.
    We do just use sounds to talk but we are so excellent and have so much to say with such complexity that the sounds are very organized.
    Primates could talk as they have the tools but never will as they are dumb animals and not mankind.

    As children we quickly have so much to say and simply quickly see sounds being put into combinations and so we have our words in the agreed(language) sequences of our people.

    Yes its about sounds but its about the complexity of the sounds because of the complexity of our thoughts.

    evolutionism can’t beat this.
    its impossible to have had a primitive language for man becaudse of what skill we now have.

  2. 2
    Barb says:

    Behind our prefrontal cortex is a strip stretching across the head—the motor cortex. It contains billions of neurons that connect with our muscles. It too has features that contribute to our being far different from apes or other animals. The primary motor cortex gives us “(1) an exceptional capability to use the hand, the fingers, and the thumb to perform highly dexterous manual tasks, and (2) use of the mouth, lips, tongue, and facial muscles to talk.”—Guyton’s Textbook of Medical Physiology.

    Over half of it is devoted to the organs of communication. This helps to explain the unparalleled communication skills of humans. Though our hands play a role in communication (in writing, normal gestures, or sign language), the mouth usually plays the major part. Human speech—from a baby’s first word to the voice of an elderly person—is unquestionably a marvel. Some 100 muscles in the tongue, lips, jaw, throat, and chest cooperate to produce countless sounds. Note this contrast: One brain cell can direct 2,000 fibers of an athlete’s calf muscle, but brain cells for the voice box may concentrate on only 2 or 3 muscle fibers. Does that not suggest that our brain is specially equipped for communication?

    The actual information needed to ask the simple question, “How are you today?” is stored in a part of your brain’s frontal lobe called Broca’s area, which some consider to be your speech center. Nobel laureate neuroscientist Sir John Eccles wrote: “No area corresponding to the . . . speech area of Broca has been recognized in apes.” Even if some similar areas are found in animals, the fact is that scientists cannot get apes to produce more than a few crude speech sounds. You, though, can produce complicated language. To do so, you put words together according to the grammar of your language. Broca’s area helps you do that, both in speaking and in writing.

    We might ponder: ‘Why do humans have this marvelous skill to communicate thoughts and feelings, to inquire and to respond?’ The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics states that “[human] speech is special” and admits that “the search for precursors in animal communication does not help much in bridging the enormous gap that separates language and speech from nonhuman behaviors.” Professor Ludwig Koehler summarized the difference: “Human speech is a secret; it is a divine gift, a miracle.”

  3. 3
    Robert Byers says:

    They are wrong.
    Human speech is not a marvel or a secret or a miricle.
    Its a ordinary mechanism all creatures have.
    the marvel is the thinking being behind the speech.
    Not the brain machine.
    All that you said is that our thoughts are connected to this machine and then produce speech.
    What your trying to force as a conclusion is speech is a part anf from the brain.
    It isn’t.
    its from our intelligence in minor ways controling our body to produce sounds.

    Speech is just segregated combinations of sounds.
    We simply are so good that it seems like a result of a brain doing it for us.
    its not.
    Animals and primates probably could talk but simply are too dumb to organize their sounds or have anything to say.
    We are made in Gods image and think like mini Gods.
    Don’t look at the machine but the guy in the machine for explaining human uniqueness.

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