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Where did language come from?

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Novelist Cormac McCarthy at Nautilus:

There are influential persons among us—of whom a bit more a bit later—who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness. Somewhat like vision, perhaps. But vision we now know is traceable to perhaps as many as a dozen quite independent evolutionary histories. Tempting material for the teleologists. These stories apparently begin with a crude organ capable of perceiving light where any occlusion could well suggest a predator. Which actually makes it an excellent scenario for Darwinian selection. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I dont know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.

So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didnt say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course they dont think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didnt precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old. They havent explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see. More.

It almost sounds as if awareness of some of the actual problems with off-the-shelf naturalist explanations is spreading.

On the other hand, another ridiculous explanation is up there, just waiting to be grabbed. How about an updated version of National Geographic: Bonobo peeps point to human language origin?

See also: Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness

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10 Replies to “Where did language come from?

  1. 1
    mahuna says:

    Before we speak words, we need a language in which to compose thoughts inside our heads. And of course Ma-ma and Da-da are sitting there holding us, staring into our eyes, and trying to get us to realize that Ma-ma and Da-da are “names” of individuals. Ma-ma is a different person than Da-da, which raises the need for a word in which to compose thoughts about humans as a group. And then puppy dogs as a group, and Barkey as an individual puppy in the class of all puppies.

    Etc., etc.

    Starting from the position that we have a band of 20 or so humans hunting and gathering together who do NOT use words to compose thoughts inside their heads is ridiculous.

    So, the most obvious thing is that when The Designer held the first infant human (who else would be available as a babysitter?), The Designer had already programmed Words as a class into that infant’s brain. And The Designer repeatedly spoke Words to the infant to help get the connections started. Since then, all Babysitters have spoken words to infants knowing that the infants can’t yet understand what the words mean, but also knowing that the infant will LEARN what the words mean, and thereby become a more useful member of the manpack.

    Human infants are pre-wired to identify and focus on Human Faces. And the infants’ eyes are originally set up focusing at 12 to 18 inches or so, the distance between a mother’s face and the infant’s face while the infant nurses. And what is more natural than for the mother to talk to the infant as if he or she was already a full member of the manpack, and for the infant to try to compose thoughts using the words Mother spoke and to try to babble those words back?

    Separating Speech from Thought is nonsense. Speech requires a fully functional “word processor” inside our heads, regardless of whether the specific vocabulary in which we become proficient is English or Swahili.

  2. 2
    EDTA says:

    These stories apparently begin with a crude organ capable of perceiving light where any occlusion could well suggest a predator.

    Not to pour cold water on an evolutionary tale, but an occlusion could represent predator or prey. And it will be crucial to distinguish the two. Make a mistake and you’re a nipped bud on the tree of life, pal.

  3. 3
    wd400 says:

    Separating Speech from Thought is nonsense. Speech requires a fully functional “word processor” inside our heads, regardless of whether the specific vocabulary in which we become proficient is English or Swahili..

    Interestingly enough, we know this is not true. When deaf children are brought up outside of a sign language culture and later learn language they can describe the thoughts they had when they had no language at all (and their surprise at learning words exist!)

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    WD400, did the deaf kids lack an internal capacity to develop and effect verbal language? What about Helen Keller — blind and deaf — and the issue of structured, distinctly identifiable concepts matched to whatever sensory suite she had access to thence ability to develop language and actually become an author-spokesperson? KF

  5. 5
    Origenes says:

    Where does language come from?

    Or rather, ‘what is doing the talking, right here and now?’ If naturalism is correct, then chemicals are. Chemicals happily involved in chemical processes and meanwhile, as an unintended by-product, producing scientific papers, books, movies and forum posts.
    And nowhere in these chemical processes is there any concern about logic, meaning, coherence or even language rules. Chemicals do not care about any of that. And even if they did, no chemical would have the power to force e.g. a logical conclusion on chemical processes.

  6. 6
    jdk says:

    to wd400 @ 4. That’s interesting. If you’re still around, do you have a source so I can read about this? I have some thoughts (with and perhaps without words) about this, and would be interested in reading stories and accounts of what you mention.

  7. 7
    wd400 says:

    Hi JDK,

    There is a quite famous book about one case. There are a lot of more technical works on sign languages invented by deaf children (who were not introduced to another language), and other case studies out there too.

  8. 8
    jdk says:

    Thanks – that looks interesting. I see that the forward is by Oliver Sacks, and I’m an Oliver Sacks fan.

  9. 9
    kairosfocus says:

    News, the evidence of coded text in DNA shows that language — and indeed computer programming also — should be reckoned as older than cell based biological life on Earth. KF

  10. 10
    Pearlman says:

    we had complex language from the get go (Adam named the family/orders of animals) and language devolved by the dispersion from Babel
    reference The origins of the Speeches by Mozeson and the recent complex creation framework

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