The Evolutionary Emergence of Language
Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 2000
Online Publication Date:November 2009
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511606441.018
Subjects: Linguistic anthropology
No account of how human language originated should ignore two fundamental contextualising questions: how was communication achieved before? and what, precisely, is ‘human language’ anyway? Both of these apply, irrespective of one's views on whether full human language was qualitatively the same as or different from its precursors, and/or whether it appeared suddenly or evolved gradually into its current state. While much of what has been written recently takes some account of what human language might have evolved out of, I think that many problems arise from a general misconception about what full human language consists of today. The position that seems to be taken is the one represented in Figure 17.1. It is generally accepted that primates communicate using highly effective, though limited, holistic noise/gesture systems in which any given ‘utterance’ with a meaning takes its identity from the whole, not the sum of meaning-laden parts. Full human language, on the other hand, is standardly portrayed as an analytic, grammar-based system. This leaves protolanguage as the forum for the entire transition, one which entails the appearance of arbitrary phonetic representation, lexical reference, phrase structure and morphology. Consequently, there is an uneasy relationship between, on the one hand, the dynamism that needs to be invoked in order to bridge the gap within what is, for some, a very narrow time window, and, on the other, the level of stability that we might prefer to associate with the success of day-to-day interaction over a lengthy period of, relatively speaking, cultural and intellectual stagnation (Gowlett 1992: 353; Mithen 1996: 116).