skzbrust (skzbrust) wrote,

On the Origins of Language

I am presently reading Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade (The Peguin Press, 2006), which discusses human origins from the perspective of genetics.  Interesting stuff.

I'm now reading the chapter on the development of language.  On pp 41 we find: "Recently linguists have developed a new window into the innate basis of syntax..."  The innate basis of syntax.  In other words, he is arguing that syntax, grammar, are in some measure hard-wired into our brains.  And yet, his examples (p 42), which involve two spontaneously developed sign languages, are notable in that in one case (Al-Sayyid) the signers developed a specific word order (subject-object-verb), whereas in the other (Nicaragua) they developed "the sign equivalents of case endings for words.  Since these indicate whether a word is subject or object, word order is not so important and keeps changing..."

Okay, am I missing something?  It seems to me his examples refute his argument.

Further down (pp 43-45) there is discussion of the "Evolutionary Pressures for Language."  Two theories (so far) have been presented, and I love them both.  One (Dunbar) is that language took the place of grooming behavior, to cement and define social relations, and allowed for larger groups then physical grooming.  The other (Miller) is that, in short, we developed language skills so that men could woo women with their wit and eloquence.  "Language is a device that lets us learn about potential mates more thoroughly than any other method."

Any comments?  Both theories are, well, to use scientific terminology, a hoot.  Who likes which, or some third?  Just for the record, much as I like them, neither seems entirely convincing; it seems to me ever more complex social relations combined with ever more complex tools (fabrication and use thereof) is more reasonable.  But what do I know?

We also get a bit into the old question of whether we think in language.  I insist we do, and I will continue to redefine both "think" and "language" until I win.  But maybe that deserves its own post.
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded