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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

language origins: some reflections

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Jacinta: So a number of readings and listenings lately have caused us to think about how the advent of language would have brought about something of a revolution in human society – or any other society, here or on any other planet out there.

Canto: Yes, we heard about orangutan kiss-squeaks on a New Scientist podcast the other day, and we’re currently reading Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ extraordinary book Kindred, a thoroughly comprehensive account of Neanderthal culture, which we’ve clearly learned so much more about in recent decades. She hasn’t really mentioned language as yet (we’re a little over halfway through), but the complexity and sophistication she describes really brings the subject to mind. And of course there are cetacean and bird communications, inter alia. 

Jacinta: So how do we define a language?

Canto: Yeah, we need to define it in such a way that other creatures can’t have it, haha.

Jacinta: Obviously it evolved in a piece-meal way, hence the term proto-language. And since you mentioned orangutans, here’s a quote from a 2021 research paper on the subject:

Critically, bar humans, orangutans are the only known great ape to produce consonant-like and vowel-like calls combined into syllable-like combinations, therefore, presenting a privileged hominid model for this study.

And what was the study, you ask? Well, quoting from the abstract:

… we assessed information loss in proto-consonants and proto-vowels in human pre-linguistic ancestors as proxied by orangutan consonant-like and vowel-like calls that compose syllable-like combinations. We played back and re-recorded calls at increasing distances across a structurally complex habitat (i.e. adverse to sound transmission). Consonant-like and vowel-like calls degraded acoustically over distance, but no information loss was detected regarding three distinct classes of information (viz. individual ID, context and population ID). Our results refute prevailing mathematical predictions and herald a turning point in language evolution theory and heuristics.

Canto: So, big claim. So these were orangutan calls. I thought they were solitary creatures?

Jacinta: Well they can’t be too solitary, for ‘the world must be orangutan’d’, to paraphrase Shakespeare. And interestingly, orangutans are the most tree-dwelling of all the great apes (including us of course). And that means a ‘structurally complex habitat’, methinks.

Canto: So here’s an even more recent piece (December 2022)  from ScienceDaily:

Orangutans’ tree-dwelling nature means they use their mouth, lips and jaw as a ‘fifth hand’, unlike ground-dwelling African apes. Their sophisticated use of their mouths, mean orangutans communicate using a rich variety of consonant sounds.

Which is interesting in that they’re less close to us genetically than the African apes. So this research, from the University of Warwick, focused a lot on consonants, which until recently seemed quintessentially human productions. Researchers often wondered where these consonants came from, since African apes didn’t produce them. Their ‘discovery’ in orangutans has led, among other things, to a rethinking re our arboreal past.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s been a lot of focus recently on vowel and consonant formation, and the physicality of those formations, the muscles and structures involved.

Canto: Well in this article, Dr Adriano Lameira, a professor of psychology who has long been interested in language production, and has been studying orangutans in their natural habitat for 18 years, notes that their arboreal lifestyle and feeding habits have enabled, or in a sense forced, them to use their mouths as an extra appendage or tool. Here’s how Lameira puts it:

It is because of this limitation, that orangutans have developed greater control over their lips, tongue and jaw and can use their mouths as a fifth hand to hold food and manoeuvre tools. Orangutans are known for peeling an orange with just their lips so their fine oral neuro-motoric control is far superior to that of African apes, and it has evolved to be an integral part of their biology.

Jacinta: So they might be able to make more consonantal sounds, which adds to their repertoire perhaps, but that’s a long way from what humans do, putting strings of sounds together to make meaningful ‘statements’. You know, grammar and syntax.

Canto: Yes, well, that’s definitely going to the next level. But getting back to those kiss-squeaks I mentioned at the top, before we get onto grammar, we need to understand how we can make all the sounds, consonantal and vowel, fricative, plosive and all the rest. I’ve found the research mentioned in the New Scientist podcast just the other day, which compares orangutan sounds to human beatboxing (which up till now I’ve known nothing about, but I’m learning). Dr Lameira was also involved in this research, So I’ll quote him:

“It could be possible that early human language resembled something that sounded more like beatboxing, before evolution organised language into the consonant — vowel structure that we know today.”

Jacinta: Well that’s not uninteresting, and no doubt might fit somewhere in the origins of human speech, the details of which still remain very much a mystery. Presumably it will involve the development of distinctive sounds and the instruments and the musculature required to make them, as well as genes and neural networks – though that might be a technical term. Neural developments, anyway. Apparently there are ‘continuity theories’, favouring gradual development, probably over millennia, and ‘discontinuity theories’, arguing for a sudden breakthrough – but I would certainly favour the former, though it might have been primarily gestural, or a complex mixture of gestural and oral.

Canto: You’d think that gestural, or sign language – which we know can be extremely complex – would develop after bipedalism, or with it, and both would’ve evolved gradually. And, as we’re learning with Neanderthals, the development of a more intensive sociality could’ve really jump-started language processes.

Jacinta: Or maybe H sapiens had something going in the brain, or the genes, language-wise or proto-language-wise, that gave them the competitive advantage over Neanderthals? And yet, reading Kindred, I find it hard to believe that Neanderthals didn’t have any language. Anyway, let’s reflect on JuLingo’s video on language origins, in which she argues that language was never a goal in itself (how could it be), but a product of the complexity that went along with bipedalism, hunting, tool-making and greater hominin sociality. That’s to say, social evolution, reflected in neural and genetic changes, as well as subtle anatomical changes for the wider production and reception of sounds, perhaps starting with H ergaster around 1.5 million years ago. H heidelbergensis, with a larger brain size and wider spinal canal, may have taken language or proto-language to another level, and may have been ancestral to H sapiens. It’s all very speculative.

Canto: Yes, I don’t think I’m much qualified to add anything more – and I’m not sure if anyone is, but of course there’s no harm in speculating. Sykes speculates thusly about Neanderthals in Kindred:

Complementary evidence for language comes from the fact Neanderthals seem to have had similar rates of handedness. Tooth micro-scratches and patterns of knapping on cores [for stone tool-making] confirm they were dominated by right-handers, and this is also reflected in asymmetry in one side of their brains. But when we zoom in further to genetics, things get increasingly thorny. The FOXP2 gene is a case in point: humans have a mutation that changed just two amino acids from those in other animals, whether chimps or platypi. FOXP2 is definitely involved with cognitive and physical language capacity in living people, but it isn’t ‘the’ language gene; no such thing exists. Rather it affects multiple aspects of brain and central nervous system development. When it was confirmed that Neanderthals had the same FOXP2 gene as us, it was taken as strong evidence that they could ‘talk’. But another, subtler alteration has been found that happened after we’d split from them. It’s tiny – a single protein – and though the precise anatomical effect isn’t yet known, experiments show it does change how FOXP2 itself works. Small changes like this are fascinating, but we’re far from mapping out any kind of genetic recipe where adding this, or taking away that, would make Neanderthals loquacious or laconic.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art, pp 248-9

Jacinta: Yes, these are good points, and could equally apply to early H sapiens, as well as H ergaster and heidelbergensis. Again we tend to think of language as the full-blown form we learn about in ‘grammar schools’, but most languages today have no written form, and so no fixed grammar – am I right?

Canto: Not sure, but I understand what you’re getting at. The first English grammar book, more like a pamphlet, was published in 1586, when Shakespeare was just starting out as a playwright, and, as with ‘correct’ spelling and pronunciation, would’ve been politically motivated – the King’s English and all.

Jacinta: Queen at that time. Onya Elizabeth. But the grammar, and the rest, would’ve been fixed enough for high and low to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays. And to make conversation pretty fluid.

Canto: Yes, and was handed down pretty naturally, I mean without formal schooling. It’s kids who create new languages – pidgins that become creoles – when necessity necessitates. I read that in a Scientific American magazine back in the early eighties.

Jacinta: Yes, so they had the genes and the neural equipment to form new hybrid languages, more or less unconsciously. So much still to learn about all this…

Canto: And so little time….


Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, 2021







Written by stewart henderson

July 19, 2023 at 6:36 pm

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