Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Speculations on the Origins of Language

Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Speculations on the Origins of Language

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Given the speculative nature of the topic of language evolution, whichever way we approach it, our findings can be no more than tentative suggestions. And yet, the topic has proved temptingly fascinating (Bickerton 2009; 2007; 1995; 1981; Botha 2008; Botha and Knight 2009; Burling 2005; 2000; Corballis 2009; 2002; Crain 2012; Falk 2004; Fitch 2011; 2010; 2009; Greenspan and Shanker 2004; Hurford 2007; McMahon and McMahon 2012; MacNeilage 2009; 2008; McNeil 2012; Wildgen 2004). There are good reasons for caution in undertaking such work, not least because of the paucity of empirical evidence (Botha 2003). Foremost has been the idea of language as an object of scientific inquiry, ushered in by the banishment of language evolution as a topic by the Linguistic Society of Paris in 1866 and the Philological Society in London six years later, a direction which received a major boost towards the end of the 19th century by research in logic, philosophical semiotics, and linguistics. Gottlob Frege's seminal paper "Über Sinn und Bedeutung" (1892), Charles Sanders Peirce's analysis of language as part of semiotic systems (between 1867 and 1914) and Ferdinand de Saussure's focus on language as langue in his Cours linguistique générale (1916) are three well-documented moments in this development. The retrospection towards language origins hidden in hominid prehistory has been largely irrelevant to such investigations. Yet another reason for skepticism was the conviction, strongly represented in Saussure's Cours, that prior to the arrival of language hominids had no more than a "nebulous" grasp of the world (Saussure 2005, p. 155); another, the belief that language and animal communication had nothing to do with one another in principle (e.g., Chomsky [1966] 2009). Lastly, the ex nihilo assumption in French structuralism that language "could only have been born in a single stroke" on the dubious grounds that "objects couldn't just start to signify progressively" (LévyStrauss in Kristeva 1989, p. 46; Gans 1981) has had a discouraging effect on speculating about the communicative actions that are likely to have preceded language, transformed into language, and perhaps survived in some form in language as we now know it. This is why I will base my arguments on the premise of a radical gradualism, that is, the assumption that language as we now know it evolved over millions of years as being gradually distilled from a range of nonverbal forms of communication. It the heart of this distillation I place the idea of what knowing a language consists in.

What constitutes knowing a language is however highly contested, in particular with respect to its central concern: how linguistic meaning occurs. After all, what we know of language is a function of the kind of philosophical, psychological, linguistic, or semiotic position we happen to hold, which poses methodological problems almost as serious as the paucity of empirical evidence itself. For which of the many strands of inquiry should we favor in our speculation of language in its emergence? In order to sidestep this conundrum, I propose a "thick" description of language capable of allocating a place to other more specialized approaches. I do so by highlighting what I regard as the salient constituents of language, features that permit us to capture as many components as possible amongst those that may have played a vital role in language evolution. In light of my previous work on the metasemantic conditions of natural language, I sum up my approach under the heading of imaginability, argued to function as nonverbal ground of human communication (Ruthrof 2011b; 2013; 2014). But before I present my case in favor of the retention of iconicity at the level of the motivated signified, a brief glance at a variety of proposals for the likely origins of language will provide the background against which I will be able to argue the paper's hypothesis to be presented in Section 3 below. …

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