By David L. Brown
Disclosure statement: I am not Noam Chomsky nor do I have any formal training in the “science” of linguistics. However, I am someone to whom language has been a supreme influence, both in its spoken and particularly its written forms. With deference to Chomsky and his fellow linguists I humbly submit that the study of language may be somewhat comparable to the ancient Chinese art of reading the cracks in tortoise shells or the pronouncements of shamans around ancient campfires. That said, I wish to present my personal thoughts on the possible roots of language, that unique skill that has made human civilization possible and which sets we members of the species Homo sapiens sapiens apart from all other creatures.
As I understand it (and since I am not a serious student of linguistics I may well have a simplistic and incorrect impression of this), many linguists believe that language is something that occurred because of evolutionary changes in the human brain. Chomsky has concluded that the ability to use language is “hard wired” in the human brain from birth, and I will cede him that assumption. He further postulates that a common sense of “grammar,” the ability to put words together in certain standardized ways no matter what language the speaker is raised in, exists in human instinct. This too may be true, but whether it is or not doesn’t really matter for the ideas I will propose in this essay.
The question I will explore is: How did this all start? What was the defining event that set humans on the path to using language? Did pre-humans begin to grow huge brains in anticipation of attaining at some time in the remote future the ability to use language to communicate complex ideas and concepts? That does not seem likely. The idea that language is an evolutionary development of the human brain makes less sense to me than the idea that our brains evolved to accommodate the “discovery” of language. It’s a chicken or egg thing, and the idea of language evolving is not really the way evolution works. Plants and animals do not evolve toward some future condition, but in order to adapt to present ones.
Our animal brethren obviously have some ability to at least recognize language, or at least simple words and phrases, and in some cases to replicate the sound if not to fully understand the meaning of human words. One has only to listen to a talkative parrot to understand this fact. Even crows and ravens can make human sounds and almost appear to have the power of speech. I have a vivid memory of an experience many years ago in Lincoln Park in Chicago. I was walking past a bench where a man was sitting alone. I happened to observe as a crow flew up, settled on the other end of the bench, and addressed the man clearly: “Hello. My name’s Joe. What’s yours?” This was during the era when a man named Alan Funt had a TV show called “Candid Camera” in which people were placed in embarrassing positions which were being recorded by hidden cameras. I could see the thought process of the man on the bench as he looked warily around for the camera crew, and I have always felt it was poor manners indeed that he did not engage Joe the Crow in conversation but merely looked uncomfortable and got up and walked away. I would have at least had the good grace to tell Joe my name and ask him how he was, if only to see what response I might have gotten. No doubt a request for food.
Those of us who have been blessed with having pets know how smart “dumb” animals can be. We once had a German shepherd dog that was privileged to have a great number of “squeaky toys” in many shapes and forms. Each time we went to the grocery store, it seemed, we would purchase an addition for his vast collection. These included such things as a “sandwich,” a “hotdog,” a “mouse,” a “piece of cheese,” a “carrot,” and so forth. Each time we brought a new toy home we would introduce it to the dog, whose name was Prince, telling him its name. Later, it would be added to the rest in a large bucket in the corner of the living room. What is interesting about this is that when we would say “Prince — Get the…” and name one of the toys, he would go to the bucket, begin to throw toys all around as he searched for the requested one, and proudly bring it to us. Once a toy had been given to him and having been told its name just once, he never in several years made a mistake and brought us the wrong toy. Obviously, the ability to learn vocabulary is “hard wired” in the brain of an intelligent dog and many other animals as well as that of humans. The “grammar” described by Chomsky may not exist in animal brains, but many of the basic building blocks of language are obviously there, just as they must have been in our pre-language simian ancestors.
So how did the forebears of we “wise apes” learn to take language to the next stage and create a communications tool on which our human ancestors have built succeedingly complex civilizations? Well, now we get to my theory. Remembering that I am not a linguist, but also taking into account that linguistics may well be more an art or an exercise in philosophy than a science, please consider my idea with an open mind.