The roots of language may lie in our hands

Science News reviews two books that propose a thought-provoking hypothesis about the evolution of language: that our ability to communicate verbally evolved from hand gestures.

The first book, Talking Hands is a study on a sign language developed by a Bedouin community only a short time ago that is used widely by both deaf and hearing members of the community.

As a relatively new phenomenon, it has allowed researchers to study a spontaneously created language as it develops.

The book also touches on the evolution of language and notes that while primates typically have poor control over their vocal chords, they have a precise control over their hands allowing huge scope for symbolic representation.

The second book, The Gestural Origin of Language directly addresses the issue and argues that sign, not spoken languages, are the original mode of human communication.

Armstrong and Wilcox, building on their earlier work with Stokoe, get around this problem by redefining language itself. In their hands, as it were, language is considered an embodied system whereby bodily gestures become ritualized and conventionalized into an accepted communication system. Given that our ancestors were tree-dwelling primates, our hands are well adapted to create four-dimensional space-time representations of the four-dimensional world. This ability was especially amenable to exploitation once our hominin forebears became bipedal and gained additional freedom of hand movement. With conventionalization, gestures become simplified and may lose their iconic aspect, but they are readily maintained through cultural transmission.

In this view, speech itself is a gestural system, composed of movements of the lips, velum and larynx, and the blade, body and root of the tongue. This is consistent with the so-called “motor theory of speech perception” developed at the Haskins Laboratories (a private research institute in New Haven, Connecticut) during the 1960s, which holds that the perception of speech is not so much an acoustic phenomenon as the recovery, through sound, of speech gestures. The arbitrary nature of speech sounds is not a fundamental property of language but is rather the consequence of the medium through which the gestures are expressed. The authors aptly quote the linguist Charles Hockett: “When a representation of some four-dimensional hunk of life has to be compressed into the single dimension of speech, most iconicity is necessarily squeezed out.” The concentration on speech may have created a myopic view of what language is really all about.

It’s a challenging hypothesis that asks us to reconsider that spoken language, often quoted as the defining feature of humanity, may be a relatively recent form of communication.

On a purely aesthetic level, I find sign language beautiful and utterly mesmerising and after a quick search on YouTube it seems there is a healthy online signing community.

One of my favourites is a video of someone signing Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacherman.

Link to Science News book review.

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