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I Speak To You
Or, how now brown cow?
When I communicate with you in my Substack posts I use modern human language, words created from components, assembled into sentences, using commonly held terms that arise from the world of shared meaning in which we live, and which is the invisible assumed context of much human interaction. The main purpose of language is to communicate. (That may seem obvious, but quite a few linguists believe the primary purpose is to facilitate an inbuilt grammar.) Yet, human beings didn't start out so sophisticated. We can imagine a scene in Africa half a million years ago, or maybe in the frozen north of Europe two hundred thousand years ago, in which human ancestors - Neanderthals in Europe - used imitative language in order to communicate.
Fossils of such communication styles can be found in our modern languages. We still use onomatopoeia when creating animal names, for instance, and for other objects. The use of the "small" vowel i and the "big round vowel" o is observed worldwide to indicate relative size, even in nonsense words devised to show the effect. In this case, size is mapped onto vowel sound - a universal human process, and one which would have existed long ago as part of proto-language.
How then did modern human language begin? Many commentators believe imitation was a fundamental part of hominid proto-language, so what is required is a bridge from imitative language to what we use - compositional language. But this is not easy to imagine.
Neanderthal language would not have been compositional. Each utterance would likely have been a sophisticated holistic entity, relevant only to the social group in which it was uttered. It would have been quite manipulative compared with our equivalents, that is, always uttered in order to facilitate some end, and there would likely have been a high emotional content. Moreover, it would have relied on mimicry and the universal sound effects mentioned above. With such a language, spoken in combination with facial expression, gesture, tone of voice and body language, much would have been possible. Yet such proto-languages are limited in what they can do. They cannot be broken up into parts which can be recombined - the essence of compositional human language. Such recombinations we are used to, yet the scope of a near infinite range of sounds is far greater than anything used earlier by our ancestors. We are exceptionally good at what we do.
The task then is to imagine a series of steps from holistic, imitative, local and quite probably musical utterances - with very little by way of grammar or words as we would recognise them - to our universal, phoneme-based, symbolic utterances. Many commentators think such changes occurred somewhere between one hundred and two hundred thousand years ago, but evidence for such a hypothesis is hard to pin down. Certainly the arrangement of the Neanderthal throat suggests they could not utter the wide range of consonants and vowels we can.
There is a modern example of facilitating a move from proto-language to compositional language, however, and that is in the style of speech used by the parents of very young children, known as motherese. This language, based on music (often sung, as with lullabies), is repetitive, gestural, and focused on the emotional interaction between child and parent. It uses a higher pitch, and exaggerates the vowel sounds. In this regard it is similar to hypothesised versions of hominid language before homo sapiens came along. Infants up to the age of three respond more favourably to this style of speech since it is much easier for them to comprehend. The style of speech does have a useful consequence, though, since the musicality and exaggeration of vowel sounds serves to separate sections of speech - the first step to fully compositional language. In combination with nursery rhymes which also exaggerate the musical, rhythmic qualities of such speech, the move from simple, holistic utterances to word-based communication using grammar is begun.
Compositional language is the gift given by humanity to itself. Infinitely flexible, able to convey any concept, it raised us. As oral communication it connected and sustained communities. As written communication it opened up the technical and modern world.