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Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech

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Leon Lederman’s book is so fascinating and readable that I am giving it to my teenage grandson. He may be a little young for it, but he is good at mathematics, and at his age a little mind stretching won’t hurt a bit. Lederman focuses attention on each genius who moved physics forward, but amazingly, he keeps coming back to the truth of what Democritus said twenty-four hundred years ago: “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity” (59).

What about Language?

If Democritus had it right, language, which exists in the universe, also has to be the fruit of chance and necessity. Necessity? Yes— anything anyone says must have some regularity to it. If not, we wouldn’t understand a word of it. Not surprisingly, a scholar named Panini, almost at the same time as Democritus but farther east in India, was finding necessity, or necessary regularity, in the Sanskrit language. He may not have realized it, but in doing that he became the world’s first grammarian.

Since Panini, for two and a half millennia, grammarians have been concentrating on necessity—the necessary regularity of pattern or structure in what people say (usually after it has been written down). Grammarians discover patterns, or rules. And the rules, some of them say, determine the whole structure of language, with the full force of necessity—world without end, amen. And yet, what anyone actually does say or will say is hardly more predictable than the weather or the position and velocity of an electron. Democritus said “chance and necessity.” We may not have as much to say about chance in language, and there is even less that we can do about it, but necessity is only part of the story.

I’m long out of third grade and high school physics, so I’m not infallible any more, but I think that a great deal of nonsense has been written and believed about language because grammarians get mixed up about necessity. They mistake what is sufficient for what is necessary. The proof of this proposition does not need quantum theory, just basic logic and a fact: speech is sufficient for language, but not necessary.

Granted, 99.9 percent of us use speech for language, and many cannot conceive of language any other way; yet millions of people who cannot hear make up the other 0.1 percent. They use languages of visible, not audible, signs. Because deaf people have and use signed languages, we must conclude that either speech or signing is sufficient for language and that neither by itself is necessary.

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