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Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech

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So we are like other primates and yet we differ from them. Can we speak of behavioral “homologues” as well? Why not? Just like other primates, humans communicate mainly via sight and hearing. Could it be then that natural selection—chance and necessity—enabled language to evolve from some form of communication that came before?

To go back a bit, we can reexamine our fact-based conclusion: speech and signing are each sufficient for language, and therefore neither by itself is necessary. Careful observation tells us that this is true as things stand at the present time. Humans either speak or sign their languages. And some Australian and Native American tribes still have and use both a signed and a spoken language. But would this always have been so? Or ask the question in another way: Would either speech or signing (gesture-like movements) have sufficed to begin language? Try first to imagine who could possibly have told the first speakers what the sounds they produced were supposed to mean.

In many different times and places long ago, leading thinkers must have tried to imagine this; for they have left us great stories. They tell of how a god from heaven or a spirit from the deep in the sea or a sacred animal from the forest or a voice from the whirlwind spoke to the first people, endowing them too with speech, telling them the names of things—sometimes giving them very strict dos and don’ts as well.

Other thinkers have steered away from myth and come up with other suggestions about how language—as speech— might have begun. The “bowwow theory” says the first word for dog was an imitation of its bark, and so on and on as far as convenient sound sources like that go. The “yo-heave-ho theory” says the word heave, or something like it, might have been unintentionally squeezed out as the first speakers strained at heavy weights. Others make lists of words that show sound symbolism.

All these are valiant attempts to explain only the semantics of speech—how a spoken word might have come to mean what it means in the very first place. But none of them can, nor try to, explain syntax—the way language expresses word meanings and also the meaning of meanings somehow related and interconnected. These myths fail to notice that as “the fruit of necessity and chance,” language grows singly and in clusters, as words and at the same time as sentences. Simply stated, language includes syntax as well as semantics.


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