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Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech

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Syntax did not need to be elaborate or complicated to begin with, as a simple thought experiment will make clear. Picture this situation: a third person sees you and a companion together, leaves for a moment, returns, and shows surprise at seeing you alone. You immediately interpret that show of surprise and make a gesture. Little imagination is needed for what you did and what it means. The gesture said, “She went that way.” But your gesture literally tells that third person more than this translation does. The gesture shows which way she went; the words of the translation do not really mean anything unless spoken with a pointing gesture (reading the words, you do not know which way she went). In the imagined setting, your hand pointed out the direction of your companion’s departure, but your hand also stands for her, the one who departed. The gesture also has or contains syntax because the hand for the person and its movement telling what she did are subject and predicate (or noun phrase [NP] + verb phrase [VP]). Without any speech at all, this experiment demonstrates that gesture is sufficient to initiate syntax. Could anything spoken do that? As it has been seventy-two or seventy-three years since I was in third grade, I am afraid I cannot wait until someone can answer that question affirmatively.

The first six chapters of this book will take up these matters in more detail, bringing in evidence when it can be found that evolution proceeded (by chance and necessity) from gesture to language. Chapter 7 continues by showing how gestured language might have led to speech. Once a language had taken hold—a lucky chance for us if there ever was one—handshapes represented people and animals and things (the contents of the visible world) and movements represented actions and changes (observed and reflected on). Together, they did not represent sentences—they were sentences. The key to this development is that only gesture use could have initiated syntax, a necessary feature of language.

Eminently useful in the struggle for survival, signs of all kinds have served every kind of animal. But when visible signs easily produced and interpreted contained both word and sentence meanings, the whole potential of language would have been contained in them. The species that began to use gestures in this syntactic-semantic way, whether it was Homo erectus or Homo sapiens, really began the human story.

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