Overview of the Development of Speech
by this author,
In my view, speech as we know it developed in three identifiable phases: (1) creating and practicing the three primordial consonants; (2) stringing those consonants together in ever-increasing complexity, which reaches its maximum flourishing at the time of firemaking, where chanted strings of consonants and their accompanying dramatic activities are memorized by all for hundreds of thousands of years; (3) the emergence of non-metered, non-chanted speech as abbreviations of the familiar strings of consonants are used by ocean-going subsets of the hominid population to effectively crew aboard their vessels.
Stage I: Invention of the Three Primordial Consonants
Smart animals our ancestors were ~~~ but not apes! They were using their prehensile hands to modify natural materials many millions of years ago. Something allowed them the space in time to focus their attention on this job for much longer periods than their cousins did. Their cousins didn't use their hands or focus very long on making things, but rather used their teeth to attack, hunt, and to defend themselves. Their teeth evolved bigger and bigger, with an interlocking bite formed by the four eye-teeth. The dental fossil record unmistakably proves that they became the apes. Our ancestors probably used their self-improved clubs to defend themselves and to hunt with. They did not develop any "monkey bite" at all, so they must've been using something else to hunt and defend with. We also began fashioning stones into shapes we could use. This was around, what?, 3 to 5 million years ago? The apes had branched off from our common family tree, never to return, many millions of years before we were working stone into tools. We were never apes.
When one collects a very large set of words all beginning with the same basic syllable, from a multitude of languages in many language groups around the world, one can clearly see that that sound once formed a primordial concept shared by the ancestors of all humans. When the collection of words is large enough, and the sorting into meaning groups is done carefully enough, one can see earlier and ever earlier concepts deriving from the common experiences of the group. Thus it came to be that I could see the commonality in the three primordial consonants. Each one of these primordial consonants forms a "picture" of a major manual skill that would've been absolutely necessary for early hominids to perform, and to perform often.
I have no indication as to how these associations first developed. One can guess, but guesses are never satisfactory. First there is the fact that early hominids needed to be able to tune out the dangers around them in order to focus at length on the manual tasks. Perhaps chanting a consonant enabled them to focus better, and to not hear all of the little rustles and other warnings from the environment around them. Also, one might imagine that other animals would know that these tool-makers were very dangerous creatures indeed, and if they heard the chanting of speech sounds, would steer clear of them. This would give the tool-makers a margin of safety around themselves as they focused on the tasks at hand instead of paying closer attention to dangers. We know that even today, when focusing on a manual task, people often "screw up" their mouths with tension, so we might imagine that this is a throw-back to the earlier, consonant-forming period of our development. But these are all guesses. Maybe somewhere in the dictionary-bound sound artifacts yet to be studied there is the clue we need that will show how earliest tool-makers came to form each of the three consonants and why each one is associated with that particular hand skill.
Simple biological reality dictates that one thing is certain, however, and that is that our ancestors must have formed the rough rudiments of the consonants long before they could produce the many refinements that we now are capable of. And there must have been a repeated practicing of these rough consonants for very, very many thousands of years. Long before a hominid could be capable of producing a P, B, V, F, or any other modern labial sound, his distant ancestors must have struggled to bring the lips together to make any sound that that would produce. So any scenario we might imagine for the origins of speech absolutely must include these astoundingly long practice periods, and a believable reason why these practicing periods would occur. It makes no sense that a pre-human animal would sit himself down and practice his P's and Q's all his life, in the hopes of one day thousands of years hence being capable of speech. No, he must've done this practicing because it was entertaining and it was thrilling, and above all, it was necessary. He saw his sounds as giving his hands power and skill, the power to make tools that let him get his livelihood. And sitting around in circles of an afternoon, doing hand-mime and chanting, he could make drama and jokes that all would enjoy, while teaching the hand skills to the younger generation.
The lips consonant, which I call "Primordial P," was associated with making stone tools. The array of concepts that came to be named using this original P include Points, Piercing, Flat things (from the face of the blade coming off the core, perhaps), perfectly Paired things (from the fascinating match of the face of the blade fitting onto the face of the core), Pieces and Bits of things (from the detritus that falls away), Detritus itself, Flying off and away, Jumping off suddenly (as the blade does coming off the core) and many others. I've not read this consonant as thoroughly as I did the K-vowel-N morpheme, but I do have several dozen distinct Meanings for PVN, and several clear Meaning Groups. I'm confident it was associated with stone-tool making.
The roof-of-mouth consonant, Primordial T, was associated with full-strength blows and kicks. I've read this consonant the least of all the three. It may prove to be much more refined than just blows using huge strength. From what I could gather on just a few days' reading, we have concepts like Stomp, Tamp, Drum, Dance, and the like deriving from Primordial T.
The back-of-throat consonant, Primordial K, was associated with the ultra-important to-and-fro motion, used to scrape hides, scrape bark off wood, grind grain and other things, gouge out holes in things, rock babies, make love. Eventually this skill would be used to make fire, by moving a rod-shaped stick back-and-forth with great rapidity through a grooved piece of wood. From the firemaking period we have K meanings such as Fire and Brightness (Kindle, Candid), Rods (Cane), Grooves (Canal), Leaders' Titles (King, Khan, Candace), Chanting (Chant), and the Power of Generation of Life.
All three hand skills together formed man's "skill-kit," enabling him to hunt bigger and bigger game, make clothing, gather and grind food, clean hides, prepare wood and stone for all sorts of implements large and small. From the modern American popular press on the subject, it seems this stage could have begun anywhere from 5 million years ago or earlier, and certainly was widely practiced by the time the stone tool record becomes unmistakable, some 2 or 3 million years ago.
It's fascinating to think that, convergent evolution being what it is, this same pattern of consonant development may occur identically wherever in the universe that humans evolve.
Stage II: The Development of Dramatic Chanting and Mastery of Fire
Pre-hominids had transformed, through the sophistication of their hand skills, and developing neural organization, into hominids. The next stage of language growth, one surmises, ran from the earliest unmistakable tool records up to well-established firemaking, which was universally practiced around half a million years ago, but which began probably about a million years ago.
As their tool-making grew in sophistication, so did the strings of consonants and the familiar skits of the hand-jive circles. This must've continued and developed for several million years. Eventually, even fire is mastered. This great event was seen to emerge from the power of the back-of-throat consonant, which gave them the ability (so they saw it) to perform to-and-fro motions of all kinds. It was this hand motion they used to create fire, by rubbing a rod-shaped stick to-and-from through a notched piece of wood, with such speed and intensity that the heat caused flame. This consonant, the Ka or Kan, became revered as having the power of evoking life itself. It surely formed the basis for a greatly-expanding body of speech sounds.
Right around half a million years ago, as firemaking emerges as a universal practice, hominids were building oval stone houses with stone furniture. Concurrent with universal firemaking, their stone tools, previously very haphazard and no-two-alike, suddenly become regularized; "made as if by pattern" is how all experts describe the tools made when firemaking is mastered. Equally dramatically, the nerve to the tongue then suddenly enlarges to today's size. We can only conclude that a very dramatic growth in mental ability occurred around the time of the universal mastery of fire. And since the KVN study shows that "Chanting" is one of the concepts, one of the experiences, from the firemaking times, we are given the distinct picture that rituals of great complexity were occurring around the firemaking operation.
Details of the KVN array show that man at that time was intensely interested with the springing up of life in all its forms. I love to imagine that people were practicing plant selection and hybridizing, and animal husbandry in the wild, on a very large scale in these times, though this is just dreamy speculation.
This stage of hominid development is so human that it is difficult to decide whether to call them human or not. These hominids include the forms we call "Homo erectus," which evolves into "Neanderthal." One of the world's foremost experts on Neanderthal states that in every case, he can demonstrate that Neanderthal was directly ancestral to modern man. But, brilliant as they were, they still probably only chanted during special gatherings, while otherwise remaining primarily silent. It was still a very dangerous world to be announcing one's presence in, after all.
Stage III: Modern Speech forms in Rivers, then Oceans
But there was another world altogether different from the domain of the super-strong big-game hunter, and that was the world of the open ocean. The people we call "primitive" today show us how it probably was the world over when speech was emerging. People always organized themselves along rivers, with one clan occupying the watershed of one river. Status in the clan was always organized by how close or far one lived from the headwaters. The patriarchs lived at the headwaters, the lowest status farther toward the rivermouth. Territories were laid out along the river, and very elaborate marriage and relational patterns were established in these checkerboards of different zones. It was the worst breach of taboo to cross the wrong zones to marry.
People who transported trade and other goods along the river would thus be a very special sub-group of any human population. They would see and be attracted to mates from very far distant zones, and thus would always be in danger of breaking horrendous taboos. They MUST have formed a unique group unto themselves. They would have an "in" with the chief, while at the same time be seen as strange and different by the non-water-travellers. Furthermore, the dangers on open water were vastly different from those on land. One slip, and everyone on board might drown.
I postulate that it was the river-going subset of the hominid population who first began vocalizing at odd times, who first overcame the tendency to stay quiet except at firemaking rituals. I think they began using well-known bits of the chants to call commands and coordinate their activities on board floating vessels. Land-based chanting might flow and recombine strings of consonants, and it would be these melodic strings of consonants that would evoke the dramatic actions all were familiar with. Thus we have the American Indian poetic line, "The snake of pain writhed up my body," which is not translatable word by word, but rather is a string of syllables chanted together.
But for our form of speech to emerge, shortened and fixed chains of consonants had to be created. I think these first true words were derived from the universally-memorized chants around firemaking. And I think it happened, in conjunction with the emergence of grammar, to enable unmistakable commands to be given on floating vessels, in order to successfully avoid the dangers of open water. As they got better and better at using these short epithets within an agreed-upon grammatical framework, their genes would be carried farther and farther afield around the world, causing the rise of prosaic, as opposed to the earlier poetic, speech. True speech was emerging for the first time. Invented by the smaller, clever river-traders, to allow all on board the ability to give and receive unmistakable, unerring, commands that could be instantly carried out, allowing them to venture for the first time into the open waters of the world's oceans. Man, as we are today, emerged in the world's first true "gene pool," the ocean.
I am delighted to receive feedback and questions.
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