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Readers' comments about the origins of language and speech
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David Rolfe, March 4, 2005
Re: Language origins theory on this website
The ideas expressed on the origin and meaning of the different syllables were very interesting; however, I do have one question. If complex vocal patterns were developed to facillitate water travel in the service of trade; then, what form of communication facillitated trade itself? I feel that it would be more logical to asume that language evolved along with math as a means to quallify and quantify the goods being transported. It would be logical to asume that our ancestors traveled on the water in canoes or small, one-man rafts before developing larger craft which required teams to pilot. Surely these early travellers engaged in trade and developed a form of communication which was capable of describing a myriad of objects and quantities.
Kim Salisbury, March 5, 2005
Re: David Rolfe's comments, March 4, 2005
Very intriguing suggestions about trade, quantifying goods, early speech. The goods being transported would certainly have come under increasingly complex and detailed scrutiny, as man's capability for abstract complexity increased. And certainly the desire for goods, for things of concentrated value, must've been a tremendous impetus in motivating man to go further and further out on the water. We moderns certainly would ask, "Why else would he take those chances of going to sea?"
But we are seeing the end result of a long continuum of evolution of capabilities and behaviors, a symphony if you will, that grows in increasing complexity over time. The rate of growth of such capabilities at times is rather static and at other times, becomes very rushed. But the "rushed" part is really quite relative, and still involves myriads of thousands of years. And it is always a symphony, an interplay of all the behaviors of a population, with a growth in frequency of certain behaviors preceding a concentrated capability in performing those behaviors.
If we could watch the evolution of the lifestyle of hominids, I think we would see something like this:
Several million years ago, a relatively static phase of evolution. Homo erectus' predecessors, following the warm weather and game seasonally, hunting in very clever groups capable of bringing down larger and larger game, systematization of the butchering and distribution of large game on the same flat fields used continuously (but seasonally) for hundreds of thousands or millions of years.
Whether at the beginning, throughout, or at the end of this "large game" phase, the systematization of three major hand skills, seen to be the spiritual "tool kit" of man, occurred. The systematization is composed of the functions of hand-miming in group chanting circles, repeating the manual skills over and over, in play, as they sat around in leisure time. The skills are thus honed, enhanced, and continuously inculcated into the young. There are three consonantal sounds that proto man has somehow attached to each of the three hand skills --- as described above.
Slowly the ability to manipulate objects in manual manufacturing of things is growing, but the main "stuff" of subsistence is still whatever is hunted and found growing. The systems of division of this stuff is still as everywhere in the mammalian world, based on dominance patterns of personal strength in the leaders of the clans, who oversee the fair distribution of food and goods. Ownership of large game kills is felt to be tribal, not personal. Claims of personal ownership of more than a clan-based fair share do not happen.
Around 1 million years ago, the association of the 3 consonants with the 3 hand skills has become very well established throughtout a population of hominids, to the extent that there are quite a few individuals who specialize in the finer hand skills, leaving the large skill of heavy striking, hammering, etc., to a subgroup of that population, who are thus the main hunters and physical strength of the clan. Perhaps this differential is sexual, with women focusing on the Kan and the Pan, and men on the Tan. Or perhaps there is a wide variation of physiques and skills within the population. However it is organized, very definitely, the ability to make finer things begins to emerge, and once it captures peoples' fancy, it increases.
With this emergence, fairly rapidly, the whole complex of behaviors and motivational factors surrounding admirable, esteemable, desirable manufactured goods begins to emerge. At the same time, the group learns to make fire, and many other refinements to their shelters and environment, certainly including animal husbandry and perhaps gardening of sorts. A very rapid increase in manual manufacturing occurs, lasting only a couple hundred thousand years, concurrently groups capable of making fire can stay longer and longer in colder areas. Living in the cold greatly accelerates the impetus to make things to make life possible. (to be continued asap)
Jacques Guy, May 8, 1997
RE: Ruhlen's "On the Origin of Languages"
I discovered www.amazon.com the other day, a bookshop with, they say, a million books listed. It looks like it too. Unfortunately, they couldn't get me Sebastian Englert's Rapanui-Spanish dictionary, but have they been successful with a couple more obscure books about Easter Island (BTW, go and have a look at http://www.netaxs.com/~trance/rongo.html and see what yours faithfully has been up to. The site has been put together by David Brookman, and he welcomes stuff about Easter Island, especially photos of petroglyphs). Now, as I was browsing the electronic shelves at www.amazon.com, I came across Merritt Ruhlen's "On the Origin of Languages", complete with card catalog description and table of contents. I read the description, which is rather misleading (I am being charitable), but when it came to the table of contents... my jaw dropped. Was that the same book I had? I checked the publication date, I checked the ISBN number, and it was. Here is that table of contents:
Prologue: What Do We Mean by The Origin of Language?
1. Language and History: Voices from the Past
2. Language Families: What Is Known
3. Controversy: What Is Debated
4. Native Americans: Language in the New World
5. The Origin of Language: Are There Global Cognates?
6. A Window on the World: What Has Been Resolved
7. Genes: Biology and Language
8. The Emerging Synthesis: On the Origin of Modern Humans
Epilogue: Reconstruction, Sound Correspondences, and Homelands
An Annotated Bibliography
Now, for those of you who do not have a copy of "On the Origin of Languages" on their desk, here is its true table of contents:
1. An Overview of Genetic Classification.
2. The Basis of Linguistic Classification.
3. Khoisan Etymologies.
4. Proto-Yeniseian Reconstructions.
5. Na-Dene Etymologies.
6. Is Algonquian Amerind?
7. A Semantic Index to Greenberg's Amerind Etymologies.
8. Additional Amerind Etymologies.
9. Amerind T'A?NA 'child, sibling'.
10. The Linguistic Origins of Native Americans.
11. Amerind MALIQ'A 'Swallow, Throat' and Its Origins in the Old World.
12. First- and Second-Person Pronouns in the World's Languages.
13. The Origin of Language: Retrospective and Prospective.
14. Global Etymologies.
What is going on there?
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Array: The pattern of meanings, displayed in organized form, derived by studying completely the occurrence of words beginning with one root sound
Meaning (group): In this form of study, a single concept, shared by many language groups, deriving from a common experience, and comprising a minumum of 3 separate dictionary entries from as many languages of words beginning with the same root sound, in this case, the sound of K+vowel+N (but in reality many more dictionary entries invariably comprise a Meaning)
Cluster: In this study, a Cluster is a "noble" and non-etymologically linked group of Meanings that derives from an individual attribute of the original experience that gave rise to the whole Array
Speech: Homo sapiens' verbal communication, using the invariably-ordered short sequences of mouth sounds that we call "words" in full grammatical context, capable of instantly relaying immediately decipherable commands to skillfully employ technological devices
Language: Verbal and other forms of communication that may have been used by the whole line of hominid ancestors, possibly extending to other species as well; functions as expression that modifies behavior, but not necessarily immediately, and not necessarily using technological objects or skills
Phoneme: a small unit of speech; one distinct speech sound
Morpheme: the smallest unit of speech that carries meaning
Ramapithecus: Ancestors of Australopithecus; transitional hominid developing during the drying of the earth's great jungles, dating from roughly 14 million years ago
Australopithecus: Tool-making ancestors of man, dating from about 3 million years ago
Homo habilis: Transitional between Australopithecus and Homo erectus; from Olduvai Bed 1
Homo erectus: Larger than Australopithecus, directly ancestral to Modern Man; dating from about 1 million years ago; developed firemaking half a million years ago, at which time he also acquired heightened tongue capability ours (evidenced by the size of the hole that the nerve to the tongue makes in the skull)
Homo sapiens: Modern man, emerging inexplicably all of a sudden the world over starting roughly 100,000 years ago; identical to us, with same language capability, vocal column, chin, and brain size and organization
Neanderthalers: diverged from and co-existed with Modern Man; became more and more "Neanderthal-like" as time went on; had extremely dense bones, heavy eyebrow ridge, large perfectly circular eye sockets, enlarged visual part of the brain, and no "chin"; doubtful that he had identical language capability to ours; very uniform type lived near polar ice caps; varied types lived farther south; died out roughly 30,000 years ago
Evolution: the slow change in living forms over time, due to changing environmental conditions
Environmental niche: a given set of circumstances in the environment that a life-form uses to make a living in; e.g., sandy desert, under bushes, at night, with oil-bearing seeds plentiful; given the same identical environmental niche, species tend to evolve similarly
Convergent evolution: when two or more species evolve into similar-functioning and appearing forms, due to occupying the same environmental niche
Divergent evolution: when a species begins to evolve into several different forms as it spreads out into new environmental niches
Parallel evolution: when similar species continue to exist side by side without much change, neither one exterminating the other
Mother Tongue: the one language shared by Homo sapiens, ancestral to all modern languages; thought to have formed roughly 100,000 years ago (i.e., concurrently with the emergence of Homo sapiens)
Sound-Meaning Correspondence: the idea that the referent of a word stays attached to the unique sounds of that word over considerable time; currently believed not to last longer than 20,000 years, based on statistical studies