Language Origins

In Intro to Anthro 2022, after talking about Ethnography and Shakespeare we read chapter 9 on “Language and Culture” in Through the Lens of Anthropology, specifically concentrating on the idea of Language Origins. Next up: Food-Getting.

Transcript: Language Origins

Language is composed of arbitrary vocal, or in some cases hand symbols. I don’t think Muckle, González, and Camp used the word “arbitrary.” I’m pulling it in from linguistics, as a symbol that stands for something else, but has no apparent or natural connection to the meaning.

Our symbols are organized according to a set of rules that we may not always recognize as rules or as systematic, but they enable us to communicate, and to express ideas, and to do things with sound in the world. We communicate because of a convention that we’ve agreed on: there’s nothing about any of those words that sounds like a bark, or feels like fur. There’s no connection between that dog–in the painting or in the world–which makes us think of the word, “dog.”

It does start to feel very natural because, of course, we grow up with it. It’s ingrained from very early on. But the reason we call it, “arbitrary,” is because there’s no natural connection between the symbols we use and the world itself.

Language as a property is special to humans. It’s a species property, in the sense that we see it everywhere that we see human beings. There’s, of course, many different languages. But there’s not a ranking system. Instead, we can say that we all have a similar capacity for languages.

Language enables us to do a lot of things in the world that other creatures are not able to do: communicate, coordinate, transmit information, think differently, and perceive the world differently. It’s a powerful system.

Language seems to be unique to human beings in relationship to non-human animals. But in the old days, we thought it was more unique than we do now. In the old days, we hadn’t taught Washoe the chimpanzee how to sign. We taught Washoe, . . . we taught Koko the gorilla how to sign, and Kanzi the bonobo how to do sign languages. There have been some ideas that non-human primates can also learn symbolic language to a certain level, and may even in some cases once they’ve learned, are able to transmit to groups or maybe even offspring, but still not at the level that human beings do over time.

What non-human animals do is what Muckle, González, and Camp call index signs (215). Index signs are attached to something in the world and don’t deviate from that. Every time this thing, let us say a lion, appears in the world, there will be a certain screech. It’s attached to that. Some people call this a “closed-call system” because you don’t have the arbitrariness or the openness of human language. In index signs. You need to have that thing in front of you, or it’s always going to be the same sign, or the same screech or call for that thing, whereas human languages don’t have a necessary association between stuff in the world and the sounds we’re making.

You can also make new sentences. You can talk about things that don’t even exist. You can discuss what existed in the past or has gone away or might come about in the future. You can speak about them in human language. Unlike an index sign, in which you could not tell a lie, with human language you can talk about something that’s not there or try to make people believe something that did not happen.

We used to say that it was only the human primate who was capable of deception. But when we taught Washoe the chimpanzee sign language, one time Washoe’s trainer came over, and there was a little pile of chimpanzee poop in the corner. The trainer asked Washoe, “who made this poop?” and Washoe was like, “the other trainer did it when she came in.” Apparently, chimpanzees, given the right tools, can also try to deceive. It’s not unique to human beings, but we do it better.

Language needs to be patterned. You need to be able to recognize the patterns. You need to be able to know the rules, yet when we’re using language, we are using it in creative, productive ways. We’re always making new or novel sentences. You don’t have to always repeat the same sentence again.

Many people have tried to think about language origins. We used to wonder how those closed-call systems, or those index signs, evolved into symbols and arbitrary designations. It’s more likely that language has co-evolved along with index signs. Index signs have not disappeared from human language. It’s often very difficult to do language without pointing at things and moving around and changing the intonation of our voices and an occasional screech: whatever it takes to make something happen in the world. The idea that closed calls have disappeared, or that language evolves out of them, seems incorrect. It seems more that for language origins, it evolves along with the maintenance of the emotional register, which always goes with language. We see that a little bit in this chapter in terms of what is called “paralanguage,” and our ideas about how our gestures are also a part of our language system.

Language is intertwined with culture. If you can understand the concept of language, then the concept of culture also comes into play. Language, like culture, is patterned. It must be shared, and it is socially transmitted. Language is a good way to think about culture because although everyone has their own style of language, it can’t be completely individual. It needs to be given to us by our community. It is understood within a community. The language that we speak and the transmission of it can’t just be random or willy-nilly.

Also, language . . . is not simply to pass on information or communicate. When we use language, we are actively organizing, perceiving, and trying to understand the world. It’s more than simply different labels for the world out there. It involves assumptions and our perception of the world.

I want to talk about this in terms of getting deep into the linguistic aspects of this, and I’ll give you some terms, which are probably complicated. The terminology around linguistics and understanding language is necessarily difficult because we need to invent what is called a “metalanguage,” or a language about language, in order to talk about what we’re doing. Some of the Linguistic Anthropology terms get very difficult very fast.

When we say that with language the symbols are arbitrary, what we’re talking about is the “signifiers.” When we use words like dog or chair or desk, those are signifiers for something that is out there in the world. What we’re saying is there’s not a necessary connection, no natural inbuilt connection, between the signifier–the sound or the gesture–and the thing that we’re trying to express. The “signified” is the actual thing in the world. We’re saying that is arbitrary.

But if you push this a little bit further, that means that what is out there in the world, what is there to be signified, is also cut differently according to the language that you’re speaking. This is known as the principle of linguistic relativity. Languages don’t just talk about the same world–they cut the world up or apportion the world in different ways and help us to apprehend the world in different ways.

This can happen in different areas. There might be in some languages an absence, or some languages would not have a word for something because there isn’t a concept for it in that language. As we saw in “Shakespeare in the Bush,” _ghost_ simply does not exist in the sense that there’s no concept for it. It’s not simply that they don’t believe in ghosts. There isn’t a concept for ghosts in the world or in their idea scheme. It does not figure as a signifier or a signified in the world.

There can also be more signifieds. Some languages, for example, would cut the color spectrum differently. What we call, “light blue” and “dark blue” would be specific separate words. . . . This corresponds to a difference in brain activity, when people see the spectrum of blue, something goes off in their mind. What that means is that you could have more words for particular things that are important in your language, and thus you would be able perhaps to perceive them more readily if you had more signifiers for the signified.

One of the most interesting parts is not simply the more-or-less words, but how reality itself might be organized. One of the interesting examples of this is in English, the difference between a stream and a river, as compared to what is sometimes translated in French, as the difference between a Fleuve and Rivière. These are sometimes translated across to each other. In English the difference between a stream and a river is basically how much water is flowing. If it’s just a stream, then it’s a little bit and if it’s a river, it’s bigger.

French is slightly different. It’s not commensurable to what we have. . . . What seems to be the case is that “for the French the distinction of fleuve and rivière is that between an inland waterway that flows to the sea and a substantial tributary thereof.” This is something we don’t think about in English. I don’t go down and say, “aha, is this running water going to the sea or not?” I just think is it big or not. Marshall Sahlins says this is “incommensurable” with Standard American English, “which refer simply to waterways of different scales.” Now, Sahlins is probably trying to be funny when he says, “the French are hung up on where the sea is.” I don’t know if they’re hung up on where the sea is, but it would be interesting to be in a language structure in which you’re always thinking about or maybe sometimes thinking about, whether a river or a stream dumps into the ocean or dumps into the sea.

Language can be part of how we organize our reality. The idea of language relativity is sometimes referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir were linguistic anthropologists, who both worked together and formulated ideas in various ways about the influence of language on culture and vice versa. They did not come up with anything explicitly called a “hypothesis,” but it’s shorthand for how language influences our perception of the world. They’re both very interested in that.

In Benjamin Whorf’s writing from 1939 it gets pushed into what is called “linguistic determinism,” which would mean the language that you grow up in determines how you see the world. That you are in some ways unable to see the world in other terms. Whorf and Sapir wrote various things, but this is probably the most the most dramatic statement of what would be called linguistic determinism: “the nature of the language is the factor that limits free plasticity and rigidifies channels of development in the more autocratic way.” This sounds autocratic, which is to say that the way that you do things in the world, your language really does shape how you perceive, and you will be limited, autocratically limited, in terms of your perception of the world. This is known as linguistic determinism. It goes past linguistic relativity, which is more about how language might shape us, but not in a deterministic way.

Muckle, González, and Camp say the idea of linguistic determinism, especially this strong linguistic determinism, is not supported by most linguists today (224). There are several reasons for that. First, if people were so locked into their own language or headspace, it would be difficult or maybe impossible to translate ideas between or across different languages. Of course, it’s always difficult to translate. Translation is difficult. But if we were as locked into these linguistic worlds as linguistic determinism suggests, then that translation would not even be able to occur.

The other reason linguistic determinism is not supported is that all languages have different ways of saying things. Many linguists who’ve talked about cross-cultural differences think that it’s not so much that you’re unable to think about that in another language, whatever it is that’s being expressed, but it’s more like that’s not the preferred way, or that may be less frequently used, but it’s not that it’s completely absent from that language.

The other thing is that in human history we often think of humans as having one language, then you add another one, maybe in school you are made to learn it. But that’s a very recent thing that we’ve done, which is to limit human beings to one language, and then you learn another one, maybe you take it in high school. It’s also a very American way of doing things. We are probably one of the least language speaking countries in the world. In many human societies, and especially before we got bound up into nation states, it would be normal to grow up with two or more languages. That would be the norm of human society. Multilingualism is probably more normal than monolingualism. Language origins are multilingual. But we try to stamp that out in certain places.


Recap: In Intro to Anthro 2022, after talking about Ethnography and Shakespeare we read chapter 9 on “Language and Culture” in Through the Lens of Anthropology, specifically concentrating on the idea of Language Origins. Next up: Food-Getting.

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