Speculation Unlimited Part III: The development of language

Linguistics has long been a major interest of mine. My main interest in the field of linguistics is historical linguistics, its least practical and most abstract sub-field. I do love things that are abstract and impractical, and as a matter of total coincidence, I am not particularly well off.

One of the unanswered questions about language is how it started. There is virtually no way of figuring this out, so we can safely suggest almost any reasonable theory without fear of being contradicted.

In my feverish speculations, language could have gone through three stages: gestural, whispered and vocalized. I recently learned that I am not unique in my idea that sign language preceded spoken language, but that really shouldn’t be a surprise. Linguists have known for some time that sign language has every characteristic of spoken language. The one and only difference is how they are produced.

It makes intuitive sense that the first language would have been a sign language. After all, apes can understand and produce a few signs, though the way they use them is quite different from the way human beings use signs in sign language.  Their signing ability is similar to the language abilities of the African gray parrot you may have seen on TV that can say and understand a small number of words.

In my speculation, human predecessors may have been the ones who first started using signs. It is hard to imagine that the rules and nuances of language or existed before modern humans did, but we really don’t know. In any case, I speculate that sign language was first and that it developed all (or almost all) of the characteristics of language before spoken language ever existed: symbolic meaning, grammar, and so on. This is not an unusual hypothesis.

My one and only contribution to this speculation, which is probably not unique either, is that a whispered stage of language could have existed before vocalized language. One of the reasons I believe this is my own answer to the question: why do we speak at all? Why don’t we just use sign language?

I ask this because people who are deaf do not feel particularly disabled with regards to language. They can communicate just fine. For a deaf person who knows sign language, their main difficulty is not that they can’t hear, it’s that they have a different language. They have a language problem much more than they have a hearing problem. So, if sign language meets their needs so well, why do people even need to speak?

My answer is: people can’t sign if both hands are full or if they can’t see each other. The first case does happen, but not often enough to require a new language system. All you have to do is put things down for a minute. So, as tempting as it is to say that spoken language developed alongside tool production using two hands, that is probably not the case. It just wouldn’t have been a frequent and urgent need.

So it seems more likely to me that people needed spoken language so they could communicate when they couldn’t see each other. When do people usually talk when they can’t see each other? There is some communication between people who cannot see each other when they are moving through a forest, say when they are hunting or gathering food, but again, this kind of communication rarely requires a complex language system. When you’re talking across a distance, you can’t say much that is complicated. A distance communication system may have been one prerequisite for spoken language, but it is unlikely that it was the driving factor in the development of language. Some animals cooperate and communicate over distances without any need for a complex language.

The other time when human beings can’t see each other is in the dark. We sometimes forget how much time people used to spend in the dark, but for most of human history, people didn’t even have oil lamps, much less candles. The light at night was provided by the moon, the stars and the communal fire. On dark nights, away from the fire, sign language may not have been particularly helpful.

So I think language evolved as a way of communicating in the dark. To me spoken language began as whispered secrets in the dark, away from the communal firelight, a way of conspiring with others. Conveniently enough, conspire originally meant “whisper together” in Latin. Today, we might imagine that such communication must have had to do with sex, but there is something else we forget about the past: just how dangerous people were to each other.

We sometimes like to imagine that ancient hunter-gatherers lived a bucolic, peaceful life. We imagine that their only stress came when they were confronted with a large animal. We forget that people are also large animals in most respects, and while human beings are sometimes very generous, they are also sometimes very cruel. Murder within a social group or family was quite likely a very ancient sin, just as Genesis shows. People would have conspired with each other and discussed potential threats in whispers, away from the group, especially at night.

That thought is probably much darker than necessary, though (no pun intended, the association of darkness and evil is embedded in our language).  Physical threats don’t need to have been the only topic of discussion. Small-group politics can be difficult, as watching a few episodes of a reality show like Big Brother will reveal. It doesn’t have to be a matter of life and death for people to sneak aside and whisper in the dark.

I won’t bore you with the details here, but it seems to me that all the languages I have ever investigated could have come from a language with only voiceless consonants. Such languages are perfect for whispering. It even seems to me that the famous “clicks” of the ancient languages of southern African are easier to pronounce and more natural in whispered speech. It seems quite reasonable to me that whispered language existed before spoken language, and may have existed alongside sign language.

Today, the effect of a language that is only whispered can be disturbing. Think of the Parseltongue of the Harry Potter series. It is easy to associate it with darkness and evil. In my wild speculation, our ancestors could have once faced a foe that only spoke in whispers, making whispered language like Parseltongue reach deep into our souls. But probably not: in reality, even if spoken language began as whispered speech, whispers would still be associated with darkness, conspiracies and evil. It’s just the way they are used.

Once whispered speech developed to the point that spoken language was the equal of sign language, sign language would have become redundant for most people. Experience shows that populations do not remain bilingual for many generations. One of the two systems would have been dropped, and the ability to use whispered language in total darkness as well as the light would have given it a small advantage, which is all it would need on an otherwise level playing field. And once whispered language was brought into the daylight, there would no longer be any need to whisper, and vowels, at least, could have been voiced.

The question I have left un-pondered: how did singing relate to all of this and when did it enter the picture?

So that is my dark vision of how


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