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3. Research

Five steps

By the proposal here, there was an irreducibly-necessary, ordered sequence of steps in the evolution of speech and language.

There is evidence in many quarters, in language acquisition and disorders, the differences between languages, and new language formation, particularly creoles and signed languages.

Berwick and Chomsky (2016), argue for a single decisive mutation in the last 100,000 years which has since diffused across the species.

By the proposal here Berwick and Chomsky’s single step needs to be broken down into five steps, all developing the apparatus, known as ‘X-bar’, giving a general account of what makes a sentence a sentence. My proposed steps are as follows:

  1. Merge two linguistic elements, one as head. This was, I submit, at least 700,00 years ago, before the divergences between the main ancestral line of modern humans and Neandertal and other ancestors. This allowed the stringing together of two items like “In water” and the building of speech sounds from smaller components, known as ‘features’, in language-specific sequences.
  2. Copy an element from one position to another, without pronouncing the copied element. This had the effect of emphasising and clarifying functions like the difference between statements and questions. The creation of a destination involved another merging and thus another level of structure.
  3. Pronouns, distinguished by the fact their reference is defined by the circumstances of the utterance, as it occurs, met the needs of the moment. Reference becomes important in what are known as ‘binding relations’ by which, in “She said Mary was hurt”, she can’t be Mary.
  4. Inflection, often referred to as Infl, as by the difference between looks and looked, also allowed the difference between she and her in “She loves” and “Loved her”, expressing Tense, and the contrast by the little word to in “I saw her go” and “I want her to go”, and the language-universal contrast by negation, as in “To be or not to be”, by further developments of structure.
  5. Encapsulate, limiting the scope of operations, but facilitating the consciousness of them by ‘metalinguistics’, making it possible for speech and language to be learnt as a matter of course – in all probability, a defining character of modern humans.

The characters by these steps had to diffuse one by one across ancestral populations in order for the universalitoes of human speech and language to become what they are, known as universal grammar, as aspects of the human genome. Thus Encapsulate made it possible to recognise the notion of a word, in such a way that it is meaningful to ask of any speaker of any language, “What was the last word you said?”But the genomic effect is still unstable, accounting for the characteristic multifactoriality of speech and language disorders, their converse specificities, the symptomatologies of common errors, and the commonly poor metalinguistics.

By the close relation between the first two steps, modern children ask or respond appropriately to a Wh question such as “Where Daddy?” as little as a week after producing a simple statement involving two corresponding elements, xuch as “Daddy work.” Crucially, single word responses to questions never precede two word statemesnts.

The steps proposed here were not events. Each may have taken thkousands of years. But from the fact that there are corresponding phenomena in all languages, it is reasonable to suppose that they evolved separately and in sequence. At each point when a necessarily very visible step was taken, it was copied throughout a population. It had to be, or it wouldn’t have diffused and fixated.

This is a research proposal. It is what I am working on. Languages vary in which parts of the available apparatus they use. While a language may not express one or more parts of the total apparatus, all languages, have access to it. In relation to speech pathology this proposal effects a conceptual economy. If the apparatus evolved by an ordered sequence of steps which have now become part of the human genome, it is possible for parts of this to be incompletely specified in some individuals. This removes the need to postulate various separate disorders.

This approach also helps devise and develop therapeutic activities like those I describe here.

Precursor cognitions

There were necessary precursors. A population of modern human ancestors, must have found regular occasion to gaze at one another in a way that could be recognised and understood. This must have been important because human ancestors lost the pigmentation in the whites of the eyes, making the direction of the gaze easier to read. But on a hunt where a living prey is larger and more powerful than the hunter, gazing does not communicate reliably to other hunters. There is a more readable, symbolic act by pointing to some individual. This has to have been a cognitive innovation by a human ancestor after the divergence from the ancestors of chimpanzees. It is seemingly not understandable to any non-human. But it is imprecise. And it only works where whatever is being pointed out is in sight.

Perhaps the most decisive precursor of language was mimicry, implicitly picking out some some entity or class of entities in the universe, as known to speakers and listeners. As pointed out by Merlin Donald (1991), some group of human ancestors must have started to use mimicry with sounds or gestures to pick out individuals as individuals or as members of a group, class or set, even when they are out of sight. Mimicry made it possible to refer. And it may have contributed to the process of original vocabulary formation. What we can be sure about is that the process happened. Humans found ways of agreeing about what referred to what, such as individuals.

While most modern humans believe they can mimic some sounds from nature, there is wide variation in this skill. For the most skilled exponents this becomes an entertaining party trick, a circus performance, a military deception, or part of a hunter’s repertoire. Onomatopieia supposedly involves a degree of mimicry. But the onomatopeia of even the least skilled mimic is by a trained user of an evolved speech system. The imperfect onomatopoeia of oink may partially recapitulate the first step on the pathway to language. Mimicry is implictly referential. But only implicitly. To get from mimicry, to language, the reference has to become explicit; and the sounds have to be organised into a formal system.

In the evolution of human speech and language, reference, probably in the naming of individuals, was seemingly primordial.