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Before the beginning

Laying the foundations

Before language could start to develop, 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 may have been 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 mooh or 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 to individuals was probably primordial.