Two distinguished experts in language evolution, Michael Tomasello and W. Tecumseh Fitch (2010), believe that the most unique property of human language is the sharing of intentions. As I mentioned earlier, animals that have been evolved by selection at the level of the individual are very stingy with what they communicate to others, and, when they do, their motive is usually to manipulate. We humans, on the other hand, are shameless blabbermouths, constantly competing with each other to bend each others’ ears. It doesn’t seem like much, but that fact that you point to something with a child within the first year of life, and you and the baby can start babbling about whatever it is you pointed at, is completely unique—except for dogs, and that is because they have been domesticated over thousands of years. If you point to something in front of a chimpanzee, it will just look at your finger quizzically.
Another unique quality that Tomasello (2008) points out is that it is natural for children to learn that verbs like “kick” (described as “verb islands”) do not have to be tied to a specific individual doing the kicking, but can be understood as a disconnected, general activity that can be done by anyone. This ability is easily explained by the fact that pre-human language was not attached to individuals but holistically referred to group activities in which they all took part.
Although a great deal is known about grammar (syntax), which I will get to shortly, Fitch refers to semantics—the mystery of how meaning is understood in language—as “the wild west” of linguistic theory. (When I read that, I thought, “That’s me!”) This problem too melts away when one thinks about the old mind. The deadly serious meaning of the old mind for six million years was singularly focused on one thing: the-good-of-the-group. Fitch credits the philosopher Paul Grice (1975) with simplifying the issue of meaning in language with a general set of rules, or “maxims,” for conversation when language is “on duty,” that is, when it is not, as Ludwig Wittgenstein (PI¶38) would say, “on vacation” playing games (which I will also get to shortly).
[stextbox id=”custom” caption=”Rules for a group selected species” color=”000000″ bcolor=”000000″ bgcolor=”f8f8ff” image=”null”]Overall: Be cooperative. Be informative
I. Maxims of Quantity:
1. Make your contributions as informative as is required.
2. Do not make your contributions more informative than required.
II. Maxims of Quality:
Supermaxim: Try to make you contribution one that is true.
1. Do not say what you believe is false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack evidence.
III. Maxims of Relation: Be relevant.
IV. Maxims of manner: Supermaxim: Be perspicuous.
1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
2. Avoid ambiguity.
3. Be brief.
4. Be orderly.[/stextbox]
These maxims are a concentrated guideline for the predictable contents of communication among a species shaped by group selection. I would compare them to the lessons that Dr. Seeley learned from his bees. Serious conversation is about the good of the group.
So the sharing of intentions for the-good-of-the-group and the understanding of actions as detached from individuals are aspects of the old mind. Another key concept about the old mind is that it is filled with interpersonal rules. First and foremost, there are the foundational “Thou Shalt Not” rules of morality, essential for the close cooperation with and between monogamous groups. Then, arborizing out in our own Homo Genus are the intricate conditional rules of hunting and gathering as a coordinating group, everyone passionately gesturing and vocalizing while listening all day, every day. Beyond anything the old mind is a communal rule-making machine constantly being disseminated and conserved across generations by the process of total immersion involved in communication by the process of identification described earlier.
Having described the properties of human language inherited by the old mind, we now turn to the new mind. In my prison years, when I was reading Darwin’s second great opus, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, I had noted that he associated his newly invented concept of sexual selection to human evolution with respect to vocal language. Drawing heavily on the example in nature of male birdsong, Darwin wrote:
The impassioned orator, bard, or musician, when with his various tones and cadences, he excites the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which, at an extremely remote period, his half-human ancestors aroused each other’s passions, during their mutual courtship and rivalry.
After I come to the conclusion that Homo sapiens had newly evolved strong inclinations for sexual display, I finally came upon a book by a first rate linguist that was actually comprehensible by a layman such as myself, The Evolution of Language (2010), by W. Tecumseh Fitch. In it I was delighted to find that he wholeheartedly supports Darwin’s theory that vocal language was initiated by singing.
The core virtue of the musical protolanguage hypothesis is its logical explanation of the design features shared by song and spoken language, namely the use of the vocal/auditory channel to generate complex, hierarchically structured signals that are learned and shared across generations.
So here are the beginnings of an outline of the underlying emotional dynamics of human language: the interaction between the slowly learned (by identification) rule-making, group-oriented scaffolding of language on “top” of which teenagers would sing their ever more intricately creative songs, some of which would catch on and rapidly “go viral” spreading far and wide.
In a 2002 paper in Science, three preeminent linguists (Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch) agreed that the property of recursion is the crucial aspect of human language that confers its unique capacity of open-ended generativity. Recursion is a confoundingly complicated concept in mathematics, computer science, and linguistics, but for my simplistic purposes here, recursion can be defined as the ability to embed multiple phrasal and clausal statements within the larger context of sentences: “This book, which was written by a psychiatrist who loves to speculate about the big questions in life, could go on forever in an infinite number of directions.” The statements “This book was written by a psychiatrist,” “The psychiatrist loves to speculate,” etc. are embedded in the sentence “This book could go on forever.” Chimpanzees cannot start a sentence in one direction, switch gears to embed the equivalent of another sentence (let alone two or more) within it, and then have the cognitive wherewithal or inclination to complete the suspended initial sentence.
With our two minds, we can simultaneously hold onto the intentionality of the whole sentence with our old, rule-making mind while flitting around “on top,” dressing it up with an endless array of clauses and modifiers.