[Marxism] On the Origins of Language

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Wed Aug 3 13:21:17 MDT 2005

Carrol Cox :

And this is an excellent example that sign langauge is parasitic upon
spoken language. The wonderful languages within the deaf communities
would never have developed except within a species in which spoken
language had developed.

The anthropologist Ian Tattersal (_The Monkey in the Mirror: Essays on
the Science of What Makes Us human_ [2002]) speculates that perhaps
children invented language -- several times. He has some fascinating
material on the invention of new aspects of culture among monkeys by the
children -- for example washing sand off food in a group of monkeys that
lived near the ocean. First the children washed it, then it spread to
the females, and never was adapted by adult males until the next

In any case, the capacity for language (as for writing symphonies --
gould's example) is almost certainly a spandrel, and was not exploited
until 10s of thousands of years after the appearance of biologically
modern humans. For 10s of thousands of years humans _exactly_ like us
flourished, or at least survived, without language.

CB: I was thinking sure you are right that the capacity to write symphonies
is a spandrel-like trait, but then I thought about the role of drums in
communication in Africa and America. The ability to make meaningful and
communicative sound symbols other than with voice, including several
different sounds coordinated and harmonized  at once could be very directly
adaptive. Ancient human daily life may indeed have been a symphony of human
generated sounds coordinating labor and kinship.

As far as sign language, the whole gambit of _body_ language, including use
of the hands and all other body parts might be very ancient. Modern sign
language origins may not be the example to infer back from. Functional
"dance" and ritual, theatre with mime could have been pervasive in quotidien
back at human origins.

More information about the Marxism mailing list