The Origins of Meaning - Preface


This book covers some of the same ground, now much more brightly illuminated by the light of modern research, as the passages on language in Darwin's The Descent of Man. The central message of the continuity between non-human animals and humans is the same. Darwin was aware of the great gulf between human language and animal communication, but touched on many of the relevant aspects of animal behaviour that give us clues about the origins of language. In the intervening century and a third, a vast amount of more thorough and less anecdotal evidence has accrued, pointing in the same direction as Darwin urged. Darwin would have delighted in the enormous body of empirical knowledge now built up by genetics, neuroscience, ethology, comparative psychology and anthropology. I have raided these subjects to try to spell out a detailed and up-to-date account (as of 2006) of the evolutionary foundations of language. I have also raided the more speculative subjects, in particular philosophy (including logic) and computer modelling, where their ideas help to illuminate the origins of language.

With a more principled carving of language into its natural parts by 20th century linguistics, we are able to spell out in more detail the probable animal precursors for various components of the language faculty (in its broad sense, of course). We have to admit that there is still a gap in our knowledge of the precise mechanism by which some accumulation of small changes brought about the apparent discontinuity between us and animals. But I hope this work, in its two volumes, will show how research has, especially in the last few decades, substantially narrowed that gap.

Books on ``the evolution of language'' are expected to tell a story, preferably with dates. Though a rough sequence can be postulated for the order in which various elements of the modern human language capacity emerged, we do not have enough data to tell when they emerged, to closer than a few hundred millennia. There is nevertheless a broad chronological organization of this volume and its successor, Volume 2. The discussion of prelinguistic animal concepts and social lives in this volume will take us to the brink of modern human language, when the species became for the first time `language-ready'. The conceptual capacities discussed in Part 1 here were certainly in place for our first bipedal ancestors, the australopithecines, who lived about 4-5 million years ago. We can be certain of this because much of the basic conceptual apparatus can be found, in a simple form, in related apes, and even in some birds. The specific conceptual abilities that accrued to humans as a direct result of going public with their thoughts, via the medium of shared symbolic languages, are of course not present in animals; but much that can be reasonably labelled `propositional' and `conceptual' existed before modern public language.

The social changes discussed in Part 2 of this volume, by which our later ancestors became willing to open up their private concepts to others, would have happened during the several million years before the second great migration out of Africa, about 150,000 years ago. Language is a bridge between meanings and vocal sounds or manual signs. Pre-humans established evolutionary bridgeheads to language-readiness at both ends, the phonetic and the semantic/pragmatic. The phonetic bridgehead to language-readiness has received more attention (e.g. by Lieberman (1984)) than the equally crucial semantic/pragmatic one. This volume gives a picture of the semantic and pragmatic aspects of pre-human language-readiness. The final processes tipping us over the brink of language, the emergence of a shared lexicon and then of complex linguistic forms, morphosyntactic and phonological, will be the subject of Volume 2.

Beside following this broad chronological framework, this book is at least as much about showing how we can begin to see language in a new light. Unique though it is, language emerges from known aspects of animal behaviour and more abstract organizational principles (`self-organization'). The book's title echoes Dobzhansky's title ``Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution''. Thinking of language in the light of evolution helps to make much more sense of it. Mysteries of discontinuity from non-human animals begin to dissolve -- though they still haven't entirely disappeared.

``In the beginning was the Word'', wrote St John at the beginning of his gospel. Goethe's scholar-hero Faust, sitting down to translate this gospel, couldn't accept this mysterious aphorism, and neither can I, if it expresses transparently anything to do with the evolution of language. Faust at first replaced `the Word' with `Sense' or `Meaning', thus agreeing with the view taken here that meaning precedes human words, as I argue in Part 1, on (proto-)semantics. But Faust wasn't satisfied with that, either, and ended up translating the sentence as `In the beginning was the Act', thus agreeing with the view taken here that action is a precursor to human language, as I argue in Part 2, on (proto-)pragmatics. Unlike Faust, I accept that both meaning and action, on parallel tracks, laid the basis for human words.

In researching this book, I have been impressed by the emerging consensus in the field of language evolution. Disagreements do exist, but much evidence, gathered laboriously in many far-flung corners, points in very similar directions. I have relied very heavily on this mass of empirical research, and have quoted it liberally. I hope you don't object to my extensive use of quotations. Important contributors to the field deserve their own voice, rather than being paraphrased. I have gathered together a lot of original material. What virtue may be seen in the book lies in my assembling the labours of others into what I hope is a coherent argument of my own about how language use and structure got to be the way they are.

A few linguists (e.g. Derek Bickerton, Phil Lieberman, Jean Aitchison, Mike Beaken, Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy) have written books on the evolution of language. Now that these pioneering frontierspeople and trailblazers have given us charts of their chosen valleys, we can begin to compile an atlas of the whole landscape. The difference between their works and mine is that I have tried systematically (in this volume and the next) to cover, at least in outline, all the compartments into which linguists habitually divide language structure and behaviour: semantics, pragmatics (both in this volume), and phonetics, phonology and morphosyntax (in Volume 2, coming soon). With some reservations, linguistics has carved nature at her joints. Each part of this book thus spends a little time on explaining the basics of each compartment (e.g. what the central themes of semantics, or of pragmatics, are) and then examines in detail how that aspect of language behaviour or structure could have got to be that way.

It might be thought that this importation of boundaries established within linguistics is already biased against possible ideas from other subjects such as anthropology or psychology. I have a double-barrelled reply to this. Firstly, I believe, with some reservations, that linguistics has got the carve-up of linguistic phenomena pretty much right, and that evolutionary accounts of all these components of language are crucial to a picture of how language evolved. Language is all of pragmatics, semantics, morphosyntax, phonology, phonetics and more besides. The study of language evolution has suffered in the past from insufficient acknowledgement of this rich multi-component nature of language. This is evident in studies which, while sometimes ambitiously labelled `the evolution of language' or `the origins of language', in fact just focus on one domain, such as phonetics (larynx-lowering), pragmatics (grooming, or theory of mind), phonology (syllable structure) or syntax (recursion). The second barrel of my defence of using the broad subdivisions accepted by linguistics is that I have, where necessary, modified them in the light of evolution. An example is my definition of semantics for evolutionary purposes, which I do not define as essentially relating to the meanings of words and sentences. If this seems provocative, read on, especially Part 1.

For a book written by a linguist, there is rather little linguistics in it, as a glance at the bibliography will show. Modern linguistics naturally deals with fully developed modern languages, and has given scant thought to the question of how they got to be the way they are, or how the language faculty got to be the way it is. This volume, in dealing with the foundations of meaning, both communicated and non-communicated, inevitably deals with rather distant, but essential, precursors of modern human language. Linguistics tends very strongly to focus on linguistic form, be it phonetic, phonological or syntactic. Phonetics, phonology and syntax are more distinctive of human language than are semantics and pragmatics, which have clear foundations, as we will see, in animal concepts and animal social life. (This is not to say, of course, that there are not also distinctively human aspects of conceptual structure and social interaction.) The second volume, dealing with the phonetic, phonological and morphosyntactic form of languages, will engage more fully with literature written by linguists.

Who is this book for? Well, it is clearly interdisciplinary. Many philosophers write only for other philosophers, linguists write for linguists, and anthropologists for anthropologists. This is a linguist writing for any philosopher, psychologist, anthropologist, cognitive scientist, ethologist, linguist or other intellectually curious person with an interest in the foundations of humans' most distinctive ability, language. Consequently, I spend a bit more space explaining some basic ideas than would be spent in a monodisciplinary monograph. I hope that more linguists will be encouraged to expand their horizons beyond formal synchronic theorizing about structure. I hope that more philosophers will be encouraged to grapple with the continuities between non-human and human mental life. And I hope that others will begin to appreciate the various complexities hidden behind the cover-all term meaning. Drawing ideas and facts from so many disciplines into a single story has its problems. Terms with very precise definitions in one subject, and around which debate has often centred, so that they have especially loaded connotations, can be innocently used by an outsider in an everyday sense without any intention of taking sides in hoary old intra-disciplinary debates. Thus drift and linkage have quite special meanings for biologists, as does association for psychologists, reference for linguistic semanticists, and identity and representation for philosophers. In the most pernicious cases, the same term is used in different senses by different disciplines. Thus linguists and philosophers often mean different things by subject and predicate. I have benefited from the advice of specialist readers in avoiding some of these pitfalls. But, just in case there are still some such problems, try to be an interdisciplinary reader, as I have tried to be an interdisciplinary writer. That is, if from the viewpoint of your own subject area, you find some statement puzzling or provocative, try taking any offending term in its everyday, non-technical sense. In the same vein, keep in mind that this work is not intended to solve problems that only crop up within the traditions of a single discipline. So I have no interest here in discussing theory-dependent issues in linguistics. Likewise, I am not aiming to solve any purely metaphysical problems, though the work as a whole reflects my stance that satisfactory answers to many apparently metaphysical questions should be sought naturalistically in empirical facts about brains and social life. Except where precision requires otherwise, I have written in everyday language, to make the book accessible to students and other intellectuals, and I have also tried rigourously to back up my arguments and statements with references to well-researched primary sources.

The explosion of knowledge, and access to knowledge, due to the internet has revolutionized scholarship, especially in the natural sciences. What one used to have to trudge through library bookstacks for, often to find that someone else had borrowed the crucial tome, can often now appear in seconds on ones desktop. Without this facility, many of the claims I have made in this book would have been more speculative and less well backed up by empirical studies, or not ventured into at all.

Finally, I urge all readers to seek out the gaps and inconsistencies in the argument that I present here, and to try to remedy them constructively, in the light of available empirical findings. Of course there will be new visions and revisions, and I look forward to them.