aeon | July 24, 2020
Some say language evolved by firelight, with our ancestors sharing stories deep into the night. Others suggest it began as baby talk, or as imitations of animal calls, or as gasps of surprise. Charles Darwin proposed that language started with snippets of song; Noam Chomsky thought it was just an accident, the result of a freak genetic mutation.
Proposals about the origins of language abound. And it’s no wonder: language is a marvel, our most distinctive capacity. A few slight movements of tongue, teeth and lips, and I can give you a new idea, whisk you somewhere else or give you goosebumps. Any thought a human can think, it would seem, can be shared on a puff of air. Explaining how this all started has been called the ‘hardest problem in science’ and it’s one that few can resist. Linguists, neuroscientists, philosophers and primatologists – not to mention novelists and historians – have all taken cracks at it.
Over this long and colourful history, one idea has proven particularly resilient: the notion that language began as gesture. What we now do with tongue, teeth and lips, the proposal goes, we originally did with arms, hands and fingers. For hundreds of thousands of years, maybe longer, our prehistoric forebears commanded a gestural ‘protolanguage’. This idea is evident in some of the earliest writings about language evolution, and is now as popular as ever. Yet even as the popularity of the ‘gesture-first’ theory has surged, its major weakness – a flaw some consider fatal – has become all the more glaring.
Early proponents of ‘gesture-first’ ideas appealed to the intuition that bodily communication is primitive. In his Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746), Étienne Bonnot de Condillac imagined a boy and a girl, alone after a deluge, struggling to invent language anew. He described how the boy, wanting to obtain some out-of-reach object, ‘moved his head, his arms, and all parts of his body’, as if trying to acquire it. And the girl got the message. A scene very much like this can be readily seen today, of course: a baby in highchair wriggling in the direction of a toy just beyond her grasp. Part of the primitive aura of gesture – for Condillac and other early thinkers – stemmed from the observation that gesture precedes speech in infancy. Before children can talk, they point, nod, wave and beg. Perhaps, goes the logic, the development of language in our species followed this same sequence.
Anthropologists of the 19th century widely championed gesture-first theories, citing other intuitive arguments. Garrick Mallery – who saw gesture as a ‘vestige of the prehistoric epoch’ – noted that it is much easier to create new, interpretable signals with one’s hands than with one’s voice. Imagine ‘troglodyte man’, he wrote in 1882. ‘With the voice he could imitate distinctively but the few sounds of nature, while with gesture he could exhibit actions, motions, positions, forms, dimensions, directions, and distances, with their derivatives and analogues.’ In more modern terms, it is easier to create transparent signals with gesture – signals that have a clear relationship to what they mean. This observation has since been borne out in lab experiments, and it remains one of the most compelling arguments for a gestural protolanguage.