Social and socio-
Ontogeny and symbolism
A history of the study of language origins and the gestural primacy hypothesis
Gordon W. Hewes
Speculative writings on language origins seem mainly to be confined, until very recently, to the Classical and Judaeo-Christian West. Until the Enlightenment nearly everything that was said about language origins in the West proceeded from the assumption that language began with Adam in the Garden of Eden.
In the eighteenth century a gestural origin for language was proposed by several writers, and some thought that apes might have a capacity for language. Renewed interest in these ideas developed in the mid-twentieth century, with systematic studies of human sign-languages, and then experiments to teach Great Apes visual languages.
The modern argument for gestural primacy in language origins draws on several lines of evidence, including the following. Sound is of questionable suitability as the original basis for language, given the greater creative capacity and open-endedness of higher primate manual and digital operations. Regular tool-using in hominids probably evolved before vocal language, and the human brain's left-lateralization for speech could have been tacked on to a previous specialization for predominantly right-handed gestural language and precise sequences of manual manipulations. In relatively simple contexts gestural communication has the distinct advantage of greater transparency and ease of communication.
It is speculated that with increasing manual preoccupations
proto-speech developed out of mouth-gestures patterned after
hand gestures and combined with vocalizations. Now the
development of more abstract conceptual thinking was possible,
given that gestural language suffers from proneness to commit
the logical fallacy of misplaced concreteness. More recently
the invention and diffusion of phonemicized speech acted as
the principal stimulus for what we recognize as the cultural
revolution of the Upper Palaeolithic. The basic advantage of
a small set of phonemic units lies in their cognitive
indexical function, their facilitation of storage and rapid
retrieval of information from an increasingly larger mental
LinksFor a recent view see M. Corballis (1999) The gestural origins of language. American Scientist, 87: 138-145.
Speculative scenarios can serve as a framework for understanding the events that might have occurred in the evolution of human language. In this scheme, simple gestures first anticipated more complex forms of communication about 6 or 7 million years ago, shortly after the human line diverged from the great apes. At this stage, vocalizations served only as emotional cries and alarm calls. By about 5 million years ago, with the advent of bipedalism, a more sophisticated form of gesturing involving hand signals may have evolved among the early hominids that we now recognize as Australopithecus. About 2 million years ago, in association with the increasing brain size of the genus Homo, hand gestures became fully syntactic, but vocalizations also became prominent. It may have been only 100,000 years ago that Homo sapiens switched to speech as its primary means of communication, with gestures now playing a secondary role. In modern times, the development of telecommunication has permitted the routine use of spoken language in the complete absence of hand gestures. Even so, many people find themselves gesturing when they speak on the telephone.
Caption and figure Copyright © American Scientist.