On the recent origin of symbolically-mediated language and its implications for
Draft chapter prepared for
S. Lea and M. Corballis (Eds) Evolution of the Hominid Mind.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
First draft: February 1997
Department of Psychology
As this is a long chapter, the abstract is given separately from the main text.
The essential argument of this chapter is that modern human languages were established
after the emergence of the biological species. The biology that supports these languages
was thus evolved in the absence of such languages, and was co-opted to support present
abilities as a result of quasi-historical changes in human social and technological practices
through a long process of 'bootstrapping'. This is, then, a socially driven account. The
central claim is that social structures put varying 'pressures' on the communication
systems that sustain them, through the different levels of presuppositionality each society's
members share with each other. With low social differentiation and interchangeable roles,
people communicate with each other against a background of a shared or common
orientation, in a context of interpersonal relations founded on common perceptions, values,
interpretive competence and so on. As social structure differentiates, presuppositionality
decreases, so that to sustain and reproduce itself, the communicative practices within that
society must develop ways of creating common contexts within the medium of
communication itself. The contexts which make interpersonal communication possible have
to be lifted out of the everyday milieu and created within the symbolic system of the
lingua franca. Essentially, contexts will be 'pressured' into symbolic codes, and become
conceptualized as objects of knowledge rather than remaining solely as implicit processes
which sustain knowledge. In the process of this translation from context to code,
'grammar' is seen as emerging from the co-option of hierarchical ordering abilities that
were already pregnant within the human 'mental apparatus'. Grammar functions to
'freeze' the implications of otherwise immediate contexts into explicit forms that keep
track of and instantiate these implications into a symbolic tool kit that mediates our
relation with the world we live in. The evidence broadly supports a view of
communicative symbol systems as the providers of 'cognitive technologies' or 'tool-kits'
that variously afford analytic, context-independent thought. This is not to claim that
language determines thought, but that particular symbol systems can make some universal
mental operations more or less difficult to carry out.
For further details on this topic, see A.J.Lock and C.R.Peters (Eds) Handbook of human symbolic evolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (1996).
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