DANIEL L. EVERETT — HOW LANGUAGE BEGAN, THE STORY OF HUMANITY’S GREATEST INVENTION — 2017
This book is essential in today’s linguistics where we are shifting away from Chomsky’s modern — in fact pre-postmodern — Universal Grammar’s innate theory of language though Chomsky does not choose between innate by creation (by God of course) or by genetic evolution (Darwin’s natural selection). The result is the same: by the decision of a supernatural being or by the natural selection of some genetic mutation, Homo Sapiens became language-endowed at a certain date of his history (and that is the basis of the rather awkward and pointless concept of Homo Sapiens Sapiens). This approach is in phase with the famous “cognitive revolution” that states Homo Sapiens between 70,000 and 55,000 BCE became culturally competent, including language, painting, any symbolical representation, etc. This is pre-postmodern because it states a solution that is in no way proved and yet that accepts no alternative or questioning.
Chomsky is nevertheless the linguist who inspired this scientific domain from 1955 to 2005 or so. He has now been severely questioned and challenged for something like twelve years. Against his innate approach, he had many other linguistic schools, most of them refusing to debate on the origin of language in conformity with the decision of the Paris Linguistic School at the end of the 19th century, a decision that reflected the anti-religious secular approach of life in the full process of establishing itself in France then. A few, alas, very few, accepted to speak of the evolution of language over a very long period of time, and subsequently of the geographical origin of our languages declared to be one in what is today Black Africa with the emergence of Homo Sapiens there from Homo Erectus or Homo Ergaster. Joseph Greenberg is the great master of this approach, though in his time it was only “out of Africa”. In today’s post-modern if not post-postmodern world we have to speak of “Out of Black Africa” and push the dates of the migrations from this vast base to something like 200,000 years BCE, if not even 250,000 years BCE, for the first migration to Northern Africa.
Note here that the standard European method invented in the 19th century to study old states of our modern European languages, the retrospective reconstruction of the more than famous Proto Indo-European could not go beyond a historical distance of about 15,000 years which means not even the peak of the last glaciation which is 21,000 years ago. Any retrospective method comes to a point when everything is either nil or infinite in mathematical calculations. The main shortcoming of this PIE retrospective chase is the fact that the simple triad of questions about who were these people, where did they come from, and what language did they speak before is not even considered. The present book rejects this method and this retrospective approach. And that is postmodern indeed whereas the PIE supporters are definitely pre-postmodern. What is surprising is that so many in Europe and the Western world are still sticking to this obvious blocking retrospective or backward reconstructive method. Daniel L. Everett does not fall in this trap.
Everett’s rejection of Chomsky’s theory is radical and systematic. He rejects the idea that language is a disembodied object (spoken by an ideal speaker in Chomsky’s own perspective and terms) along the line of a mathematical formula “[that] language is little more than a particular kind of grammar…, a hierarchical recursive grammar [that] is not found in a communication system, then [that] that form of communication is not language…, [that] that grammar ‘popped’ into being some 50–65,000 years ago via a mutation.” (p. 68) “Chomsky’s view that language is a recursive grammar, nothing more nothing less” (p. 68) is just rejected as unrealistic. And unrealistic is definitely a semantic and semiological understatement.
This sudden apparition of Universal Grammar or language, Everett calls it catastrophism and for him, Chomsky’s theory is based on such an approach: a sudden fully developed apparition of Universal Grammar’s recursive hierarchical system. I don’t think it is useful to go beyond this simple rejection of Chomsky’s innate genetic approach of the creation of language by man or in man, though this last trait is not solved, disambiguated by Chomsky himself and it may be considered as a mutation that created it or it may have been guided by the wisdom of some God, Biblical or not.
“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam, there was not found a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:19–20)
But what is Everett’s approach?
“Language is not merely a synonym for grammar. It is a combination of meaning, form, gestures, and pitch. Grammar aids language. It is not itself language. Language, whatever its biological basis, is shaped by psychology, history, and culture.” (p. 69) Then on the same page, he gives a chart of what he calls “language is a nexus.”
His main point is that “language evolution can be explained without mutations, [and] based instead on gradual uniformitarianist assumptions, rendering superfluous proposals of language-specific genes or language-specific mutations.” P. 71)
Along that line, he heavily insists on the fact that Homo Erectus changed by acquiring, through natural selection, the bipedal position. He is right to speak of the necessary mutations that were selected and that made this evolution possible. Why did Hominins become bipedal is another question that Everett does not answer. Mutations being haphazard and natural selection being guided by the increased efficiency in the struggle for survival, it is difficult to know why these ‘bipedal’ mutations happened though it is clear that the upright position gave an advantage to Homo Erectus who could see over the savanna and in plains without forests.
But here it is what Everett misses: The radical change in lifestyle brought to Hominins when they became bipedal by the natural selection of a genetic accident. He also forgets to analyze the consequences of this change. Gathering new products. Hunting new animals. Homo Erectus’s food became more animal with the consequences it has on the physical development of the species and its brain. But it also narrowed the hips of women and it lengthened the dependence of the young on their mothers for breastfeeding, and then food and protection.
Homo Erectus gave rise to three species.
Neanderthals, massive individuals and well adapted to the climate of the Middle East and Europe. Denisovans of whom we know little but they covered the whole of Asia. And Homo Sapiens (via a first evolution from Homo Erectus to Homo Ergaster) in Africa, in fact, Black Africa. We know that Homo Sapiens was an agile bipedal long distance fast runner and this characteristic narrowed the hips of women some more and it lengthened the period during which the young had to be taken care of (breastfed, then fed and overlook, be it only for protection).
When we consider these species, including Homo Erectus, migrated over vast territories, we must state they produced more young ones than supported by local resources to be able to “fuel” that migration. This implies a great number of births at a time of a high level of infantile mortality increased by the narrowing of women’s hips and the lengthening of infantile dependency. To reach three or four children brought to adult age per woman the fertile ones who lived at least 29 years (life expectancy at the time) had to have, over fifteen to sixteen years of their life a good eight or ten children, a child every one year and a half. Everett never considers this fact, and note he is not the only one. In fact, I have hardly found nothing but a few side-remarks on the subject of women, pregnancies and children among Homo Sapiens from their emergence to the Ice Age, and even after it, in most of the research I have read on the subject. To the point that I think there is a male-bias in archaeology and anthropology. If we consider the breastfeeding of the young for twelve months, then the dependence in which they are going to live for three more years or even more, some social organization is necessary to do it on a regular basis. A woman hence always has a child in her womb, or at her breast or on her hip or back. Women then had a full schedule with this activity and that means they specialized in taking care of children. This implies a division of labor that sets women in a very clear position: they were the progenitors and propagators of the species. Note this has to be extended to Homo Erectus. If the organization was good, some women, on a rotating basis, could be freed every day for gathering and collecting various food items, or other activities (like painting the caves), while those taking care of the children shared their milk and care over several children, including some who were not their own.
Unluckily Everett does not consider these elements and I think he misses an essential point.
The shift of Homo Erectus from the African forests to the vast open plains of Northern Africa, Asia Minor, Europe, and Asia obliged them to devise hunting methods based on collective and coordinated work over vast areas with communication among the hunters. And that is the main point, for males at least. For women, they had to share their experience, their schedules and they had to speak to the children. There too communication is essential.
But that’s where phylogeny is essential for language, and that’s where Everett is right about Chomsky and the Universal Grammar approach: language cannot be reduced to grammar but has to be considered as the tool of communication, produced and developed by this communication. At the same time, we have to be very clear that language is not an ‘invention’ done by a few in some kind of laboratory, but it is the development of articulated human language within and from the communicational situation that requires this language to communicate and in the same dynamic as the mind itself. Both language and mind are constructs developed to enable communication, later conceptualization, within a communicational situation. The development of language that concerns us here has to follow some stages dictated by the raw materials used by Homo Sapiens, and before him by Homo Erectus, to generate our articulated language and the master word here is articulation. Chomsky states two articulations, an idea he got from André Martinet and standard post-1945 European linguistics and he is wrong. Our language has three articulations that are both in one particular order and hierarchically organized.
But Homo Sapiens, and before him, Homo Erectus inherited from previous Hominins and of course Hominids, monkeys and apes, some vocal articulated calls used to communicate along with gestures, intonations, repetitions and so on. Homo Erectus, let alone Homo Sapiens, started from this heritage. There are facts that cannot be avoided. Monkeys and apes have some ‘linguistic’ tools in the shape of calls that are clusters of vowels and consonants articulated into stable units. The cases I have studied show that these monkeys have about five consonants and three vowels and with these means they produce about six or seven calls that can be repeated for emphasis and some calls are ordered in a certain way to call for attention first and then to specify the danger menacing the community (lion, eagle, falling trees, etc.) Then they produce chains of calls but each call keeps its own meaning and two different calls together do not produce a specific and new meaning. They can articulate vowels and consonants but they can’t produce anything beyond except repetitive chains. Their only syntax is concatenation or repetition but with no specific semiologic development. Each call, each unit is holistic and they are only assembled in concatenated chains for emphasis and urgency, along with gestures, vocal level, intonation, etc.
But what is interesting is that Homo Sapiens would be able to produce one hundred and twenty-five different calls with these five consonants and three vowels (five power three) on the basis of units composed of one consonant, one vowel, and one consonant, or one vowel, one consonant and one vowel, hence three phonetic units. The principle that is behind this great productivity is the fact that Homo Sapiens, and eventually Homo Erectus have invented, or simply developed, the rotation of vowels and consonants. Up to what level for Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens, and what’s more how many vowels and consonants were each species able to produce? We can assume Homo Erectus could produce fewer consonants and fewer vowels than Homo Sapiens, but if we also assume Homo Erectus controlled the rotation of vowels and consonants, that’s only the first articulation and we are far from a full human language. When you have many ‘words’ and no syntax, you have to find somewhere the syntactically structuring elements that will produce complex utterances. That’s where I insist on the fact that the communicational situation itself contains the matrix of the basic human syntax that is going to be used to construct human languages.
To go back to Everett’s question about the “increased phonation” of Homo Erectus, it is not enough to just say that Homo Erectus could produce more vowels and more consonants than previous Hominins and that Homo Sapiens could produce even more. The real question here is: was Homo Erectus able to rotate vowels and consonants, hence did he control the first human linguistic articulation. With seven consonants and five vowels, Homo Erectus would have been able to produce (7 power five) calls, lexical items, hence a maximum of 16,807 units built on the two patterns CVC and VCV. That potential requires from Homo Erectus and later Homo Sapiens to attach these lexical items to objects, actions, whatever, hence to name things and events. The mind at the same time can shift from plain calls to lexical items, hence to naming and that requires then a new form of syntax to produce more complex utterances. Just like a baby that produces his first two-word sentence, Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens with the potential of their phonation plus the potential of the rotation of vowels and consonants are on the way to naming objects and events, hence to discriminating one object from another, hence on the way to abstraction and later conceptualization. Yet all these potential lexical items were like the peas in a can of peas. If you open the can and pour the peas, there is no syntax among them except the concatenation or piling up of the concerned peas.
The challenge is enormous and Everett’s suggestion that Homo Erectus used other communicational means than plain linguistic oral units, such as intonation, gestures, tone, facial expression, body language in general, and even the use of some objects to mime what he meant, does not answer the second question.
what in this communicational situation provides a syntactic frame in which the lexical units get to a higher level of meaning?
But we have to consider why Homo Sapiens evolved and how. By becoming bipedal runners, later on long distance fast runners, they selected mutations that lowered the larynx (the pump of that type of breathing), that developed physiological and physical coordination between diaphragm, lungs, heart, laryngeal and glottal areas, breathing tracks (nose, mouth, tongue, sinuses, etc.) plus the whole body, particularly the limbs, and all that was under brain-control from, among others, the Broca area. The innervation of the subglottal area, mouth, and tongue had to be improved and increased. All that was done by natural selection of haphazard mutations improving these elements for the objective of running longer and faster. I calculated that Neanderthals had an 11% deficit as compared to Homo Sapiens in brain size and probably subglottal innervation in EQ (Encephalization Quotient) proportion. Everett does not seem to capture the importance of this ratio. He says Neanderthals had a bigger brain than Homo Sapiens but this bigger brain is in fact in proportion with their bigger body mass and when compared with Homo Sapiens the ratio shows an 11% deficit. And I assume here the brains of the three species (Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, and Homo Sapiens) are of the same architecture, which is absolutely not sure. The highly parallel and hierarchical brain of Homo Sapiens has no reason to be identical to Neanderthals’ brain. Actually, from Homo Erectus to Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens there might have been mutations at the level of the brain and Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens are not directly connected in descending order and Homo Sapiens could not inherit the eventual mutations of Neanderthals.
All this is considered by Everett but more or less on a back burner, though it is essential to evaluate where Homo Erectus stood.
Before dealing with communication, let me say that women have been proved to stand apart in Homo Sapiens society, to have a special role in these societies, all over the world, confirmed today both in Europe and Indonesia: 75% of the handprints found in caves there (and it has just been proved that these handprints are older in Indonesia than in Europe) are women’s. That, from my point of view, confirms the central role of women before the peak of the Ice Age as the progenitors and propagators of the species but also as the spiritual beings of their societies, hence as those who control spiritual language or communication. If we follow those who say that these caves were the locale of some initiation of the seers of these societies by crawling as deep as possible in the dark and with limited resources, apparently all coming back to the surface with visions that they may have painted onto the deepest and narrowest caves. These visions would have become some spiritual discourse, some bridge with the other side of this world, with the world of spirits. And once again 75% of these were women. Is that proportion the same for those who went through the initiation as for those who painted the main entrance caves? A lot of work is still to be done. Was Homo Erectus on the same line? No one can say, I guess, since they did not paint the caves they lived in. Is that true of Homo Sapiens only at a maximum of 70,000 years BCE? No one can say. But there is no reason not to think it is possible it went a long way farther back in time because of the element Everett did not consider, the procreational situation of women from 13 to 29, and because of what he does not study. He speaks of communication but never considers the communicational situation without which there is no communication.
If we speak of communication, and I would agree with Everett, we have to go back to Homo Erectus at least, we have to state a communicational situation that sets rules and functions, what I call the communicational syntax or discursive syntax. Note the communicational syntax of hunters is not the same as that of mothers taking care of children, but there is a basic situation which is true of all communication, at least Hominin communication based on calls.
Call-ER / CALL / CALL / CALL-EE
Agent / Relation / Theme / Goal
Then call-EE might answer the call vocally but the call-EE, when she is a mother, will answer materially and that action will be on the following pattern here specified as connected to hunger:
Ex-call-EE — — — — — — -Ex-call-ER
Feed-ER / FEED / FOOD / Feed-EE
Agent / Relation / Theme / Goal
This is the basic pattern of the syntax of human languages. According to the various circumstances or cultural circumstances it can be the basis of an active vision, a passive vision or an ergative vision. I call it communicational syntax. This syntax is also the basic discursive syntax. Everett is right on that point. We do not need to have a grammar gene or a syntax gene. Hominin society provides the mold and the melting pot that will bring and develop the basic syntactic architecture of human language. This communicational syntax is essential to lead to the second articulation of language, the distinction between spatial lexical units (what we call nouns in western linguistics) and temporal lexical units (what we call verbs in western linguistics). The first capture of time is not so much the inscription of the utterance in universe-time, which is by the way captured as duration by animals and hence by emerging Hominins, but the fact that some of these lexical items describe or name processes, relations that develop in duration. To be you have to become and once you are you have to go on becoming. To feed you have to start, do and then end the process, whereas food, feed-er, and feed-ee are static entities. They are and they only become due to their being attached to the process of feeding. These two dimensions will become in most languages nouns and verbs, though these names are derived from western linguistics and might not be the best and most proper descriptions.
What I say here goes both the same way as what Everett says: the communicational situation is the real smithy of modern languages and it developed when Hominins got out of Black African forests, but it took a long time for the phonatory and articulatory apparatuses to enable Hominins to articulate a great number of vowels and consonants on a rotating pattern. It required a high level of sound conceptualizing developed through practice and repetition. At the same time, I differ on the part that the communicational situation provides Homo Sapiens, and before him Homo Erectus, with syntax, communicational syntax, later the discursive syntax of modern languages, progressively integrated into the deeper pre-discursive langue of languages within three big family definitions.
It is the impact of this situation that leads to the second articulation of isolating languages after the first articulation of root languages. In root languages, the basic lexical units in langue are not specified as spatial or temporal and that will come when the roots are inserted in a discursive utterance. With the second articulation, the basic lexical units are specified in spatial and temporal categories and thus become complementary as “nouns” and “verbs”, both invariable all other syntactic specifications being discursive. Then this communicational syntax is integrated into the various categorized lexical units to produce the third articulation of first agglutinative languages and then, synthetic-analytical languages: this concerns syntactic functions and tense/mood chronogenesis. But as for time, even a language that does not use tenses contains some time. From what Everett gives about the Piraha language, there seem to be spatial items like “oranges” and temporal items like “give.” These temporal items contain inner time since they are conceived as a transfer, and all transfer requires time. But I guess it is more complex and I regret Everett did not do the job of a linguist on the few sentences he provides us with: identify the Piraha units and specify their nature and characteristics.
Everett does a beautiful job as an anthropologist but when we speak of language we need to be linguists or have linguists attending close by. Not a Chomskyan linguist who considers language in a narrow definition, and who considers that his/her definition is the only possible. They might be modern in their structuralism, but they are certainly not post-modern. We have to open the scientific palette to maybe understand the phylogeny and the psychogenesis of language within a real communicational situation because “Colorless green ideas do sleep furiously.”
The last element we have to consider is to associate the phylogeny of language and its three articulations in connection with the three vast migrations of Homo Sapiens out of Black Africa to understand that the three vast families of root languages, isolating languages and agglutinative-synthetic/analytical languages evolved from the same linguistic nest but then three migrations left the nest at three different moments along this phylogenic evolution in the nest. But that is another story and I would advise you to check what I have published on the subject, for example, my Kindle book: “Cro-Magnon’s Language: Emergence of Homo Sapiens, Invention of Articulated Language, Migrations out of Africa” (English Edition) Format Kindle, B074DXJM5C.
This book by Daniel L. Everett is essential to finally step beyond the Chomskyan approach that is too narrow to be really effective. Language can only be understood within the human or Hominin communicational situation that produced it from genetic mutations naturally selected for reasons that had nothing to do with language. Language is a side effect of the evolution of Hominins to the bipedal long distance fast runner that Homo Sapiens became after Homo Erectus became bipedal and started migrating. Language is a side-effect of that bipedalism but it is the tool of this migration-oriented Hominin species that starts with Homo Erectus. And that has nothing to do with Chomsky’s black box of Universal Grammar.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU