How Language Evolved

The evolution of language can reveal much about how language works, providing frameworks for thinking about how to understand specific aspects of language (such as the usage of emoji and stickers in messenger apps, something I am currently working on).

Michael Tomasello looks at language through studies of animal communication and child development as well as the spoken and written language of adults and tracing the development of language from gesture.

He argues that there are two types of communication using gesture: pointing and pantomiming. Pointing comes first and is something that infants use and understand. Pantomiming is the mimicking or representation of something. Pointing directs the attention of someone else to something in the immediate environment, while pantomiming directs the imagination of someone else to something that is typically not in the immediate environment (for example, behaviourally simulating an action, relation or object).

Daniel Everett points out that these two types of gesture map onto Pierce’s semiotic distinction between indexes and icons, although he disagrees with Pierce in arguing that indexes are more basic (and earlier in evolution) than icons. He uses the example of how indexes are found in nature, such as smells, footprints and broken branches.

Daniel Everett sees indexes as non-intentional and non-arbitrary linkages between form and meaning. Icons are non-arbitrary but intentional linkages between form and meaning. Finally, symbols are intentional and arbitrary linkages between form and meaning. For example, words in any language are usually arbitrary (unless they are onomatopoeias).

In the evolution of language, indexes (pointing) precedes icons (pantomiming) which precedes symbols (written and spoken language). Young children find pointing simpler and more natural than iconic gestures which require skills for imitation and representation.

Great apes and other animals use pointing, and more generally have been shown to use gestures as “intentional movements” and “attention-getters”. To interpret a pointing gesture, you need to understand the pointer’s intentions, requiring joint attention or shared experience to give context. Research on primates and humans shows a number of common themes in the use of gesture:

  • Many and very large individual differences in gestural repertoires
  • The same gesture used to different communicative goals and different gestures used for the same communicative ends
  • Individuals typically only produce a gesture when the recipient is paying attention
  • Individuals sometimes use sequences or combinations of multiple gestures when the other does not react appropriately

Michael Tomasello states that all such communication requires “common ground” (joint attention and/or shared experience). He also says that there are three general types of motive for communication:

  1. Requesting (I want you to do something to help me)
  2. Informing (I want you to know something because I think it will help or interest you)
  3. Sharing (I want you to feel something so that we can share attitudes/feelings together)

Common ground is also required for language acquisition, which is less about mapping sounds onto experiences, and more about understanding how other people use particular sounds to direct their attention to specific things in their environment. As Michael Tomasello says, “Totally arbitrary vocal conventions are only possible because the conventions were first used in conjunction with – piggy-backed on – more naturally meaningful action-based gestures.”

In many ways, emoji and stickers are substitutes for the way gesture is used in face-to-face communication. In this research, the importance of shared intentionality and shared experience has become very clear (more on that soon).

Tomasellos’s and Everett’s books are full of insights into the way that we all communicate, through gesture, body language, facial expressions, emoji, stickers, speech and written language. The formal languages that humans have developed are ultimately just sophisticated forms of gesture. Let me finish with two quotes from the two authors.

“Linguistic acts are social acts that one person intentionally directs to another (and highlights that she is doing this) in order to direct her attention and imagination in particular ways so that she will do, know, or feel what he wants her to.” (Michael Tomasello)

“All human behaviour, including language, is the working out of intentions, what our minds are directed towards. Language is the best tool for communicating those intentions. Communication is a cooperative behaviour. It follows cultural principles of interaction.” (Daniel Everett)

Origins of Human Communication by Michael Tomasello

How Language Began: The story of humanity’s greatest invention by Daniel Everett

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