The History of Language: Why We Speak

The Origin of Language Charles Darwin observed that languages seem to evolve the same way that species evolve. However, just like with species, he failed to explain what the origin of language could be.

Languages indeed evolved just like species, through little “mistakes” that were introduced by each generation. It is not surprising that the evolutionary trees drawn by biologists (based on DNA similarity) and linguists (based on language similarity) are almost identical. Language may date back to the beginning of mankind.

What is puzzling, then, is not the evolution of modern languages from primordial languages: it is how it came to be that non-linguistic animals evolved into a linguistic animal such as the human being. The real issue is the “evolution of language” from non-language, not the “evolution of languages” from pre-existing languages, that is puzzling.

Several biologists and anthropologists believe that language was “enabled” by accidental evolution of parts of the brain and possibly other organs.

The USA biologist Philip Lieberman views the brain as the result of evolutionary improvements that progressively enabled new faculties. Human language is a relatively recent evolutionary innovation that came about when speech and syntax were added to older communication systems. Speech allowed humans to overcome the limitations of the mammalian auditory system, and syntax allowed them to overcome the limits of memory.

The USA neurologist Frank Wilson believes that the evolution of the human hand allowed humans a broad new range of new activities that, in turn, fostered an evolution of the brain that resulted in the brain of modern humans. Anatomical changes of the hand dramatically altered the function of the hand, eventually enabling it to handle and use objects. This new range of possibilities for the hand created a new range of possibilities for thought: the brain could think new thoughts and could structure them. The human brain (and only the human brain) organizes words into sentences, i.e. does syntax, because of the hand. “The brain does not live inside the head”.

Linguistic Darwinism

According to Chomsky’s classical theory, language is an innate skill: we come pre-wired for language, and simply “tune” that skill to the language that is spoken around us. In Chomsky’s view language is biology, not culture. This implies that the language skill is a fantastic byproduct of evolution. Syntax must be regarded as any other organ acquired via natural selection. How did such a skill develop, since that skill is not present elsewhere in nature? Where did it come from? Language appears to be far too complex a skill to have been acquired via step-by-step refinement of the Darwinian kind, especially since we are not aware of any intermediary steps (e.g., species that use a grammar only to some extent).

The British linguist Derek Bickerton advanced a theory that attempted to bridge Darwin and Chomsky. Bickerton argued that language was the key to the success of the human species, the one feature that made us so much more powerful than all other species. Everything else, from memory to consciousness, seems to be secondary to it. We cannot recall any event before we learned language. We can remember thoughts only after we learned language. Language seems to be a precondition to all the other features that we rank as unique to humans.

First of all, human language cannot just be due to the evolution of primitive, emotion-laden “call systems”. We still cry, scream, laugh, swear, etc. Language has not fully replaced that system of communication. The primitive system of communication continues to thrive alongside language. Language did not replace it, and probably did not evolve from it. Language is something altogether different.

He emphasized the difference (not the similarity) between human and animal communication. Animal communication is holistic: it communicates the whole situation. Human language deals with the components of the situation. Also, animal communication is pretty much limited to what is evolutionarily relevant to the species. Humans, on the other hand, can communicate about things that have no relevance at all for our survival. In fact, we could adapt our language to describe a new world that we have never encountered before. The combinatorial power of human language is what makes it unique. Bickerton thinks that human and animal communication are completely different phenomena.

In fact, Bickerton believes that human language is not primarily a means to communicate but a means to represent the world. Human language did not evolve from animal communication but from older representation systems. First, some cells (the sensory cells) were born whose only task was to respond to the environment. As sensory cells evolved and their inputs became more complex, a new kind of cells appeared that was in charge of mediating between these cells and motor cells. These mediating cells eventually evolved categories that were relevant to their survival. Animals evolved that were equipped with such “primary” representational systems. At some point, humans evolved who were equipped with syntax and were capable of representing representations (of models of models). Human language was so advantageous that it drove a phenomenal growth in brain size (not the other way around).

Two aspects of language, in particular, set it apart from the primitive call system of most animals: the symbolic and the syntactic aspects. A word stands for something (such as an object, a concept, an action). And words can be combined to mean more than their sum (“I walk home” means more than just the concepts of “I”, “walking” and “home”). Bickerton believes that syntax is what makes our species unique: other species can also “symbolize”, but none has showed a hint of grammar.

The philosopher Nicholas Humphrey once advocated that language was born out of the need to socialize. On the contrary, Bickerton believes that Humphrey’s “social intelligence” had little to do with the birth of proto-language. Socialization as a selective pressure would not have been unique to humans, and therefore language would have developed as well in other primates. Syntax, instead, developed only in humans, which means that a selective pressure unique to humans must have caused it. Bickerton travels back to the origins of hominids, to the hostile savannas where hominids were easy targets for predators and had precious little food sources. Other primates had a much easier life in the forests. The ecology of early hominids created completely different selective pressures than the ones faced by other primates. In his quest for the very first utterances, Bickerton speculates that language was born to label things, then evolved to qualify those labels in the present situation: “leopard footprints” and “danger” somehow needed to be combined to yield the meaning “when you see leopard footprints, be careful”.

Bickerton shows how this kind of “social calculus”, coupled with Baldwin effects, could trigger and successfully lead to the emergence of syntax. Social intelligence was therefore important for the emergence of syntax, even if it was not important for the emergence of proto-language.

Bickerton points out that the emergence of language requires the ability to model other minds. I am motivated to communicate information only if I can articulate this simple scenario in my mind: I know something that you don’t know and I would gain something if you knew it. Otherwise the whole point of language disappears.

Bickerton thinks that consciousness and the self were enabled by language: language liberated humans from the constraints of animal life and enabled off-line thinking. The emergence of language even created the brain regions that are essential to conscious life. Basically, he thinks that language created the human species and the world that humans see.

Summarizing, Bickerton believes that: language is a form of representation, not just of communication, a fact that sets it apart from animal communication; language evolved from primordial representational systems; language has shaped the cognitive life of the human species.

Grooming

The psychologist Robin Dunbar believes that originally the function of language was not to communicate information, but to cement society.

All primates live in groups. The size of a primate’s neocortex, as compared to the body mass, is directly proportional to the size of the average group for that primate. Humans tend to live in the larger groups of primates, and human brains are correspondingly much larger.

As humans transitioned from the forest to the savanna, they needed to band together in order to survive the increased danger of being killed by predators. Language helped keep large groups together. Thus humans who spoke had an evolutionary advantage (the group) over humans who did not develop that skill. Dunbar believes that human speech is simply a more efficient way of “grooming”: apes cement social bonds by grooming the members of their group. Humans “gossiped” instead of grooming each other. Later, and only later, humans began to use language also to communicate information.

Dunbar believes that dialects developed for a similar reason: to rapidly identify members of the same group (it is notoriously difficult to imitate a dialect).

Language and societies evolved together: society stimulated the invention of language, and language enabled larger societies, that stimulated even more sophisticated languages, that enabled even larger societies, etc.

Co-evolution

The USA anthropologist Terrence Deacon believes that language and the brain co-evolved. They evolved together influencing each other step by step. In his opinion, language did not require the emergence of a language organ. Language originated from symbolic thinking, an innovation that occurred when humans became hunters because of the need to overcome the sexual bonding in favor of group cooperation.

Both the brain and language evolved at the same time through a series of exchanges. Languages are easy to learn for infants not because infants can use innate knowledge but because language evolved to accommodate the limits of immature brains. At the same time, brains evolved under the influence of language through the Baldwin effect. Language caused a reorganization of the brain, whose effects were vocal control, laughter and sobbing, schizophrenia, autism.

Deacon rejects the idea of a universal grammar a` la Chomsky. There is no innate linguistic knowledge. There is an innate human predisposition to language, but it is due to the co-evolution of brain and language and it is altogether different from the universal grammar envisioned by Chomsky. What is innate is a set of mental skills (ultimately, brain organs) which translate into natural tendencies, which translate into some universal structures of language.

Another way to describe this is to view language as a “meme”. Language is simply one of the many “memes” that invade our mind. And, because of the way the brain is, the meme of language can only assume such and such a structure: not because the brain is pre-wired to such a structure but because that structure is the most natural for the organs of the brain (such as short-term memory and attention) that are affected by it.

Chomsky’s universal grammar is an outcome of the evolution of language in our mind during our childhood. There is no universal grammar in our genes, or, better, there are no language genes in our genome.

The secret of language is not in the grammar, but in the semantics. Language is meaningful. Deacon envisions a hierarchy of levels of reference (of meaning), that reflects the evolution of language. At the top is the level of symbolic reference, a stable network of interconnected concepts. A symbol does not only refer to the world, but also to other symbols. The individual symbol is meaningless: what has meaning is the symbol within the vast and ever changing semantic space of all other symbols. At lower levels, Deacon envisions less and less symbolic forms of representation, which are also less and less stable. At the lowest, most fluctuating level of the hierarchy there lie references that are purely iconic and indexicals, created by a form of learning that is not unique to language (in fact it is widespread to all cognitive tasks). The lower levels are constrained by what humans can experience and learn, which is constrained by innate abilities. The higher level, on the other hand, is an emergent system due to the interaction among linguistic agents.

Gesturing in the Mind

According to USA neuroscientist Rhawn Joseph, one of the youngest parts of the brain, the inferior parietal lobe of the left hemisphere, enabled both language, tool making and art itself. It enabled us, in other words, to create visual symbols. It also enabled us to create verbal symbols, i.e. of writing.

The inferior parietal lobe allows the brain to classify and label things. This is the prerequisite to forming concepts and to “abstracting” in general. Surprisingly, this is also the same organ that enables meaningful manual gesturing (a universal language, that it is also shared with many animals). Thus the evolution of writing is somehow related (neurally speaking) to manual gesturing. The inferior parietal lobe was one of the last organs of the brain to evolve, and it is still one of the last organs to mature in the child (which explains why children have to wait for a few years before they can write and do math).

This lobe is much more developed in humans than in other animals (and non-existent in most). The neurons of this lobe are somewhat unique in that they are “multimodal”: they are capable of simultaneously processing different kinds of inputs (visual, auditory, movement, etc). They are also massively connected to the neocortex, precisely to three key regions for visual, auditory and somatosensory processing. Their structure and location makes them uniquely fit to handle and create multiple associations. It is probably this lobe that enables us to understand a word as both an image, a function, a name and many other things at the same time.

Joseph claims that the emotional aspect of speaking is the original one: the motivation to speak comes from the limbic system, the archaic part of the brain that deals with emotions, and that we share with other mammals. The limbic system embodies a universal language that we all understand, a primitive language made of calls and cries. Each species has its own, but within a species all members understand it. Joseph believes that at this stage the “vocal” hemisphere is the right one. Only later, after a few months, does the left hemisphere impose structure to the vocalizing and thus become dominant in language.

Language as A Sexual Organ

The USA evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes that the human mind was largely molded by sexual selection and is therefore mainly a sexual ornament. Culture, in general, and language, in particular, are simply ways that males and females play the game of sex. When language appeared, it quickly became a key tool in sexual selection, and therefore it evolved quickly.

Darwin had already speculated that language may have evolved through sexual selection. Miller agrees, finding that the usual explanation (that language helps a group trade key information) is only a small piece of the puzzle (individuals, unless they are relatives, have no motivation to share key information since they are supposed to compete).

Even more powerful is the evidence that comes from observing the behavior of today’s humans: they compete to be heard, they compete to utter the most sensational sentences, they are dying to talk.

Miller also mentions anatomical evidence: what has evolved dramatically in the human brain is not the hearing apparatus but the speaking apparatus. Miller believes that language, whose intended or unintended effect is to deliver knowledge to competitors, must also have a selfish function, otherwise it would not have developed: individuals who simply delivered knowledge to competitors would not have survived. On the other hand, if language is a form of sexual display, then it makes sense that it evolved rapidly, just like any other organ (bull horns or peacock tails) that served that function. It is unique to humans the same way that the peacock’s tail is unique to peacocks. It is pointless to try and teach language to a chimpanzee the same way that it is pointless to expect a child to grow a colorful tail.

The Origin of Communication

Where does language come from is a question that does not only apply to humans, but to all species, each species having its own “language”.

One might as well as the question “where do bee dances come from”? The bees are extremely good at providing details about the route and the location of food. They do so not with words but with dances. The origins of bee dances are no less intriguing than the origins of human language.

The point is that most species develop a social life and the social life depends on a mechanism of communication, and in humans that mechanism is language. But language may be viewed as a particular case of a more general process of nature, the process by which several individuals become aggregated in a group.

There is a bond within the members of a species, regardless of whether they are cooperating or competing: they can communicate. A dog cannot communicate much to a cat. A lion cannot communicate with an ant. And the greatest expert in bees cannot communicate much with a bee. Communication between members of different species is close to impossible. But communication within members of a species is simple, immediate, natural, and, contrary to our beliefs, does not require any advanced skills. All birds communicate; all bees communicate. There is no reason to believe that humans would not communicate if they were not taught a specific language. They might, in fact, communicate better: hand gestures and facial expressions may be a more efficient means of communication among humans than words.

Again, this efficiency is independent of the motives: whether it is for cooperation or for aggression. We can communicate with other members of our species. When we communicate for cooperation, the communication can become very complex and sophisticated. We may communicate that a herd is moving east, that clouds are bringing rain, that the plains are flooded. A bee can communicate similar information to another bee. But an ant cannot communicate this kind of information to a fish and a fish cannot communicate it to a bird. Each species has developed a species-specific form of communication.

The origin of language is but a detail in a much more complex story, the story of how intra-species communication evolved. If all species come from a common ancestor, there must have been only one form of communication at the beginning. Among the many traits that evolved over the ages, intra-species communication is one that took the wildest turns. While the genetic repertoire of bees and flies may be very similar, their system of communication is wildly different.

The fact that communication is different for each species may simply be due to the fact that each species has different kinds of senses, and communication has to be tailored to the available senses.

A reason for this social trait to exist could be both sexual reproduction and altruism.

The Origin of Cellular Communication

Even before social behavior was invented, there was a fundamental language of life. Living cells communicate all the time, even in the most primitive organisms: cell communication is the very essence of being alive.

There are obvious parallels between the language of words and the language of cellular chemicals. Two cells that exchange chemicals are doing just that: “talking” to each other, using chemicals instead of words. Those chemicals are bound in molecular structures just like the words of human language are bound in grammatical structures.

The forms of communication that do not involve chemical exchange still cause some chemical reaction. A bee that changes course or a human brain that learns something have undergone chemical change, that has triggered changes in their cognitive state.

From this point of view, there are at least three main levels of communication: a cellular level, in which living cells transmit information via chemical agents; a bodily level, in which living beings transmit information via “gestures”; and a verbal level, in which living beings transmit information via words.

Each level might simply be an evolution of the previous one.

Who Invented Language?

Linguists, geneticists and anthropologists have explored the genealogical tree of human languages to determine where human language was invented. Was it invented in one place and then spread around the globe (why then so many languages rather than just one?) or was it invented in different places around the same time? (What a coincidence that would be).

The meta-issue with this quest is the role of free will, i.e. whether we humans have free will and decide what happens to us. We often assume that somebody “invented” something and then everybody started using it. The truth could be humbler: all we humans share pretty much the same brain, and that brain determines our behavior. We all sleep, we all care for our children, we all avoid danger. Not because one human “invented” these behaviors, but because our brains are programmed to direct us to behave that way. Our free will (if indeed we have any) is limited to deciding which woman to marry, but the reason we want a wife is sex and children, a need that is programmed in our brain (and, of course, one could claim that the choice of the specific wife is also driven by our brain’s circuits).

In fact, we consider “sick” or “abnormal” any human being who does not love her/his children, any human who does not like sex, etc.

Asking who invented language could be like asking who invented sex or parenting. It may just come with the race. We humans may be programmed to communicate using the human language. It didn’t take a genius to invent language. We started speaking, worldwide, as soon as the conditions were there (as soon as we started living in groups, more and more heterogeneous groups, more and more collaborative groups).

The mystery may not be who invented language, but why we invented so many and so different languages. There are striking differences between Finnish and Chinese, even though those two peoples share pretty much the same brain. The effect of the environment on the specific language we start speaking must indeed be phenomenal.

What Are Jokes And Why Do We Make Them

Language developed because it had an evolutionary function. In other words, it helped us survive. For example, language enabled humans to exchange information about the environment. A member of a group can warn the member of another group about an impending danger or the source of water or the route taken by a predator.

This may be true, but it hardly explains the way we use language every day. When we write an essay, we may be matter of factual, but most of the day we are not. For example, we make jokes all the time. A human being who does not make jokes, or does not laugh at jokes made by others, is considered a case for a psychoanalyst. Jokes are an essential part of the use of language.

Nonetheless, jokes are a peculiar way to use language. We use words to express something that is not true, but could be true, and the brain somehow relates to this inconsistency and… we laugh.

There must be a reason why humans make jokes. There must be a reason why we use language to make jokes.

Upon closer inspection, we may not be so sure that the main function of language is communicating information about the environment.

If a tiger attacks you, I will not read you an essay on survival of the fittest: I will just scream “run!” We don’t need the complex, sophisticated structure of language to “communicate” about us and the environment. If you are starving, I may just point to the refrigerator. For most practical purposes, street signs communicate information about locations better than geography books. It is at least debatable whether we need language to communicate information about the environment that is relevant to survival. We can express most or all of that information in very simple formats, often with just one word or even just a gesture.

On the other hand, if we want to make a joke, we need to master the whole power of the language. Every beginner in a foreign language knows that the hardest part is to understand jokes in that language, and the second hardest is making them. Joking does require the whole complex structure of language, and, at closer inspection, it is the only feature of human life that requires it.

Jokes are probably very important for our survival. A joke is a practice: we laugh because we realize that something terrible would happen in that circumstance: the logic of the world would be violated, or a practical disaster would occur. The situation is “funny” because it has to be avoided. Being funny helps remember that we should avoid it.

Joking may well be an important way to learn how to move in the environment without having to do it first person, without having to pay the consequences for a mistake.

In that case, it would be more than justified that our brain evolved a very sophisticated tool to make jokes: language.

Ultimately, language may have evolved to allow us to make more and more useful (funnier and funnier) jokes.

Tools

The British psychologist Richard Gregory has shown how language is but one particular type of “tool”. The human race, in general, is capable of making and using tools, and language happens to be one of them.

Gregory claims that “tools are extensions of the limbs, the senses and mind.” The fundamental difference between humans and apes is not in the (very small) anatomical differences but in language and tools. Man is both a tool-user and a tool-maker.

Gregory shows that there are “hand” tools (such as level, pick, axe, wheel, etc) and “mind” tools, which help measuring, calculating and thinking (such as language, writing, counting, computers, clocks).

Tools are extensions of the body. They help us perform actions that would be difficult for our arms and legs. Tools are also extensions of the mind. Writing extended our memory. We can make a note of something. So do photographs and recordings. This book extends my mind. It also extends your mind. Tools like books create a shared mind.

Gregory qualifies information as “potential intelligence” and behavior as “kinetic intelligence”. Tools increase intelligence as they enable a new class of behavior. A tool “confers” intelligence to a user, meaning that it turns some potential intelligence into kinetic intelligence.

A person with a tool is a person with a potential intelligence to perform an action that without the tool would not be possible (or much more difficult).

Behavior is often just using that tool to perform that action. It may appear that intelligence is in your action, but, actually, intelligence is in the tool, not in your action. Or, better, they are two different types of intelligence.

And words are just one particular type of tool.

There is also a physical connection in our body between language and tool usage: they are both controlled by the same hemisphere.

Tools as Intentionality

The USA philosopher Daniel Dennett advanced a theory of language developed based on his theory of “intentionality” (the ability to refer to something). Basically, his idea is that different levels of intentionality correspond to different “kinds” of minds.

The “intentional stance” is the strategy of interpreting the behavior of something (a living or non-living thing) as if it were a rational agent whose actions are determined by its beliefs and desires. This is the stance that we adopt, for example, when dealing with ourselves and other humans: we assume that we and others are rational agents whose actions are determined by our beliefs and desires. Intentional systems are those to which the intentional stance can be applied, and they include artifacts such as thermostats and computers, as well as all living beings. For example, we can say that “this computer program wants me to input my name” or that “the tree bends south because it needs more light” (both “wants” and “needs” express desire).

The intentional stance makes the assumption that an intentional system has goals that it wants to achieve; that it uses its own beliefs to achieve its own goals, and that it is smart enough to use the right ones in the appropriate way.

It seems obvious that artifacts possess only “derived” intentionality, i.e. intentionality that was bestowed on them by their creators. A thermostat measures temperature because that is what the engineer designed it for. The same argument, though, applies to us: we are artifacts of nature and nature bestows on us intentionality. (The process of evolution created our minds to survive in an environment, which means that our mind is about the environment).

Dennett speculates that brains evolved from the slow internal communication systems of “sensitive” but not “sentient” beings when they became equipped with a much swifter communication agent (the electro-chemicals of neurotransmitters) in a much swifter communication medium (nerve fibers). Control was originally distributed around the organism in order to be able to react faster to external stimuli. The advent of fast electro-chemicals allowed control to become centralized, because now signals traveled at the speed of electricity. This also allowed control to become much more complex, as many more things could be done in a second.

“Evolution embodies information in every part of every organism”. And that information is about the environment. A chameleon’s skin, a bird’s wings, and so forth, they all embody information about the medium in which their bodies live. This information does not need to be replicated in the brain as well. The organ already “knows” how to behave in the environment. Wisdom is not only in the brain, wisdom is also embodied in the rest of the body. Dennett speculates that this “distributed wisdom” was not enough: a brain can supplement the crudeness, the slowness, the limitations of the organs. A brain can analyze the environment on a broader scale, can control movement in a much faster way and can predict behavior over a longer range.

As George Miller put it, animals are “informavores”. Dennett believes in a distributed information-sucking system, each components of which is constantly fishing for information in the environment. They are all intentional systems, which get organized in a higher-level intentional system, with an “increasing power to produce future”.

This idea, both evolutionarily and conceptually, can be expressed in a number of steps of intentionality, each of which yields a different kind of mind. First there were “Darwinian creatures”, that were simply selected by trial and error on the merits of their bodies’ ability to survive (all living organisms are Darwinian creatures). Then came “Skinnerian creatures”, which were also capable of independent action and therefore could enhance their chances of survival by finding the best action (they are capable of learning from trial and error). The third stage of “mind, “Popperian creatures”, were able to play an action internally in a simulated environment before they performed it in the real environment and could therefore reduce the chances of negative outcomes (information about the environment supplemented conditioning). Popperian creatures include most mammals and birds. They feel pain, but do not suffer, because they lack the ability to reflect on their sensations.

Humans are also “Gregorian creatures”, capable of creating tools, and, in particular, of mastering the tool of language. Gregorian creatures benefit from technologies invented by other Gregorian creatures and transmitted by cultural heritage, unlike Popperian creatures that benefit only from what has been transmitted by genetic inheritance.

A key step in the evolution of “minds” was the transition from beings capable of an intentional stance towards others to beings capable of an intentional stance towards an intentional stance. A first-order intentional system is only capable of an intentional stance towards others. A second-order intentional system is also capable of an intentional stance towards an intentional stance. It has beliefs as well as desires about beliefs and desires. And so forth. Higher-order intentional systems are capable of thoughts such as “I want you to believe that I know that you desire a vacation”.

This was not yet conscious life because there are examples, both among humans and among other animals, of unaware higher-order intentionality. For example, animals cheat on each other all the time, and cheating is possible only if you are capable of dealing with the other animal’s intentional state (with the other animal’s desires and beliefs), but Dennett does not think that animals are necessarily conscious. In other words, he thinks that one can be a psychologist without being a conscious being.

Dennett claims that our greater “intelligence” is due not to a larger brain but to the ability to “off load” as much as possible of our cognitive tasks into the environment. We construct “peripheral devices” in the environment to which those tasks can be delegated. We can do this because we are intentional: we can point to those things in the environment that we left there. In this way the limitations of the brain do not matter anymore, as we have a potentially infinite area of cognitive processing. Most species rely on natural landmarks to find their way around and track food sources. But some species (at least us) have developed the skills to “create” their own landmark, and they can therefore store food for future use. They are capable of “labeling” the world that they inhabit. Individuals of those species alter the environment and then the altered environment alters their behavior. They create a loop to their advantage. They program the environment to program them.

Species that store and use signs in the environment have an evolutionary advantage because they can “off-load” processing. It is like “taking a note” that we can look up later, so we don’t forget something. If you cannot take a note, you may forget the whole thing.

Thanks to these artifacts, our mind can extend out into the environment. For example, the notepad becomes an extension to my memory.

These artifacts shape our environment. Our brains are semiotic devices that contain pointers and indices to the external world.

Semiotics: Signs and Messages

Semiotics provides a different perspective to study the nature and origin of language.

Semiotics, founded in the 1940s by the Danish linguist Louis Trolle Hjelmslev, had two important precursors in the USA philosophers Charles Peirce (whose writings were rediscovered only in the 1930s) and Charles Morris (who in 1938 had formalized a theory of signs).

Peirce reduced all human knowledge to the idea of “sign” and identified three different kinds of signs: the index (a sign which bears a causal relation with its referent); the icon (which bears a relation of similarity with its referent); and the symbol (whose relation with its referent is purely conventional). For example, the flag of a sport team is a symbol, while a photograph of the team is an icon. Movies often make use of indexes: ashes burning in an ashtray mean that someone was recently in the room, and clouds looming on the horizon mean it is about to rain. Most of the words that we use are symbols, because they are conventional signs referring to objects.

Morris defined the disciplines that study language according to the roles played by signs. Syntax studies the relation between signs and signs (as in “the” is an article, “meaning” is a noun, “of” is a preposition, etc.). Semantics studies the relation between signs and objects (“Piero is a writer” means that somebody whose name is “Piero” writes books). Finally, Pragmatics studies the relation between signs, objects and users (the sentence “Piero is a writer” may have been uttered to correct somebody who said that Piero is a carpenter).

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand DeSaussure introduced the dualism of “signifier” (the word actually uttered) and the “signified” (the mental concept). (“Semiology” usually refers to the Saussure-an tradition, whereas “semiotics” refers to the Peirce-an tradition. Semiotics, as opposed to Semiology, is the study of all signs).

The Argentine semiotician Luis Prieto studied signs, in particular, as means of communication. For example, the Braille alphabet and traffic signs are signs used to communicate. A “code” is a set of symbols (the “alphabet”) and a set of rules (the “grammar”). The code relates a system of expressions to a set of contents. A “message” is a set of symbols of the alphabet that has been ordered according to the rules of the grammar. This is a powerful generalization: language turns out to be only a particular case of communication. A sentence can be reduced to a process of encoding (by the speaker) and decoding (by the listener).

The Hungarian semiotician Thomas Albert Sebeok views Semiotics as a branch of communication theory that studies messages, whether emitted by objects (such as machines) or animals or humans. In agreement with Rene’ Thom, Sebeok thinks that human sign behavior has nothing special that can distinguish it from animal sign behavior or even from the behavior of inanimate matter.

The USA linguist Merlin Donald speculated on how the human mind developed. He argued that at the beginning there was only episodic thinking: early hominids could only remember and think about episodes. Later, they learned how to communicate and then they learned how to build narratives. Symbolic thinking came last. Based on this scenario, the Danish semiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer has drawn his own conclusions: in the beginning there were stories, and then little by little individual words rose out of them. Which implies that language is fundamentally narrative in nature; that language is corporeal, has to do with motor-based behavior; and that the unit of communication among animals is the whole message, non the word.

Hoffmeyer has introduced the concept of “semiosphere”, the semiotic equivalent of the atmosphere and the biosphere, that incorporates all forms of communication, from smells to waves: all signs of life. Every living organism must adapt to its semiosphere or die. At all levels, life must be viewed as a network of “sign processes”. The very reason for evolution is death: since organisms cannot survive in the physical sense they must survive in the semiotic sense, i.e. by making copies of themselves. “Heredity is semiotic survival”.

Rene’ Thom, the French mathematician who invented catastrophe theory, aims at extending his method so as to “geometrize thought and language”. Thom is envisioning a Physics of meaning, of significant form, which he calls “Semiophysics”.

Following in this generalization of signs, James Fetzer has even argued in favor of extending Newell and Simon’s theory to signs: the mind not as a processor of symbols, but as a processor of signs.

Collective Cognition

What is, ultimately, the function of language? To communicate? To think? To remember? All of this and more. But, most likely, not only for the sake of the individual. Language’s crucial function is to create a unit out of so many individuals. Once we learn to speak, we become part of something bigger than our selves. We inherit other people’s memories (including the memories of people who have long been dead) and become capable of sharing our own memories with other people (even those who have not been born yet).

Thanks to language, the entire human race becomes one cognitive unit, with the ability to perceive, learn, remember, reason, and so forth. Language turns the minds of millions of individuals into gears at the service of one gigantic mind.

As the USA neuroscientist Paul Churchland once pointed out, language creates a collective cognition, a collective memory and intelligence.

Further Reading

Bickerton, Derek & Calvin, William: LINGUA EX MACHINA (MIT Press, 2000)

Bickerton, Derek: LANGUAGE AND SPECIES (Chicago Univ Press, 1992)

Churchland, Paul: ENGINE OF REASON (MIT Press, 1995)

Darwin, Charles: LANGUAGES AND SPECIES (1874)

Deacon, Terrence: THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES (W.W. Norton & C., 1997)

DeSaussure, Ferdinand: COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS (1916)

Dennett, Daniel: KINDS OF MINDS (Basic, 1998)

Donald, Merlin: ORIGINS OF THE MODERN MIND (Harvard Univ Press, 1991)

Dunbar, Robin: GROOMING, GOSSIP AND THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE (Faber and Faber, 1996)

Gardenfors, Peter: HOW HOMO BECAME SAPIENS (Oxford Univ Press, 2003)

Gregory, Richard: MIND IN SCIENCE (Cambridge Univ Press, 1981)

Hoffmeyer, Jesper: SIGNS OF MEANING IN THE UNIVERSE (Indiana Univ. Press, 1996)

Joseph, Rhawn: NAKED NEURON (Plenum, 1993)

Lieberman, Philip: THE BIOLOGY AND EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE (Harvard Univ Press, 1984)

Miller, Geoffrey: THE MATING MIND (Doubleday, 2000)

Morris, Charles: FOUNDATIONS OF THE THEORY OF SIGNS (University Of Chicago Press, 1938)

Niehoff, Debra: THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE: HOW CELLS COMMUNICATE IN HEALTH AND DISEASE (Joseph Henry Press, 2005)

Peirce, Charles: COLLECTED PAPERS (Harvard Univ Press, 1931)

Prieto, Luis: PRINCIPES DE NOOLOGIE (1964)

Sebeok, Thomas Albert: CONTRIBUTION TO A DOCTRINE OF SIGNS (Indian Univ, 1976)

Thom, Rene’: SEMIOPHYSICS (Addison-Wesley, 1990)

Wilson, Frank: THE HAND (Pantheon Books, 1998)

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