29 December 2009

The birth of grammar

Some time ago I wrote a post with some of my thoughts about the origin of language, which was complemented with a series of comments (there is also a good summary written in Spanish by José Ángel García Landa in his blog). I'm not planning to write a complete theory about the origins of human language, but I like the idea of expressing some thoughts that may trigger debate. It's in the comments, in the exchange of ideas, that a 'theory' can best be shaped.

Now, what I said about language then is merely a set of generalizations, and generalizing is an easy task. Today, however, I want to add some more detail.

It was in the papers recently (as you can see here or here): according to some researchers, there is a species of monkeys, known as Campbell's monkeys, who have developed a complex system of alert calls which, in some of its features (e.g. meaningful combination of distinctive units), would resemble some form of syntax. Of course, this discovery has caused some stir among the linguistic community, and now there's an ongoing debate about this question: "Are these monkeys, actually, using syntax?", a question which, probably, cannot be answered.

Campbell's monkeys use their language as alert calls, whenever there is a potential danger in sight, e.g. an approaching predator or a falling tree. They use a variety of calls (at least six: Boom, Krak, Hok, Hok-oo, Krak-oo, Wak-oo) and combine them in different ways to convey meaning. Let's imagine one of these alert situations: a group of monkeys are eating fruit from a tree, and then one of them sees a leopard a few metres away. As an immediate response he shouts an alert: Hok-oo Krak Boom! (I've invented the combination just to use it as an example). On hearing this, the other monkeys react and run for safety. The situation is clear: there is a message and a reaction to the message. Now, what does the message involve?

This series (Hok-oo Krak Boom!) can be understood at least in two different ways:

1. as an imperative: run from the approaching leopard!
2. as a narrative/description: a leopard is approaching!

Maybe the monkeys do not go as far as interpreting the utterance one way or the other. But, for us, linguistic utterances do have a form. In interpretations 1 and 2 above we have the same situation, and roughly the same meaning, but different language. An imperative is not the same as a narrative. Let's imagine our human ancestors milions of years ago. Maybe at some point they started to develop an ability to distinguish between imperative and narrative/description. Let's see another example from the animal world: bees.

It is well known that bees use body language to explain location of food sources to other bees in the hive. They perform what is sometimes referred to as a 'dance': a series of vibrations of their bodies in various positions that the other bees can interpret as a maningful message. The question is: is this language? How could we translate this waggle dance into human language. Let's see an example:

1. I have found some nice pollen in the southwest.
2. Go to the sothwest to get some nice pollen!

Number 1 is a narrative, number 2 an imperative. Again, bees are not likely to care much about these details, but for us humans, they make a difference. A linguistic difference.

In my post about the birth of language I talked about grammar as the application of logical thought and our capacity for abstraction to a particular problem: the growing amount of linguisitc units facilitated by our rich verbal ability, inherent to humans. I thought of individual units meaning 'red rock' or 'go to the river!', and then a later development where abstractions such as 'nouns', 'adjectives' or verbs' would be used as a more economical and efficient way of storing linguistic units. One of the first examples that came to my mind was the use of imperatives, as the most basic verb form. However, the examples from the animal world (see above) have shown me that the implemenation of narrative/descriptive mechanisms could perfectly be at the same level of abstraction. Of course, in our languages of today we are used to a complex array of verb features (mood, voice, tense, aspect) which offer an endless range of possiblities, but when I think of the first steps of human language, it seems to me that the difference between these two basic moods, which I call 'imperative' and 'narrative/descriptive', could have been quite relevant. What was the first 'mood' that gave birth to the original forms of verbal expression? Was it the need to tell the others what they should do? Or was it the need to narrate things? Was our first alert call understood as 'climb the tree (because there's a lion approaching)!' or simply 'there's a lion approaching!'? Difficult to know.

Note: The images in this post are all paintings by the French artist Henri Rousseau, aka 'Le Douanier' Rousseau.


JoseAngel said...

It occurs to me that the imperative is more linked to face-to-face interaction: it is all about trying to influence the behaviour of another protohuman who is present. And it would have evolved in association to feelings of pleasure and displeasure, and body language. Narrative, on the other hand, is more "purely linguistic", verbal I mean, in the sense that it has to refer to something or somebody who is not present, to another time and space. And in doing so it makes the most of the most distinctive ability of human language, which is displacement, the ability to refer to objects which are not present in the speech situation. If I had to choose, I would say that the imperative came first — with the proviso that it is not an actual imperative until it can be opposed to an indicative.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thanks for your comments, JoseAngel.

As I see it, the difference between 'imperative' and 'narrative' is not just a lingustic phenomenon. It can be found in other types of human communication, namely in non-verbal gestures, which very probably preceded speech and in fact paved the way to what we call 'language' and 'grammar'. By using gestures, we can easily provide imperative or narrative output. For example, I can use some gestures to tell someone to sit down, or I can tell a full narrative just with body movements and facial expressions. For us it's perfectly normal, but I don't think there is a single animal species, apart from us, with this capacity to differentiate betweeen 'narrative ' and 'imperative' in their communicative acts. Obviously, animal communication conveys meaning; very often this meaning can be understood as a conglomerate of imperative or narrative contents, as in bee dance, but animals don't seem to establish a significant contrast between these two basic 'moods'. For us humans, the situation is completely different. In pre-verbal communication, the basic difference between imperative and narrative was already present. And it was indeed a revolutionary step, one that that could make the difference between humans and non-humans. The development of our complex verbal capacity was built upon this pre-existing capacity for complex communication.

We tend to think that the big moment in the history of human language took place when our ancestors started to use articulate speech, but maybe the big moment happened at a much earlier stage: when some hominids started to differentiate between narrative and imperative contents.

Hag Gasgun said...

My idea on this is that those moods are extension to basic language. I think that barebasci must be sharing «idea of ...» with out any narative, imperative, etc. flavor.

To retake your monkey exemple the massage can be:
Idea of Danger! - Idea about the type of danger.
And you have everyting you need to address the danger properly. We can imagine idea of Danger with different level, RUN! kind or just a 'be aware of'.