8 September 2011

The speech faculty

There's one obvious thing about human language: we speak the way we do because we have the physical capacity to do it. It's hard to imagine a dog or a chimpanzee pronouncing human words with some degree of intelligibility. This fact has led some people to see a correlation between the evolution of our vocal tract and the emergence of language. Their hypothesis would run as follows: "We started to 'speak' when we had the right anatomy to do it". The argument looks convincing at first sight, but I think it's quite weak. Let's see why. First, a video:

This is the Italian soprano Luciana Serra singing an aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. Wonderful, isn't it? Now, the question is: did we evolve to produce this kind of performance?

In another video (sorry, embedding disabled), we can see an example of throat singing from a region in Central Asia called Tuva. This man is able to produce different types of voices using the overtones created in his throat. It looks incredible, but it's possible. In other words: at least in some of us, if not in the vast majority of us, there is a potential for this kind of thing. If you talk to people who do yoga or meditation, or other sorts of physical or mental exercise, they will often tell you that they have discovered something inside them that they didn't know existed. Humans are full of all kinds of potential, including the vocal ones, but our languages only use a very small portion of these possibilities, disregarding the rest as irrelevant. The principle of economy works here: in fact, learning to pronounce the phonetic repertoire of a language requires great effort, and some people are never completely able to master the whole set. The problem gets much worse when we get older and try to learn a second language. By then, we have lost most of the mental flexibility or predisposition that we had as children and find it really hard to produce or imitate the new sounds. The story is well known, and we can find examples everywhere everyday. I know poeple who have learnt Spanish at extraordinary levels of proficiency but who still have problems pronouncing words like piscina or decisión, or find it hard to distinguish between caro and carro.

Children are not born speaking a language. They are born with the mental ability to see the logic of human communication, and during the learning process they have to explore the vocal possibilities offered by their own bodies. But it is only some of these vocal possibilities, in fact a finite set of vowel and consonant sounds (plus suprasegmental elements), that are selected and promoted in each case.

Let's imagine another hominid species with a poorer repertoire of possible vocalizations. Even if their imagianry IPA chart were ten times smaller than ours,  they would still have at their disposal a considerable amount of elements to choose from. It's not just what you have but how you exploit the potential that you have. It comes as an obvious conclusion that other hominid species could very well have developed verbal language even if their vocal tract was quite different from ours. The only requisite is that they had the kind of logical thought that leads to human communication.

Some people say language is what makes us human. I think language is just a secondary factor in a much wider scenario: the one created by our minds. Maybe that's why there are so many people doing yoga, or experimenting with sounds or trying to break communicative barriers. They want to break away from the boundaries of finite sets. They want to get a sample of a more global type of human interaction.

Or just to have fun:


JoseAngel said...

Well, I'd say that if language is not the only thing that makes us human, it helps a lot: language is an amazing tool to build ourselves. We make language, and language makes us, sometimes in unexpected ways in both directions (as your examples show). I recommend the book by Derek Bickerton, ADAM'S TONGUE: HOW HUMANS MADE LANGUAGE, HOW LANGUAGE MADE HUMANS. It is only a sketch of the issues involved, but I think it shows that without language our mental world would not be what it is. So let me take a middle-ground position: our communal mind is not limited by our individual languages, and our communal language is not limited by our individual minds.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Interesting comments, JoseAngel. There's no doubt that language is an essential component of any possible definition of 'what it is that makes us human'. However, I think that this idea is biased by our present-day perspective, where language, both oral and written, has taken such a dominating role.

And, more crucially, it is also biased at the scientific level, with some linguists, especially at American universities, trying to defend the status of language as some kind of inherent mental endowment or the consequence of a specific mutation. As I've suggested in my series about language origins, I think those origins are possibly more humble and indirect. Language, however powerful it might seem today, was born as a subproduct of other processes, especially those that provided us with abstract thought. That is the real turning point. The rest, including grammars and phonemes, is a secondary thing.

Concepts like Universal Grammar or Language Acquisition Device are, in my opinion, completely absurd. But being absurd does not mean that they're useless. By defending the status of 'language', some linguists seem to be defending the status of linguistics itself, and let's remember that their prestige, and their salaries, depend on these things, at least to a certain degree.