Verba et voces.


Since we have been Homo sapiens, the language has deeply transformed our way of seeing the world, but it has not cut those strong and substantial ties that link the human communication to that of other animals, in particular chimpanzees.

Such a unique way of communicating in our species, takes place, from an ontogenetic point of view, in a true and real cognitive revolution which happens in the child when he or she is about one and a half years old, when he or she discovers the other children are also intentional agents.

The human cooperative communication rests on a psychological structure of intentionality and of joint attentionality. However in monkeys communication does not appear to be totally shared nor wholly referential inasmuch that the receiver does not infer (or rather infers little) the relevance of the communicator’s act, the will to communicate by somebody else, even if this is yet to be demonstrated (as we will see, the sign language would demonstrate quite the contrary, the chimpanzee in fact infers the other’s will very well).

Before continuing we should ask ourselves when articulate language was born. There are three extremely interesting hypotheses:

  • The first hypothesis is about a remote origin, an origin which is substantially gestural with a minimum integration of sound which is actually collocated between a common ancestor of ours and chimpanzees, therefore when our branch broke off from the branch of the anthropomorphic monkey (apes) or rather that is the branch from which the first Hominids (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) appear about 7 million years ago, according to what the fossil findings suggest.
  • The second hypothesis is about a more recent origin. The articulate language is said to be born not before 35 thousand years ago in the Upper Paleolithic period. The Neanderthal man, our contemporary, did not speak properly and never could have. If he had, certainly it would have been without the articulated capacity of Homo sapiens.
  • The third hypothesis instead introduces the idea that the origin of the articulate language came about between the above mentioned periods with a form of language called proto-language.

If things are so, the articulate language has probably originated in a period in which man had already perfected the walking in the erect position, had freed his hands from the land walking as a quadruped, that is before he became Homo sapiens. Homo erectus (1.6-07 million years ago) could have spoken, even if with difficulty, with an accentuated iconic gesticulation, while proper structured grammar and semantic components have appeared more recently with Homo sapiens. Therefore the erect position freed his hands that would later have been used to enrich the meaning of gestures that in our ancestors were very abundant and that combined with rudimental sounds, even if they did not constitute a real language, nevertheless they were very close to being one.

In truth, the articulate language could be evolved not to confer a simple enrichment of the gesticulation to the hands, but to involve them in activities that would become more and more linguistic. Substantially the gesticulation and the language should not be considered antithetical but complementary.

In our evolution the variety of gestuality was already present before sound was necessary, otherwise the articulate language would have had difficulties in emerging.

Fundamentally man is a symbolic animal. Men have always been so, even before beginning to pronounce one word. Anyway men had to give sense to what they said, they had to create in the mind of their interlocutors an equivalent meaning of gesture, otherwise they could not communicate. This required a mental operation and the existence of a consciousness to create something that is for something else, as when we pronounce sounds (the phonemes) giving them a precise meaning.

So far, what is important is to understand that between sign and thought there is a more direct and closer relationship than that between word and thought, as Lev Vygotskij described in his masterpiece Though and language of 1938.

His idea strengthened the hypothesis of a gestural origin of the language (manual gestures), as in the sign language of the deaf and mute, even if we must be careful not to confuse gestures with signs. In fact, the gestural communication (that apes are able to perform, especially chimpanzees) has a strong communicative function, but it is also necessary, as in human beings, for instance, to control if an interlocutor is paying attention to the communication, to control his reactions, to foresee them and if it is necessary to manipulate them (for instance with deception or antideception, as many chimpanzees, but not just them, are able to do). A chimpanzee can understand quite well what could be hidden behind a gesture, a movement of the body or the look of other animals or men.

Substantially, if this is true, and probably it is, the gestures seem to be the most probable candidate to the role of precursory of the linguistic communication. In fact, people gesticulate when they speak and gesticulation is an important factor to address the information that is not usually verbally transmitted with the articulate language and originally even without vocalization as is the contrary to what some scientists think it could be. We should not confuse vocalization (for instance the calls and songs of birds or the gurgling of a baby), with the articulate language. The two phenomena were born separately and with different functional origins.

Vocalization is always schematic and the same, the language is not. The articulate language is not emotional and we can speak hiding our emotions. A reiterated liar knows how to do it very well. Moreover, vocalization is unchangeable, without flexibility and generativity, it is unable to create recursive sequences from discretional elements that instead are typical of the spoken language and also of the sign language.

The evolution of language could have occurred for several circumstances. One, it could be that it has allowed us to communicate better from further way, for instance in the forest in which the very high and thick trees obstruct the diffusion of sound and the sight, or in the Savannah in which there are no high trees but thick and high grass that can reach two meters high, so that it is higher than the first spoken Hominids that were not taller than one meter and twenty centimetres maximum. These facts probably have favored the specialization of sight that has become more and more important for other tasks outside the Savannah, that is in the open space, for instance to locate natural danger, obstacles or the approaching of dangerous predators, to follow the movements of their own group, to control, by the dominant males, the sexual activities of the females or other social tasks. Language and sight are both important, but with different sensitiveness. In fact, it is not by chance that while we speak, we can look elsewhere, not always looking directly at the interlocutor. One might contemporarily do something and look elsewhere without losing one’s concentration and the sense of what one is saying. During the course of evolution, our intellectual and cognitive capacities, with the morphological modification of phonetic apparatus, that is the lowering of the larynx, the shortening of the oral cavity, its enlargement, the lightening of the mandible, the amplification of the pharynx and at about ninety degrees with respect to the oral cavity, have permitted us to manifest an articulate language, to utter articulate sounds that have distinguished us from all other animals and also from the other Hominids.

In conclusion, the language has allowed the passing through from one form of communication constituted, first of all, by gestures mostly those made by hands, accompanied with a very expressive facial mimic, to the use of the phonemes and then later, to the use of words. However the most relevant fact is that the morphological evolution of the mouth, indispensable for the phonation, happened contemporaneously with the evolution of our intellective and cognitive capacities to acquire and to control the articulate language itself. This has been an explosive combination that has allowed us to become what we are: a speaking animal. If this combination had not occurred, we could not have become Homo sapiens.

At this point we have to ask ourselves what really happened and what really made us “superior” to the rest of the animal world and to our ancestors. What is sure is that culture and its diffusion has been a determinant factor, more than the enlargement of the brain, of the erect position, of the phonatory apparatus modification and even of the articulate language itself, even if many researchers uphold the idea that language has been the Rubicone that has characterized our species (Homo sapiens) with his consciousness, but it is not like this.

The articulate language that we use when we communicate through the emission of sounds, was important but not resolutive for the communication. When we “discovered” the language we slowly realized that it was necessary to give a sense to the sounds and we have done it, step by step for hundreds of thousands of years, since we started to speak. Then a syntax and a grammatical structure were necessary to set up nominal and verbal syntagma and we have done it very well.

All of this is true, but now the question that we have to ask ourselves is: to do all of this, was the language indispensable for communication? The answer is still no.

In fact it is not by chance that we can do it with other communicative forms in which we do not use the articulate language, for instance with the sign language in which we do not utter any sounds from our mouth but we make signs with our hands, signs as symbolic as those articulated by words like the deaf-mute people demonstrate when they communicate among themselves or with people who know the sign language. Then is it true that in the sign language intentionality and semantics do not exist? It is true that in the sign language the semantics are poorer and with less intentionality, but we cannot sustain that they are totally absent.

With the sign language it is possible to express almost all communicative acts that are about 3 thousand because this instrument has a structural identity equal to those of the verbal propositions. For instance, the American Sign Language (ASL) is a wonderful instrument of the non-verbal communication in which we use our hands, and it can be learnt even by a chimpanzee if well trained, like a normal child slowly learns the use of words.

Among other things, the sign language can be taught, transferred from one individual to another, for generations, as well as many other behaviour and cultural forms that we do not inherit.