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Human Language Essay


Matt Cartmill’s article The Gift of Gab, published in Discover, in November, 1998, analyses the phenomenon of human languages, describes different hypotheses of its genesis, and talks about its significance for the development of human specie. At the beginning of the article the author emphasizes that language is the thing that made humans dominant specie on our planet. He proves that “Without language, we would be only a sort of upright chimpanzee with funny feet and clever hands”. This article talks about the research conducted for to find out when our ancestors began to talk, and why it happened, describing different kinds of research methods that were used for to define whether the ancient creatures, whose remains were found in different places of our planet, had had an ability to speak. The scientists have looked for “…signs in the impressions left by the brain on the inner surfaces of fossil skulls, particularly impressions made by parts of the brain called speech areas”. Unfortunately, this research didn’t give the desired results, thus the scientists tried to analyze the peculiarities of the vocal tract of the fossils they found.

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The research showed that the human vocal tract had lots of peculiarities, the tract of the animals doesn’t have. The author also added that despite of the fact that animals also have their communicational system their language is much less complicated than the human one. According to the author’s opinion, the messages animals can transfer have only the instrumental meaning, unlike human language which has referential meaning. The author’s answer to the question about the origins of languages is that “the structures of syntax lie in unconscious linguistic patterns–so-called deep structures”. It’s no matter, what language does the baby have to study – he or she has the initial genetic background that allows him/her to learn any of the world’s languages.

There are a lot of arguable points in this article. The first is the author’s claim about the language being the only feature that distinguishes people from animals. All of the existing textbooks on Anthropology find lots of other differences, like abstract thought, the ability to complicated logical analysis, developed ethical norms etc. Language actually is one of the crucial differences, the phenomena that allowed people to become the dominant specie, but it’s erroneous to say, that it is the only otherness.

The author of the article has also proposed a hypothesis that “at some point in human evolution the larynx must have descended from its previous heights”, for to enable people to speak. According to the author’s viewpoint it was the evolutionary processes, which enabled humans’ speech. The drawback in that situation was that due to the new physiological structure, it became much easier for a human being to choke to death. If we analyzed this assumption, we would clearly see that it was wrong. The thing is that, if we used the Evolution theory, only the individuals with the most advantageous mutations would survive. The survival of beings that were at much higher risk of choking to death, than the others, is doubtful, even considering the fact that they could emit the sounds which were more concise than their co-mates produced. Evolution s primarily targeted on survival, and developing language wasn’t a matter of survival for humans, while the ability not to choke to death actually was.

In the same time, author’s view of the meaning of language for developing of the Homo sapiens looks rather rational. It’s really that only the humans are able of sharing their experiences, thus economizing loads of time and efforts to their mates. It is also that only humans can coordinate their actions at quite a high level, developing plans that foresee more than one variant of development of the situation. When the humans are apart, they are weaker than lots of mammals, but it’s the ability to coordinate the efforts that makes humans the most dangerous predators on our planet. Humans have reached the present level of technological development only due to the fact that could organize their labor, to work together, which would’ve been impossible without the ability to convey the ideas, proposals and thoughts to each other.

Another theory the author mentioned in his article that is worth of discussing, is the assumption that “…we are all born with the same fundamental grammar hard-wired into our brains…”, and that is why the humans are able to master language. The weak point about this statement is that there is no common grammar for all of the languages of the world. Of course there are the kindred languages, which grammar structure is alike, but if we compare English grammar with Chinese or Russian there will be little in common. Again, let’s recall the languages of some small tribes, where, sometimes, even no division on verbs, nouns, adjectives etc exists. Considering all of those factors it’s unclear what fundamental grammar the author talks about.

There is also one incongruity in the author’s discourse about the Neanderthals. The author claims that language is the only difference between people and animals, and continues that it the main factor that ensured the Homo sapiens dominance in our world. If we assume that, according to the author’s claims, the Neanderthals could indeed talk, thus it is incomprehensible why did they die out. The beings that possessed the ideal tool for becoming the most powerful specie wouldn’t just die out.

While the author claims the animals are unable of creating complicated plans and coordinating their actions, I’ve seen the example that demolishes this assumption. I’ve seen with my own eyes two cats that developed a complicated plan of stealing meat that I had forgotten to take off the kitchen table, coordinating their actions, and, moreover, sharing the blame. It happened like that: one of the cats went to the kitchen and saw the meet. He returned to the room, and led another cat with him. When I realized it was suspiciously quiet in the house, and went to the kitchen, I’ve seen one of the cats near the kitchen door waiting for me to come for to exhort the other cat. When he noticed me, he ran to the kitchen, and in a couple of seconds I saw two shadows that flashed into the room past me. When I finally got one of the cats from under the armchair for to express my opinion about his behavior, the other cat also slipped out of his hideout and went for to support his mate. So, my experience shows there actually is some kind of communication between animals, which is more complicated than the author described.
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