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Place/Catania: THE ROLE OF THE HAND IN THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE
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30. It is proposed that in previous linguistic training the behaviour of
picking (nota bene) the drawing of a car (the target in the case of the
upper figure), when presented with the written word CAR as sample, and the
behaviour of picking the written word CAR (the target in the case of the
lower figure), when presented with the drawing of a car as sample, have both
been reinforced. As a consequence these two stimuli are treated as
equivalent and are said to have become members of the same stimulus
equivalence class. Although in this particular example the equivalence class
has been formed by linguistic training outside the laboratory, there is a
wealth of experimental evidence showing that in human children and adults
any two arbitrarily selected stimuli can be formed into an equivalence class
by this procedure. Despite the fact that the experimental technology tends
to restrict research to the investigation of arbitrary associative links
between static visual shapes (but see Sidman  Figure 4.2, p.95, for an
experiment in which the sample is spoken word), it is generally agreed by
workers in this field that the ability to form stimulus equivalence classes
in this sense is intimately associated with the early stages of language
development in the human infant.
31. According to the view endorsed here (Place 1995/6), an arbitrary
response-produced stimulus becomes a symbol for or name of some individual
object or kind of object, property, relation or event when, as illustrated
in the schematic, it becomes a member of a stimulus equivalence class which
includes amongst its members one or more natural signs of the presence of
the individual or kind which it thereby symbolises. The propensity of the
child that is developing language to form such stimulus equivalence classes
is seen as a result of having repeatedly learned both, as speaker, to
produce the symbol or name in the presence of a natural sign of the thing it
'stands for' and, as listener, to pick out the natural sign when presented
with the symbol or name.
32. Despite many attempts to do so, there is no convincing evidence that
any animal species, including apes who have been taught to use sign-language
or other symbols, has spontaneously developed a stimulus equivalence class
in the way human children invariably do, i.e., unless the individual has
been specifically trained to respond to each of the possible combinations of
sample and comparison. There is evidence, moreover (Beasty 1987; Dugdale &
Lowe 1990; Horne & Lowe 1996), which links the emergence of spontaneous
stimulus equivalence class formation with the use of names to distinguish
the stimuli the child is learning to associate. Animals who have been taught
to use symbols not only fail to show the spontaneous formation of stimulus
equivalence classes. They also fail to show the exponential increase in
vocabulary size which has been referred to as the naming explosion and which
would seem to begin in the child at about the same time (around the age of
two). It seems that a mutation has been selected which gives human beings
the ability to form the kind of associations involved in giving significance
to arbitrary symbols far more readily than any other species.
II.xiii. BICKERTON'S PROTO-LANGUAGE
33. Because the work that has been done on the formation of
stimulus equivalence classes has focused on static visual stimuli, it is
directly relevant only to the acquisition of object-names. How action-names
are acquired has not been studied from this perspective. However, it seems
likely that this ability grew out of the ancient practice of representing
actions by mimed movement, just as the ability to acquire object-names
appears to have grown out of the practice of pointing at objects in order to
establish reference to them. Once object-names and action-names have been
acquired it becomes possible to construct sentences in what Bickerton (1990)
has called proto-language in which sentences consist of an object-name or
noun specifying the agent, an action-name or verb specifying the action to
be performed, and a second object-name or noun specifying the manipulandum.
Horne and Lowe's (1996) 'Daddy push car' is a typical example of just such a
sentence. Apart from the distinction between verb and noun and the order in
which the different components of the argument structure occur, such
sentences are devoid of syntax. Nevertheless, within their limitations, they
provide the rudiments of a working symbolic language.
II.xiv. THE PRINCIPLE OF THE PROGRESSIVE EXTENSION OF REFERENTIAL
34. As language develops in the child and as it presumably developed in
the species, reference is initially restricted to objects in the current
common stimulus environment of sign-producer and sign-receiver to which the
sign producer refers by pointing at them. With the introduction of iconic
representation reference is extended to objects which are absent from the
common stimulus environment of both speaker and listener, but only in so far
as either their shape can be depicted by means of a mimed movement or their
sound can be vocally imitated. With the introduction of symbolic
representation reference is extended to absent objects, both individuals and
kinds, to which a name has been assigned by the conventions of the language.
With the introduction of syntax, particularly with the introduction of
embedded clauses, it becomes possible to refer to absent objects by
III. EVIDENCE FOR THE ROLE OF THE HUMAN HAND IN THE EVOLUTION OF
35. Before proceeding to detailed reconstruction of the evolution of
language based on these principles, it will be helpful to review some of the
evidence which supports the view that the freeing of the human forelimb from
its locomotor functions, and the consequent development of manipulative
skills, is as important for the evolution of language as it clearly is for
the evolution of technology. The following pieces of evidence are relevant
in this connection:
III.i. A GOOD VOCAL APPARATUS IS NOT ENOUGH
36. Many birds have a vocal apparatus as good as that of humans; yet
they have not developed language. This suggests that the crucial difference
between birds and humans in this respect may be that, while both are
bipedal, the forelimbs of birds are still specialised for locomotion, rather
than, as in the human case, for manipulation.
III.ii. GESTICULATION AS THE INVARIABLE ACCOMPANIMENT OF SPEECH
37. The occurrence of gesticulation as an invariable
accompaniment of speech strongly suggests that gesticulation had a much more
important role in the early stages of language evolution.
III.iii. GESTICULATION AS THE INVARIABLE DEFAULT WHEN
SPEECH IS BLOCKED
38. Whenever vocal communication is blocked, either because it cannot be
heard or, if heard, cannot be understood, human beings of every culture
invariably fall back on gesticulation.
39. The ease with which the deaf learn sign-language, particularly if
brought up in an environment in which signing is in constant use by others,
and the spontaneous development of homesigning by those who are not,
suggests that the ability to use and respond to manual signs is an integral
part of our human linguistic heritage.
III.v. REFERRING TO AN OBJECT BY POINTING AT IT
40. The practice of pointing with the index finger as a way of
establishing reference to objects in the common stimulus environment of
speaker and listener is a linguistic universal which by common consent plays
an essential role in the acquisition of word-meanings.
III.vi. SENTENCES IN THE LANGUAGE OF GESTURE
41. The earliest form of sentence seems to have been one in which the
function (action) is indicated by means of a mimed movement and the
arguments by pointing at the objects concerned. Communication which relies
exclusively on sentences of this type constitutes a language of gesture
(Piaget 1926/1932; Hewes 1973a; 1973b; 1976) on which human beings
invariably fall back when vocal communication is blocked.
III.vii. THE ASSOCIATION BETWEEN HANDEDNESS AND LANGUAGE IN
42. The concentration of areas specialised for language in the same
hemisphere of the cerebral cortex as that which controls the hand which is
preferred for precise manipulative tasks demonstrates the intimate
connection between the two functions (Cf. Hewes 1973b, p.9).
III.viii. READING ABILITY CANNOT HAVE EVOLVED TO DECIPHER
43. There is a part of the human cerebral cortex, the angular gyrus on
the dominant (usually left) hemisphere, which is specialised for deciphering
linguistic stimuli in the visual modality (Thompson 1993, pp.399-402). Since
writing and reading have developed far too recently and are still far from
universal human accomplishments, the need to decipher a written text cannot
explain the development of this ability to process visually presented
linguistic signs. It must have been selected, probably before the
development of speech, to facilitate the interpretation of a language of
III.ix. RIZZOLATTI AND ARBIB'S LANGUAGE IN OUR GRASP
44. In a recent paper entitled 'Language in our grasp', Rizzolatti and
Arbib (1998) have reached a similar conclusion in the light of
evidence that Broca's area in the human left frontal cortex, long known as
the area involved in the production and interpretation of syntactically
articulated sentences, is homologous with an area in the monkey's brain (F5)
where neurons (mirror neurons) have been found which respond both to the
production of visually-controlled hand-movements and to the visual
perception of the corresponding movements when made by others. Although
Rizzolatti and Arbib do not make these points, it is evident that this link
between the execution of a voluntary hand-movement and the visual perception
of similar movements made by others is (a) a by-product of the visual
feedback-control of voluntary movement, (b) the foundation for the ability
to imitate the hand-movements of others without which a human technology
based on the manufacture and use of tools would have been impossible, and �
the foundation of the ability found, as we have seen, in chimpanzees to
communicate by miming the action to be performed by the sign-receiver.
III.x. COUNTING AND THE COMMUNICATION OF NUMBER USING THE FINGERS
45. No one would seriously dispute the claim that the earliest form of
counting consisted in the practice which is found in every human culture of
counting up to ten on the fingers of the two hands, and displaying the
result to others by holding up the relevant number of fingers. This practice
can, perhaps, be seen as an outgrowth of the ability to refer to objects by
pointing at them. But since what is pointed at are the fingers rather than
the objects being counted, this form of counting is an iconic representation
of the number of the objects. Furthermore since you can only count things of
a kind, counting presupposes a pre-existing ability to classify objects into
kinds and, in the case of communicating the results of a count, a
pre-existing ability to indicate the kind of object being counted. (I am
indebted to Professor Robbins Burling of the University of Michigan
[personal communication April 1998] for convincing me that, unlike vocal
counting which is inevitably symbolic from the outset, digital counting,
together with some written number systems such as the Roman before the
practice of writing IV instead of IIII was introduced, is a form of iconic
rather than, as I had previously thought, a form of symbolic
III.xi. POINTING AND PICKING IN THE LEARNING OF OBJECT-NAMES
46. The recent work on the process whereby arbitrary response-produced
stimuli become symbols for (names of) objects, described in section II.XI
above, argues for a key role in this process for the manual responses of
pointing at and picking out the relevant stimuli.
III.xii. THE ROLE OF MIMED ACTION IN THE LEARNING OF
47. Little appears to be known about the process whereby action-names
are learned. What is known (Khler 1921/1927) is that chimpanzees communicate
what they want a conspecific to do by miming the action in question, and
such miming is a conspicuous feature both of the gesticulation that
invariably accompanies speech, unless the hands are otherwise engaged and of
sign-languages, whether officially recognised or devised by the individual.
This suggests that miming of the action by the caregiver and its imitation
by the child must play a key role in the acquisition of action-names.
IV. A HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO FOR THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE
48. In the light of this evidence and the principles outlined in
sections I and II above, I would propose the following scenario for the
evolution of what I am suggesting is the sequence of stages involved in the
evolution of language:
IV.i. MIMED ACTION
49. The first stage in the evolution of language appears to have
occurred at a time when chimpanzees and humans had a common ancestor. Three
interconnected abilities would seem to have developed at this stage: (a) the
ability to use sticks and stones as tools and weapons, (b) the ability to
imitate the movements of others in the context of learning to perform the
manipulations involved in the effective use of tools and weapons, and � the
ability to communicate what one wants someone else to do by miming the
action required. There is some reason to think that the concentration of the
manipulative and communicatory functions in one hemisphere of the cerebral
cortex (the left in those who are right-handed) may have begun at this
stage, perhaps with the specialisation of such structures as the angular
gyrus and the pre-motor cortex in the dominant hemisphere for the visual
interpretation of hand-movements in general and gesture in particular.
IV.ii. THE LANGUAGE OF GESTURE
50. The second stage culminates in the emergence of the first true
sentences formulated in the language of gesture. It begins with the
emergence of the practice of pointing referentially at objects, at the
individual who is to do something, at an object to be manipulated, at a
destination or location to which the individual is to move or to which the
object is to be moved. As we have seen (Section II.IV above), this ability
is lacking in chimpanzees, not because it is something they cannot learn to
do, but because referential pointing is something to which, unlike dolphins,
they cannot learn to respond. We have also seen reason to agree with Noble
and Davidson's (1996) suggestion that this ability may have evolved with the
development of the ability of a group of hunters to aim their weapons at the
same target. Given the ability to use pointing to distinguish (a) who is to
perform the action, (b) the object to be manipulated and � the individual to
whom the object is to be transferred, it becomes possible for the first time
in the history of communication between living organisms to construct novel
sentences in what may be justly described as the language of gesture in
which different mimed actions are combined with different combinations of
argument (agent, object and recipient) identified by pointing at them.
51. (Dr. Marina Sbis of the Department of Philosophy, University of
[personal communication, June 1998], has drawn my attention to the
fact that human infants frequently indicate the object to be manipulated by
an adult, in the case of a small portable object such as a bowl, by bringing
it to the adult or, in the case of a larger object by dragging the adult
towards it. It is not clear to me whether this behaviour is part of the
miming of the action to be performed which is already present in the
behaviour of chimpanzees or whether it is a separate development, possibly
connected to the technology of using containers to collect, store and
distribute liquids such as water and milk and solids such as fruit and
52. But significant though it is, the practice of referring to objects
by pointing at them is severely limited in its scope. Whereas mimed action
allows the communicator to refer to what has not yet occurred, the action to
be performed by the respondent, referring to objects by pointing at them
allows the communicator to refer only to conspicuous objects in the stimulus
environment of both parties. The effect of subsequent developments is to
increase that scope beyond what is indexically present.
IV.iii. ICONIC VOCALISATION
53. In Stage 3 vocalisation is added to the language of gesture. It
depends on changes to the conformation of the mouth and larynx which are
selected in the first instance by their effect in allowing human beings to
imitate the sounds made, for example, by the male or female of the species
to attract a potential mate, thereby enticing the latter into the traps
which the technology provides. Once established such calls are introduced
into otherwise gestural sentences as an alternative to pointing at instances
of the object where no such instance is present. Since there is no obvious
trace of the kind of iconic gestures used by homesigners to represent
objects (Morford et al. 1993) in the gesticulations of those without
auditory impairment, I am inclined to think that the vocal imitation of
sounds made by animals were the first iconic representations of objects, as
distinct from the iconic representations of actions by means of mimed
actions which have been used since the days of our ape ancestors to
represent the action to be performed by the sign- recipient. They make it
possible for the first time to talk about absent objects as well as actions
not yet performed.
54. The position of this fourth stage in the sequence of evolutionary
events leading to fully developed language is unclear. It is placed here
because it can be plausibly seen as the first step in the move away from the
iconic towards a symbolic system of representation. It is the development of
the ability to count up to ten on the fingers of the two hands and
communicate the result by holding up the appropriate number of fingers.
Considered as a representation of the number of objects in a group, holding
up the corresponding number of fingers may be considered iconic. But, once
they progress beyond the number of fingers on the two hands, counting
systems inevitably become symbolic. Vocal counting is invariably symbolic
from the outset.
55. In Stage 5 the first representations of objects using arbitrary
symbols (names) begin to appear. Once the use of symbols is well established
in the repertoire of a human child, all that is required for the child to
learn a new name or other lexical word is for the instructor to point to one
or two instances of the kind of object the word is used to refer to while
uttering the word in question. However, the evidence reviewed in Section
II.XI above suggests that in its early stages learning the names of things
is a much more complex process, one in which there is reinforcement both of
the response of producing the name in the presence of an instance of the
kind in question and the response of picking an instance of the kind in the
presence of the name. Although apes, and possibly members of other animal
species, can be taught to use symbols, they never progress to the point
where there is spontaneous generalisation in both directions between the
word or symbol and the natural signs of the presence of the object for which
it stands. To be able to learn word-meanings as easily as a human child does
from about the age of two requires a mutation which has occurred and been
selected only in the human species.
56. Apes who have been taught sign language or some other form of
symbolic communication can construct sentences in what Bickerton (1990)
calls proto-language. But without the rapidly expanding vocabulary that
seems to develop only with the spontaneous emergence of stimulus equivalence
classes, language can never take off as it does in the human child. Even
so, consisting as they do entirely of names (lexical words), proto-language
sentences have no syntax other than the verb/noun distinction. That, and
perhaps some of the other distinctions that are later drawn by means of
syntax, are indicated by gesture which, at this stage, still forms an
integral part of the process of linguistic communication. This is the first
stage in the evolution of language where the increased efficiency of
language as a medium for interpersonal and intrapersonal communication is
unquestionably what determines the selection of the mutation that provides
it, rather than its utility in relation to some purely technological
adaptation. It is at this stage presumably that Wernicke's area evolves as a
centre for the interpretation and production of names. With the development
of symbols (proper names) referring to particular persons and places,
unambiguous reference to individuals in their absence becomes possible for
the first time.
IV.vi. QUESTION AND ANSWER
57. As argued in Section II.III above, the developmental evidence
suggests that the first sentences produced and responded to by our ancestors
in the course of language evolution were all imperatives. It also seems
likely that the earliest declarative sentences were answers to questions and
that questions and answers evolved simultaneously as part of a single
practice. As in the case of counting, it is unclear at what stage in the
evolution of language this development took place. The best guess is that
it was associated, as it seems to be in children, with the so-called naming
explosion which occurs around the age of two or three and consists in a
rapid increase in the child's vocabulary, particularly the names of kinds of
object. This event appears to coincide with the child's discovery of the
practice of asking questions of the caregiver, particularly questions about
the names of things, a practice which, like the naming explosion it
triggers, seems to be absent from the behaviour of the most intelligent of
those apes who have been taught a form of sign-language.
58. The development of syntax is the final stage in the evolution of
language. It is selected by virtue of its effect in releasing linguistic
communication from dependence on the listener's paying attention to the
context of utterance and the gestures of the speaker in order to
disambiguate what a speaker is saying. It thus allows speakers to talk
intelligibly about situations which are not part of the current stimulus
environment of either speaker or listener, whether in the past, in the
future or at some place geographically remote from the context of utterance.
Once it is fully developed, gesture, though still a valuable aid to the
speaker's eloquence, ceases to perform any essential communicatory function
as far as the listener is concerned. But, if gesture itself has been made
redundant for all but the deaf by the introduction of syntax, it seems that
the connection between language and manual and other forms of motor skill
still survives in the remarkable parallel to which Horgan and Tienson (1996)
have drawn attention between the syntactic organisation of sentences and the
syntactic (no metaphor) organisation of a motor skill such as basket-ball
59. It is an open question whether syntax evolved, as Chomsky would have
us believe, through a single mutation, or whether the emergence of each
class of syntactic operator required the selection of a separate mutation.
In favour of the former view is the existence of a single area in the human
cerebral cortex, Broca's area, which is specialised for its interpretation
and production, damage to which appears to affect all types of syntactic
operator more or less equally (Thompson 1993, p.398). In favour of the
latter view is the observation that the order in which the different classes
of syntactic operator are acquired by the child is a linguistic universal
(Slobin 1985; Aitchison 1989). With the introduction of syntax,
particularly the definite article and the relative clause, it becomes
possible for the first time to refer to absent objects by description as
well as by proper name.
I am indebted for their stimulating comments and for additional
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Tom Dickins, Heng-syung Jeng, Harry Jerison and Jill Morford. Since I have
not otherwise cited his work, I should also express my indebtedness to Lev
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