Language - Origins and Evolution
Some food and some fake snakes were hidden in a field in the presence of the leader of a group ot chimpanzees. The leader informed the group by signs and they all returned, with the younger ones in front, to secure the food and avoid the snakes.1
Do such information methods, useful though they may be. infer the mental operations which make human language not merely a tool for communication but the substratum upon which thought deploys itself?
NaturaI-emergence supporters hoped to show that young apes. provided they were raised amongst men. would be able to acquire the rudiments of human language. There were two series of tests, one taking place before and the other after 1960, In 1933, Dr. J Kellogg and his wife had the idea of raising a young chimpanzee, Gua, with their own child. Gua was eventually able to react to 166 words, but was never able to speak. In 1951, the Hayeses took into their family the young chimp, Viki, for six and a half years and claimed that it succeeded in articulating something resembling papa,' "mama" and cup, although the words were very deformed. These unfruitful tests were not renewed because Philip Lieberman, a phonetician. explained that even if the ape's larynx included vocal cords. the structure of its vocal tract (nasal cavity. velum and epiglottis in particular) prevents it from emitting the fundamental vowels (a, i, o, u) of the human language.2 This could have been the end of the story. The desire to prove the animal origin of man however, is so strong that five American psychologists, between 1966 and 1977, attempted to initiate apes into a dumb form of language. Three trials took place using the American Sign Language (AM ESLAN) which consists of alphabetic signs being traced in the palm of the hand for the use of deaf and dumb people. There were the Gardners with Washoe starting in 1966. Herbert Terrace with Nim from 1973 to 1977, and Francine Patterson with the gorilla Koko from 1972 at Stanford University. In 1966, at the Santa Barbara University in California, the Premacks attempted to introduce Sarah to a language composed of symbolic objects such as a square representing a banana, a triangle for an apple, a silhouette of an ape for Sarah. Finally, as from 1970, at the Regional Centre of Primate Studies at Yerkes, Duane Rumbaugh taught Lana to use a computer with keys bearing geometric symbols for words.3 To start with the research workers published encouraging reports. The apes were very quick in tracing for themselves the AMESLAN signs to obtain corresponding rewards. They were even able to recognize and produce sequences of two and sometimes even three signs. The question therefore arose as to whether, for the ape, these signs correspond to "words," and the sequences to "sentences." Did they represent an embryonic grammar? Then came the doubters When Sarah lined up three signs to form the sequence give Sarah banana," had she made up a grammatical phrase similar to the "telegraphic" style of a two-year-old child, or had she merely adopted a conditioned behavior to obtain a reward, similar to all animals undergoing training. According to the linguist Chomsky, mastery of a language by a child can, obviously, only be considered in terms of a complete acquisition following the "telegraphic stage." Otherwise, because a child can jump, he could be compared to a bird and be said to able to fly, even though imperfectly!4
In 1975, Lenneberg performed a counter-experiment. He submitted some college students to the same training for learning symbols as the Premacks had given to Sarah. The students rapidly outperformed the chimpanzees but none of them considered that the graphic signs could correspond to words, nor the sequences to phrases They al believed they were being asked to resolve a kind of puzzle In 1969, Terrace himself recognized that "evidence that apes can create sentences can, in each case, be explained by reference to simpler non-linguist processes. "5 In 1978, Premack wrote: "Chimps do not have any significant degree of human language and when, in two to five years, this fact becomes properly disseminated, it will be of interest to ask, why were we so easily duped by the claim that they do?"6 Prejudice for evolution is the answer which has introduced error into much of the research in the human sciences. Repeated experiments, undertaken at great expense, over many years, by psychologists subscribing To the evolutionary theory, have been needed to reach the conclusion that the natural emergence of language from the animal is impossible. Evolutionists consider that the evolutionary route leading to man must pass through the primates. The only animals, however, possessing a vocal tract capable of reproducing our words are birds, as for example the parrot and mynah. The question arises, then, how could we be descendants of the apes and inherit the characteristics of the birds'?
The Human Construction of Language
The proposition was already advanced by Herder in 1770, in his Origin of Language. It is proposed today by Piaget, the celebrated specialist in infant psychology. He posits that all knowledge is acquired through the subject's action upon, and interaction with people and things, and that language has its origin in the sensorimotor period of the child's life, at about 18 months, when the representation of things becomes possible in the mind of the child. Language would not, therefore, be an innate aptitude, but an acquisition of action patterns like dancing or knitting, an intellectual tool to serve man's specific needs. An objection could be made from the fact of the universality of language. Apart from the gravely deficient, all children eventually acquire the intuitive rules of language and the capacity to express themselves by means of intelligible sentences. The same thing does not apply to intellectual exercises such as mathematics. Universality, therefore, makes for innateness.
It is, moreover, strange that language should depend upon the general sensory-motor development of the child. Even if children learn to talk at an early age, they are late in learning to walk. A child of 3 years who employs with precision several hundred coordinated muscle movements needed to articulate clearly will still spill a glass of milk, fall over in running and not always master the sphincters relative to the most elementary functions of the body. These facts of experience can be explained by the physiology of the brain. Two areas of the brain are connected with language. The frontal area in the left hemisphere was discovered by Paul Broca in 1865. Damage to this area leads to language impairment, termed "aphasia."7 Adjacent to it is a part of the cortex which receives auditory signals. This was discovered by Carl Wernicke in 1874.
Damage to the Wernicke area affects speech comprehension, causing the subject to pronounce grammatically correct senTences that have no meaning. These two hemispheres are linked by a bundle of nerve fibers. Such an asymmetrical development of the brain accompanies the acquisition of language. It is completed at the age of puberty, after which time it becomes impossible to learn to talk (as in the case of "feral children"), and much more difficult to acquire a second language (hence the interest in bilingual schools). In 1973, Dr. John C, Eccles pointed out that human infants are born with this cerebral asymmetry which is missing in non- human primates, Furthermore, the enlargement of the language area in the left hemisphere anticipates considerably its eventual usage in speech, as it can already be detected in a 5-month- old fetus,8 Thus language is programmed in a child from its conception, even though it can only be realized in a human environment where the child can exercise its inborn faculty (within the limits of its "mother" tongue),
Artificial languages, created by man for his own needs (mathematics, data processing language, etc.) prove quite different from natural languages. Suited to operations of the intelligence, they are incapable of expressing feelings They possess a singleness of meaning as demonstrated in the rigidity of mathematical definitions, Normal language, however, functions due to a relative ambiguity of the words. It would be impossible to understand one another if one specific word existed for each separate thing. Common words correspond to approximate classes and define themselves relatively to each other, without it being possible or necessary to specify the limits of these classes with any precision.
Finally, if language was a tool, it would be seen to perfect itself with civilization. In fact, it is the contrary that is seen to occur. So-called "primitive" peoples possess surprisingly rich and subtle languages which amaze the grammar experts.9 At the same time, our written languages have demonstrated a progressive impoverishment in their grammar (compensated, it is true, by an increase of technical vocabulary). The oblique case disappeared from the French language quite some time ago, and in English the verbal forms such as the subjunctive have been falling into disuse over recent generations. Clearly, if linguistic systems are running down with time whilst the range of techniques is expanding, language cannot be considered to be a voluntary product of the human intelligence.
The Divine Creation of Language
Humanity does not construct language. it finds it. As can be seen from the foregoing, the physiological particularities proper to language (vocal tract, cerebral specialization) are inscribed in the genetic inheritance. The implementation of language in the child is affected by the parents who received it from their parents, thus confirming that humanity is not an aggregate of individuals but a collection of families,
The origin of language can perhaps be discerned. If our parents received it from their parents. the chain goes back inevitably to the common ancestor of all humanity, Adam, it is this fact which explains the hereditary universality of the mental operations which are characteristic of language. It also explains the capacity for men to understand each other despite the diversity of specific languages issuing from Babel. The question is, therefore, from whom did Adam receive the language? Genesis specifies that Adam could find no creatures from amongst the animals to be his interlocutor, and indicates it was God Himself who was Adam's immediate and privileged interlocutor. If is, therefore, from God that came the two elements of language, the genetic inheritance (formulated by God the Creator) and the oral implementation (by God the first interlocutor),
Language has not, then, emerged progressively from a voiceless stage of creation. It was not invented to fulfill some material need of the first humans. It was there from the beginning. "In the beginning was the Word." The Word, the singularity that explains the origin of all things. It provided the means of relating with God. It was a prayer which was the first form and still remains the most perfect form of the human language.
Man was created in the image of the Word. He was prepared genetically to receive the word and to transmit it, not like something external that can be acquired or rejected, but like the essence of his own being. the innate difference which distinguishes him from other living creatures. It is the ultimate point of his being by which he communicates with the Supreme being, the specific resemblance with the Creator which enables him to ponder Creation, to know God and to love him.
Man, the servant of the Word can only regress if, instead of lovingly cultivating the language received from his ancestors, he uses it merely for worldly ends. This regression can be seen in the decrease of the capacity to reason due to the influence of television which is a "locutor" and not an "interlocutor." It is plain in the ideologically governed societies where self-criticism and mental restraints are induced. This is the reason, as Joseph Brodsky the Nobel laureate explains. why there is no place for poets in these societies. Even if their works make no allusion to politics, their mere presence as guardians of the language is intolerable to the ideologists who use the language as an instrument of domination.
Poetry is the language in its fullest dimension, it not only arouses emotion but transmits it as well. It has the universal character of passing though the intelligence to reach the heart and possesses an intensity that draws upon all the vocal chords, all the semantic levels and all the subtleties of natural languages, Nothing could be explained about language if it were not for poetry, for its faculty of creativeness and its power of giving life to our thoughts and strength to our feelings. How could this creative faculty arise if it had not been received from the Creator Himself? This spring of life, how could one drink from it if it did not come from Him who is Life? How could this faculty, which is inseparable from the life of the spirit, have appeared if it did not spring from the Spirit Himself?
It is for this reason that our words attain reality despite our finitude. The universe is Christocentric, "all having been made by Him and for Him" and due to the fact that all words reflect the Word of God,
Editor's Note: Reprinted from Christian Order, Oct. 1988, with kind permission of the author
1 Clifford Wilson and Donald McKeon. The Language Gap (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Ml 1984), p.144. 2 lbid. ,pp. 20-21.
2 ibid., pp. 21-22.
3 ibid., p.125.
4 ibid., p.149.
5 ibid.. p 154.
6 H. Hecaen and J. Dubois, La Naissance de la Neuropsychologie du Langage (Flammarion, Paris 1969), p.108.
7 Wilson and Mckeon. The Language Gop, p.72.
8 E. O. Lorimer. Language-Hunting n the Kerokoran (George Al en and Unwin, naon 1940), p.19.