I came across this while researching this topicA piece of paperby Robin Allott (2003), which covered both technical and comprehensive issues in philosophy, linguistics, psychology and neurology. Allott's discussion may be of interest to a wider audience, and I have taken the liberty of writing this brief, non-technical article that presents what I believe to be a key theme in his article, the philosophical implications of the gestural theory of the origin of language. The theory offers an opportunity for mutually fruitful collaboration between language origin research and language philosophy.
Language Origin Research (LOR) is a multidisciplinary endeavor drawing on anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, psychology and life sciences. Though concern about necessary and sufficient conditions for language is shared, philosophy and LOR rarely overlap. The central question in LOR is: if language is a natural stage in the evolution of animal communication, why are humans the only known species to use language? Language's apparent uniqueness to humans suggests that it evolved at a time when the human species branched off the evolutionary tree and adopted unique traits that led to the use of language.
To identify this starting point, the gestural origin of language (TG) theory posits that language began as sign language (possibly accompanied by marginal vocalization). According to GT, language developed rapidly in the evolutionary period after humans gained sufficient brain size, full bipeds, and manual dexterity. In the GT hypothesis, the "triggering event" for human language was bipedalism, which freed hands not only for toolmaking but also for signaling. GT would explain the discrepancy between the apparently long period of time required for the evolution of language and the fossil evidence that appears to show late evolution of the vocal tract for articulated language in our hominid ancestors.
If language began as gestures, the reasons for the shift to verbal communication are unclear. Speech has distinct advantages over signage, such as B. the ability to communicate with both hands, out of sight, at a distance and at night. These advantages may have played a role in the transition. Sign language allows for silent communication that would be better suited to early humans' daytime activities; Hunting, war and avoidance of predators. Given their opposing roles, it is plausible that sign language and speech coexisted for some time, and the shift to a more stable and secure human environment played a role in the gesture's marginalization.
GT also addresses a central philosophical question: Why do we think language "mirrors" the world? Attempts to posit vocalization as the original medium of language run into problems in explaining the origin of indexicality (language's ability to relate to objects), meaning (the mediating structure, part mental and part social, that determines what a word refers to). and grammar (the fact that words have a "building block" configuration, they can be shifted around to form a variety of sentences), all of which are obviously absent from "communication" with nonhuman animals. Sign language is iconic and indexical by nature. Characters can be arranged in different ways to form different sets. Taken together, these features make sign language a system for “mirroring” the world.
If language evolved much later than signaling, it's likely that a neural correlate of signaling occurs in the brain when we speak. This hypothesis is being tested in neurology, with promising early results. Such as the discovery of "mirror neurons" in Broca's area of the human brain, which are thought to play an important role in both speaking and performing, imagining, and mimicking hand-arm movements. Mirror neurons are activated when the subject performs an action or sees another person doing it, and may underlie intersubjectivity, which is an integral part of human communication (Rizzolatti and Arbib 1998).
If the GT hypothesis is correct, the neural correlate of speech-accompanying signaling is the precursor of linguistic sense or "meaning," the intermediary in the brain between word and object. The GT hypothesis presents an elegant and powerful theory of the origin of language as a uniquely human phenomenon, as well as a biological basis for the analogous or "mirrored" structure of language and thought.
GT may therefore have philosophical implications, as the theory suggests that language's 'deep structure', 'image', or analogous relationship to reality may be connected to the human brain. This assertion contradicts a familiar (sometimes dubbed “postmodernist”) view of meaning as “use,” which characterizes the mirroring hypothesis as misleading at best and ideological at worst, obfuscating uses of language to legitimize and reproduce power structures behind a facade of “just reflect reality".
Undoubtedly there are many historical and contemporary examples of "linguistic tyranny" (e.g. in the ancient Greek word for "slave", which was connoted with innate inferiority and thus legitimized the rule of free Greeks). But does linguistic tyranny exploit the necessary elements of language's "mirror system", the distinctions between objective and subjective, semantics and pragmatics, denotation and connotation (although certain applications of these distinctions can be challenged in various ways), or is the "mirror system" itself an ideological construct or at best a myth to be dispelled, as radical postmodernists suggest?
The theory of "meaning as use" poses great difficulties. How did the idea of language (and thought) as a "mirror" even come about, and if it's really just an illusion, why do we keep falling for it? This problem is reflected in Wittgenstein's work.Philosophical Investigations, most notable in his observation that "philosophy is a struggle against the enchantment of our intelligence with language" (1953, Aphorism 109). Wittgenstein repeatedly alludes to language's tendency to mislead by superficial analogical similarities (e.g. between "I have a bug in a box" and "I have a thought in my head") and the apparent impossibility of escaping this kind of linguistic confusion to free.
If, as GT suggests, the analog structure of language is "hardwired" in the brain, then the source of the confusion and its recalcitrance can be explained as follows:
The "mirror system" of language was not an ideological invention (indeed, such an invention would have been literally unthinkable). Nor can it be “undiscovered” by politics or a philosophical theory like “meaning as benefit”. The "mirror system" and the objective-subjective, semantic-pragmatic and designation-connotation distinctions associated with it are innate in our brain structures and thus in human thinking and language. Even the most radical postmodernists cannot think otherwise, even if they can talk (at least in the ivory tower) as if they would. Analogies are not carbon copies. They work by simplifying reality to provide an organizational scheme for certain tasks, and thus have a built-in tendency to mislead when applied to tasks for which they were not originally intended (the mind-as-container analogy is a notorious example). .
We emerge from one analog trap only to fall into another. However, we cannot remove the glasses that let us fall into these traps. We can't help but think that language must describe something "objective" (the goal, as opposed to the analog), that some beliefs and belief systems are "truer" than others (like some analogies are "more appropriate" than others). that there is a substantive difference between semantics and pragmatics, denotation and connotation (as between a model and the various uses for which it can be put, some less misleading than others). There can be no future "utopia" that reveals a massive neural rewiring where things will be different. Language is inherently misleading and we must constantly be aware of its limitations and abuses, but its basic structural assumptions can never be anything other than what they are.
It is not clear what would count as empirical evidence for GT, let alone the philosophical thesis outlined above. If GT could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, scientists would still face the daunting task of tracing its effects on the human cognitive apparatus and elucidating possible implications for the "deep structure" of thought and language. There is also the possibility that even if the GT hypothesis is wrong, the same philosophical implications result from mental structures resulting from another evolutionary accident.
It is clear that a scientific program that tries to attribute the origin of language to cognitive and linguistic processes in order to have methodological validity cannot exclude the participation of philosophers. Many of them questioned the "inside-out" paradigm that governs LOR, the idea that language is simply a by-product of complex thought (and therefore can occur in any sufficiently complex non-human species). In particular, the Wittgensteinian philosophers took an "outside-in" approach, that language is a semi-autonomous system that shapes mental structures. GT fits well into the "outside-in" model (especially considering semantics and syntax), but remains a minority view of LOR. On the other hand, philosophy cannot afford to ignore scientific evidence that language may have a "deep structure" that shapes our thinking and communication, structures that cannot be abolished by command. Both sides must work together to ensure that theory and evidence fit together properly.
In a bibliographical note for readers who wish to explore this subject further, Robin Allott (2003)'Language as a mirror of the world: reconciling image theory and language games' discusses the relevance of recent research in linguistics, psychology and neurology to the project of reconciling Wittgenstein's Trataric and post-Trataric approaches to language. For those who want more detail on GT, Michael Corballis (1999) would be a good place to start.The gestural origins of language', emamerican scientist, 87(2), 138. Corballis also wrote a very readable book,From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language(Princeton University Press, 2002). More recent work comes from David Armstrong and Sherman Wilcox.The gestural origin of language(Oxford University Press, 2007). A seminal work on "mirror neurons" and their possible role in language is by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Michael Arbib (1998)"Language at our fingertips',Trends in Neuroscience, 21(5):188. For a general overview of the origin of the language, see William Fitch (2005) "The evolution of language: a comparative analysis',biology and philosophy20 (2–3): 193.