Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Something to Say

All mammals communicate by sound in some basic way; some of them – definitely including all primates – communicate in very complex ways. Nonetheless, language is different. It involves more than pointing and squealing with the meaning “danger over there!” It entails a level of abstraction and a contemplation of the nonfactual, e.g. “Go peek around that rock and let us know if there is predator, prey, or something else on the other side.” We don’t know when humans first spoke a full-blown syntactic language, defined as words with discrete meanings strung together with a grammar to form a larger thought. It is certain, though, that no later than 60,000 years ago (maybe much earlier), they were bragging and gossiping and insulting each other as much as we do today.

Did they speak a single shared language at that time – or at least closely related ones? There is no way to know but there are reasons for supposing so. The entire population of modern humans (based on genetic studies indicating past bottlenecks) just before they radiated out from and across Africa was a few tens of thousands at most. Merely two or three thousand left Africa to populate the rest of the world. It seems likely that the members of such a small ancestral population could communicate with each other. Radical unifiers such as linguists Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen make a compelling case that firmly established language families belong to somewhat less obvious superfamilies that ultimately spring from a common source. They point to spooky similarities in languages as apparently unrelated as Khoisan, Navaho, and Latin. (See The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue by Merritt Ruhlen.) More conservative linguists object that language monogenesis can never be proven, and they are right. However, that doesn’t mean we should refuse to note tantalizing clues pointing in that direction even if they never will be enough to seal the case definitively.

The most thoroughly studied language family is Indo-European. Since different language groups and subgroups evolve and diverge in self-consistent ways, it has been possible for linguists to reconstruct a proto-Indo-European language spoken 8000 years ago in Neolithic times that is ancestral to an array of modern languages from English to Hindi. An entertaining book on the proto-Indo-European roots of words we commonly use today in modern English is Written in Stone: A Journey through the Stone Age and the Origins of Modern Language by Christopher Stevens. This is not an academic book full of footnotes. When, for example, he says “dok” is proto-Indo-European for “to learn” and that it turns up in “doctrine,” “docent,” and “heterodox” via intermediary languages, the reader is left to take his word for it. However, there is enough of a bibliography for a reader to double-check the sources, if so inclined. Stevens is not, in fact, just making assertions; there are extensive scholarly researches on the subject to back him up, even though he doesn’t refer to them at every turn. This makes Written in Stone far more readable and breezy than it otherwise would have been. It is a fun book, and at the end of it the reader will have 100 or so words to exchange with a Stone Age fellow should he or she encounter one, and none of the words will be altogether foreign.

Important as the spoken word has been and remains, human culture needed written language to really take off. The spoken word vanishes as soon as it is uttered. There is only so much knowledge, lore, and cultural information that can be transmitted orally, and untimely deaths of knowledge-keepers can cause much of it to be lost forever. Writing changes all that. The origins of writing in Sumeria (and soon thereafter in Egypt) is fairly well understood and documented. It apparently was independently invented in China and Mesoamerica. Sumerian writing started out as graphic representations of trade goods; the first writings were mercantile contracts. It developed fairly quickly (by ancient measures) into something complex enough to record anything that could be spoken.

But even before the very first scrawlings that count as “writing” existed, abstract symbols existed. In a South African cave 100,000 years ago people were grinding ochre, a red pigment. We don’t know for what, but it probably was for symbolic body decoration of some kind; that is how the stuff commonly was used later in prehistory. One chunk of ochre in the cave from that time period has three notches on it and another has a chevron. Again, we don’t know why, but archaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger speculates they are ownership marks: some artist was indicating “these are mine.” It is still common for people to mark their tools. I do myself. But whatever was intended, they were abstract symbols.

Although she does go farther afield, von Petzinger’s specialty is the cave paintings of Ice Age Europe between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, mostly because they are well enough documented to allow statistical treatment. (Her own explorations have revealed that many of the records of cave images are incorrect however.) Her particular interest is abstract symbols rather than the representational images of animals with which most of us are familiar. Her book The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols is not limited to these. She also discusses representational Ice Age art including figurines, but the abstract symbols have her attention. She identifies 32 (asterisks, crosshatches, cordiforms, spirals, etc.) that recur with high frequency over tens of thousands of years in caves hundreds of miles distant from each other. They must have meant something. She won’t call the symbols “writing” for numerous reasons, but she does think they tell us something about how writing started: “Rather than assume that writing appeared out of nowhere 5000 to 6000 years ago, can we trace its origins back to those artists working 20,000 years earlier? I believe we can.”

Both books are a pleasant way to spend some time communicating with our Stone Age ancestors. Perhaps what those folks had to say was more edifying than many social media posts today. One always can hope anyway.

The Lovin’ Spoonful – Words


  1. That early man that was bragging and gossiping and insulting each other might still have relatives today from what I see. It would be weird to get in a time machine and go back to a time before verbal communication, although I'm not sure I'd want to--I'd be too frightened. Supposedly there was a big jump up in civilization from then to what we know as civilized, I guess, agricultural man--where we settled down from hunters and gatherers to form groups and stay in one spot.

    Speaking of language alone boggles my mind as it's a verbal abstraction of words that form images, different from culture to culture. I'd been thinking of including some of that Ice Age art, tribal art, totems, etc. in some of my art as well.

    1. Sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson wrote the novel “Shaman” about the central character Loon at age 12 on his “wander,” a rite of passage for an apprentice shaman. The ice-age world Robinson describes of clans, hunts, gathers, festivals, rituals, cave painting, pairings, and raids feels surprisingly much like “home.” There is quite a lot of “plei-fi” as a subset of sci-fi (I’ve written some myself), but this is one of the best researched. The novel is a great way to sample the ice age experience while still keeping one’s toes toasty.

      Supposedly Picasso remarked after viewing Lascaux, "We have learned nothing." Whether or not he did, there is good reason for the sentiment.

  2. Wow this is a subject I've never really considered, but it sounds really interesting. I'll need to check these two books out. Reminds me of the flick "Quest for Fire". :)

    1. Language is intimately connected with abstract consciousness (the meta-state of not just knowing but knowing that you know) and written language is intimately connected with civilization. The origins of both are a cause for wonder. Early peoples had to invent them for themselves. It’s not surprising that it took them a while.