Daniel Everett, a linguistic anthropologist whose work was given considerable publicity by Tom Wolfe in his The Kingdom of Speech (see Chronicle 525), has published the latest high-profile book on language origin, How Language Began (Liveright, 2017). This work is full of basic information about all aspects of language, from pre-sapiens evolution to phonetics, pragmatics, language disorders, Grice’s maxims of cooperation, Austin’s locutionary categories, the relationship of spoken language to gesture… It also provides a more systematic refutation than Wolfe of Chomsky’s conception of grammar as a “module” in the brain resulting from genetic mutation. I have previously expressed the opinion that Chomsky’s idea of generative grammar is best understood as a systematization of linguistic syntax with a view to its eventual computerization (to which it has greatly contributed) rather than, despite the word “generative” that GA has been obliged to share, a theory of the origin and evolution of language. But I have no quarrel with Everett’s overall view of language evolution, or of its early origin, including his thesis that language is not a recent development but dates back to Homo erectus some hundreds of thousands of years ago (see Chronicle 169). Yet although virtually nothing Everett says actively disagrees with the ideas expressed in TOOL (not surprisingly absent from his otherwise extensive bibliography), the vast difference in perspective lets us better understand both the disciplinary and the epochal differences that have fated GA to remain obscure although by no means obsolete, let alone falsified by the developments of language origin research and theory since 1981.
I referred in Chronicle 555 to the influence of “big data” on the cognitivists’ approach to language. Here we have a less technologically driven yet analogous development, one dominant in popular non-fiction: aggregating material encyclopedically (or Wikipedically) from all aspects of a subject, in contrast to developing a line of reasoning. Everett does have a thesis of a sort: he rejects Chomsky’s idea of language-as-grammar, more specifically of language-as-recursion, in favor of the more pragmatic approach favored by the cognitivists, for whom language is not an “instinct” localized an a “module” as the result of a genetic mutation, but an activity that makes use of many otherwise non-specialized parts of both the body and the brain—to which Everett has the common sense to add that language is not an emanation of the individual human brain but a means of cultural communication.
This seems to me all to the good, nor is a discussion of “how language began” the place to defend the virtues of Chomsky’s system. But having made the valid point that language is not a biologically determined module, Everett seems to think he has resolved the central difficulty of language origin. It suffices to postulate that the growing intelligence of the Homo line must lead to the invention of what C. S. Peirce called “symbols,” and once this Rubicon has been crossed, “language is not that difficult” (112). As for such things as syntax and word order, Everett gives as his example of a primitive utterance the pop song title Shamalamadingdong (p. 212ff), which somehow would be broken down into shorter words by accenting different syllables: either a theory of the origin of syntax so absurd as to defy refutation, or a mock demonstration of how simple the whole thing really is. Everett uses the example of the movie title Eat. Drink. Man. Woman. to show that, without syntax, we nevertheless find this utterance perfectly comprehensible—although, not having seen the film, I frankly have no idea what this is supposed to mean.
To make a long story short, although Everett’s good sense is in the right place in emphasizing that language is in the first place a means of communication and that it exists only as a part of a culture involving a great deal of shared and presupposed “dark” knowledge (a culture I would call representational to distinguish it from the Pavlovian “cultures” of animals), the idea that the emergence of human language entails not just one more step on the Peircean scale but a whole new scene of consciousness, as described in 20th-century philosophy by such terms as Dasein and pour-soi and Derrida’s idea of différance, is altogether absent from this book, along with any other sign of concern with the age-old preoccupation of metaphysics to understand, if not the origin of language, the roots of human thought.
Thus the need to argue for, or even against, TOOL’s contention that only an evenemential hypothesis can explain language origin is altogether alien to this work. On the whole, despite its accumulation of source material, it illustrates contemporary anthropology’s vastly diminished level of intellectual and cultural sophistication in comparison with the tradition of Western anthropology from Tylor to Roy Rappaport or Clifford Geertz. It is thus not surprising that this book, although written by someone who has done extensive fieldwork in the kind of tribal cultures that provided the raw material for Frazer, Durkheim, Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, and all the other students of archaic religious practices, discusses the evolution of early humans and their culture without a single reference to religion.
If there is one point that Everett makes that I think provides some food for thought for GA, it is his insistence that language from the first could not have been limited to gestures. For, aside from specialized languages for the deaf, no natural language is based on gestures, whereas conversely, all spoken languages involve gestures as (we might put it) analog complements to the digital flow of speech. In TOOL, not being concerned with the specifics of language production, I limited my speculations on “the first word” to gesture because this provided a direct link between an indexical sign that would be an element of the practical action of appropriation and a symbolic sign that would result from maintaining the physical act after the “abortion” of its practical function. But no doubt this action would have been accompanied by vocalization, and it might have been useful to give some thought to how language evolved into a primarily vocal system, in which gestures were an accompaniment but did not bear the weight of meaning. Not that Everett’s non-evenemential descriptions provide any hint of how either the original or the later mixture was achieved, except by suggesting that even at the outset, it would be necessary to consider the vocal component of the appropriative act.
On this point, it is hard to imagine any useful speculation on the nature of these originary sounds, or the first principles of their differentiation, since whether indexical or symbolic, vocalization is hardly a functional aspect of reaching for or even of eating a piece of meat. But it is useful to note that although the gesture of appropriation must be aborted, the vocalization need not be, and it is reasonable to consider this factor as conclusive in favoring sound over gesture as the definitive instrument of “formal”/linguistic as opposed to “institutional”/ritual representation, to use the distinction made in TOOL.
Everett’s use of Peirce as presumably providing a guarantee of his assertion of the ease with which we can understand “how language began” exemplifies a kind of intellectual fetishism that is very much a feature of today’s “digital” thought-processes:
Peirce’s theory indirectly predicts a progression of signs from natural signs (indexes), to icons, to human-created symbols. (16)
The archaeological evidence in fact supports the order predicted by the sign progression of C. S. Peirce—indexes would have come first, followed by icons and then symbols. (65)
The introduction of intentionality in the human sense is simply adduced, never explained, and Everett confuses the issue by stating that “intentionality is a property of all animal minds” (86), so that the only specific attribute of the (human) symbol is its (culturally determined) arbitrariness, the origin of which is never explained.
Here and elsewhere, Everett takes the mere existence of a theoretical continuum, such as Peirce’s index-icon-symbol, or so-called G1-G2-G3 languages, as proof that it “is not that difficult” to get from one level to the next: “Newspaper headlines, store regulations [e.g., “No shirt. No service.”], movie titles . . . are occasionally reminders of how simple language can be” (65).
In particular, Everett presumes that the discovery of multi-million-year-old stone fragments or “manuports” that bear a possible iconic resemblance to, for example, a face or a phallus, allow him to declare that even Australopithecus may have been on the way to developing communally recognized arbitrary symbols. But even if the preservation of these ancient stones is indeed a sign of the recognition of iconic resemblance, this tells us nothing about the collective status of such signs and their possible ritual uses, let alone of their place in the evolution of human language.
However language originated, it must have been in a communal event because, as Everett himself insists, language as we use it today is dependent on unstated communal knowledge. Thus any use of language remains today as in the beginning an event of communal communication, even when instantiated by typing this Chronicle on a computer keyboard.
But here as elsewhere, the refusal to see the deferral of violence as fundamental to the constitution of the human is accompanied by the utter neglect of the “institutional representation” of originary unity in religious ritual. This is the institution that from the beginning maintained what Durkheim called the “solidarity” of the cultures within which languages operate, and which Everett understands as the repositories of the “dark matter” of shared assumptions about the world.
But religion is not commensurable with the cybernetic understanding of the human brain and culture that makes up what we might call the “new synthesis.” As a close observer of the Amazonian Pirahã culture, Everett must have a considerable experience of, and no doubt respect for, its sacred rites, but his intellectual formation, in contrast to that of a Durkheim or a Malinowski, obliges him to consider such “emic” matters as epiphenomena in relation to the society’s practical needs. Yet it has been the sacred-based deferral of humans’ mimetically intensified passions that has permitted creatures concomitantly gifted and cursed with our intelligence to achieve the stable societies within which this intelligence could achieve its present and future conquests.
Having no desire to pick on Everett, I am willing to read the following prize sentence, written in refutation of Chomsky’s dictum that recursion is a sine qua non of human language, charitably as an unsuccessful attempt at irony:
However, the fact remains that no language has been documented in which any sentence is endless. (224)
But if we can forgive Everett this absurdity, we cannot help but regret his reliance on the common-sense assumption that the qualitative difference between the human brain and all those that preceded it can be explained by just one more step on the Darwinian ladder, one more degree on the Peircean scale of signs, without the intervention of the negative, “Girardian” element of mimetic rivalry and its dangers. Beyond the sad fact that the ideas put forth more than 35 years ago in TOOL are not refuted or even disputed, it is regrettable that the study of “how language began” has been stripped of all philosophical sophistication, of any dialectical sense that some new level of being is called for.
Now that everything in the universe is presumably reducible to a form of “information,” and thought is understood as just another term for computation, we need no longer interest ourselves in what for 99% of our history was considered most important, the human dependence on the sacred, and that of our capacity for cooperation on the deferral of culturally unmediated contact with reality, of violence. I dare imagine that Everett would find this last sentence as absurd as the assertion that linguists have so far failed to encounter an endless sentence.