A number of years back I encountered a blog called Babel’s Dawn written by Edmund Blair Bolles. It is now inactive although all the postings are still on-line to read at http://www.babelsdawn.com . It has been turned into a book called Babel’s Dawn, A Natural History of the Origins of Speech by the same author, EB Bolles. The book is a narrative and a very easy, enjoyable read. It is the same material as the blog but not in essay form. Instead it is ordered chronologically and presented as a walk through a museum exhibition. If you are at all interested in language, human nature, evolution, culture (and I expect many of my readers are interested in that type of subject matter) get the book and have a good read over Christmas.
The narrative starts with a character given the name Sara who is the putative last common ancestor of us and Chimps 6 million years ago. Using characters like this at points along the way, language is traced from its roots to something we understand as a proper language over a time span of 5.1 million years. What has to happen further in the last 900,000 years is added at the end. At no place was I left wondering, how it we get from there to here – no almighty leaps – no magic fairy dust.
The logic is convincing. It does not rely on many new powers but is grounded in perception, attention, and communal living. It bypasses rules of syntax, symbols, and the like to get a much more biologically based notion of what language is and what it does.
The key idea is that apes have the abilities that we adapted into language but they do not use them in the way we do, mainly because they do not trust one another. We are trusting, cooperating, social animals. We jointly pay attention to a topic (Bolles calls this the speech triangle of speaker, listener and topic). It is to our advantage to do this but it is not to the chimps advantage. From this trusting joint attention all else flows. Words steer attention. Verbs connect topics with news about them. Metaphor allows us to treat all things as though they were concrete and could be perceived. The theory make good sense and seems to fit the data.
It is a just-so-story and will probably be overtaken by new data and new ideas eventually. Bolles is well aware of that and points it out himself. But it is a very well done tale, very careful with the data, and in my opinion, it is many head-and-shoulders above other attempts to trace language’s origins.
Again I urge you to read the book!