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Adam’s Tongue

Adam’s Tongue
Derek Bickerton
Hill and Wang
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Human capacity for understanding, teaching, even creating language is one that has no equal on this planet. We depend on language for everything; communication––of course––how we say what we want for dinner, or how we scream at the guy who cut us off in the other lane––but, our dependence on language goes much further than that; take science, for example. Our knowledge and understanding of such basic yet conceptual principals like time and space would not exist but for the abstractions made possible by language. Going even further; without a robust language we have no communication of any sort, no way to put thoughts together––or even a medium to HAVE a thought––which would put our society on par with that of our early ancestors, australpithecines, whose favorite past time was avoiding being a meal for saber tooth tigers.

Language makes us human, Derek Bickerton (University of Hawaii) asserts in “Adam’s Tongue”, not the other way around. Humans simply could not have taken the evolutionary leap out of the savannas without it. However, contrary to common belief, language isn’t as simple as a straight line evolution from the myriad of animal calls exhibited by our genealogical ancestors.

Language was an unforeseeable development whose properties ran counter to any behaviors that had happened before. It was an evolutionary anomaly at least as great as the emergence, in a world filled exclusively with single cell creatures, the very first multicellular organisms. Greater, in fact; multicellular organisms did no more that multiply what had been there before. Language, on the other hand, was a pure novelty.

In an easy and approachable tone, Bickerton shows first how unique true language is by examining species–– apes, ravens and even bees and ants––who manifest the most developed “Animal Communication Systems”. Surprisingly, for some, apes have little capacity or desire for language. They have the brain size for it, but their evolutionary paths, as is true with all species save our own, have deemed true language unnecessary.

Bickerton then shows how the above systems of calls work for other species, but wouldn’t for the evolving humanoid, who required cooperation, strategy and persuasion in order to survive. Niche construction––our hunter/gather lifestyle––coupled with environmental pressure––we weren’t the top of the food chain––combined in our big brains to give us the first framework for protolanguage––simple sounds/pantomime. Finally, evolving over a hundred thousand years or more, there came syntax and grammar, the two of which enabled a speaker of an early protolanguage to convey his/her message quicker and with greater detail and accuracy. Once grammar and syntax took root, true language, precursors to the English or French or whatever we now take for granted, was born and with language, humanity was now fitfully equipped to prevail over the entire planet.

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