On the Gestural Origin of Language Essay

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Deconstructing Armstrong & Wilcox’s
The Gestural Origin of Language

Perhaps the most commonly discussed question in modern linguistics is that of the origins of language, of where and how spoken communication was developed. This revived interest differs entirely from attitudes a century ago, where the linguistic societies of both Paris and London banned discussion of the subject in 1866 and 1872, respectively. In recent years, many papers have been published on the topic, with many of them drawing from early theories, including the de Condorcet theory of origin, which postulates that the first communication was gestural in nature and gradually shifted to become the spoken corpora exhibited by the incredibly diverse languages of humankind’s modern history. In The Gestural Origin of Language by Armstrong & Wilcox (2007), the chief topic of this paper, the authors suggest that spoken language does in fact derive from signed or gestural language, drawing on de Condorcet, as well as on their own merit. In the book, Armstrong & Wilcox attempt to synthesize neuroscience, gestural language, and historical and archaeological evidence to cohesively show that signed languages share a great deal with spoken languages, suggesting that grammar emerged from gestural language, and that speech could perhaps not exist without a prototypical gestural language. In this essay, I will attempt to provide a clear analysis of these proposed theories and to determine the plausibility of such an argument, as well as what it means for the study of language. The first topic addressed in the book is that of language in the wild, with respect to chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as postulations about early hominid beings. Referencing papers by Lieberman (1991) and Walker & Shipman (1996), they argue that hominid beings, even early members of homo erectus, did not possess the physical ability to make the full range of modern speech sounds. Archaeological evidence suggests that early tribal hunter-gather societies began to emerge around this period, leaving the serious question of how beings with restricted ability to speak communicated, the answer to which Armstrong & Wilcox suggest lies in gestural communication. They support this point by suggesting the emergence of bipedal movement in apes freed the hands for use in gesturing, a novel feature which appeared much earlier than a developed vocal tract. This provides a relatively strong case for the gradual origin of language from gesture to speech, especially in an evolutionary sense, which is further supported by a reference Gibson & Jesse (1999), used to argue that the gradual evolution of the hominid brain itself is enough to sufficiently dismiss an abrupt appearance of developed language, a point that is incredibly difficult to contest in any sense. A large portion of Armstrong & Wilcox’s core argument lies in the nature of ritualization, a concept which they strongly apply in the quest to connect gestural communication to language. They argue that “three critical elements are implicated in the evolution of language: cognitive abilities, the process of ritualization, and visible gesture” (ibid 2007). Citing Haiman (1994/1998), they argue that the core components of ritualization allow the transformation of an act into a sign and can account for the human ability to double articulate, and for the ability to translate icons into symbols with arbitrary meaning. This case speaks volumes for the origins of spoken language, and of course, is a strong case for its gradual evolution, but Armstrong & Wilcox do not qualify how ritualization as a linguistic concept bears in on the transition from gestural communication to spoken language. The relatively tenuous connection made between the two is the ritual-based ability to translate iconic examples to arbitrary symbols, which is necessary for iconic gesture to become language, though without a strong body of evidence, remains more or less speculative.