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A protolanguage with no names


Date and location

The first concrete attempt to estimate the date of the hypothetical ancestor language was that of Alfredo Trombetti (1922), who concluded it was spoken between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. This estimate happens to agree with current estimates on the age of Homo sapiens.

While earliest known fossils of anatomically modern humans date from around 195,000 years ago, the matri'linear (поматеринскойлинии)most recent common ancestor,Eve is dated to about 120-150 thousand years ago. The divergence of the three main descendant lines within Africa: in Southern Africa (Khoisan/Capoid peoples); in Central and West Africa (Niger-Congo and Nilo-SaharanMbuti pygmies); and in East Africa (Out-of-Africa migration) dates to about 100 to 80 thousand years ago.

It is uncertain or disputed whether the earliest members of Homo sapiens had fully developed language. Some scholars link the emergence of language proper (out of a proto-linguistic stage that may have lasted considerably longer) to the development of behavioral modernity towards the end of the Middle Paleolithic or at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, roughly 50,000 years ago. Thus, in the opinion of Richard Klein, the ability to produce complex speech only developed some 50,000 years ago (with the appearance of modern man or Cro-Magnon man).

The difficulty in making any statement on particulars of Proto-Human lies in the time depth involved, which is far beyond what linguists can trace back today (between five and ten millennia in the cases of Indo-European and Afroasiatic). Some linguists (Ruhlen, 1994) claim that this difficulty can be overcome by means of mass comparison and internal reconstruction (Babaev 2008).


Inhis works(1998, 2000)Alison Wrayexplored the idea that socially sophisticated hominid populations could have communicated in complex ways without grammar, by using a holistic (целостный) protolanguage: a phonetically-articulated system of discrete, agrammatical messages. The author lays down a scenario, in which such a protolanguage would restrict the expressive scope of its speakers, and the effects that this could have on the nature of hominid life and on the timing of further evolution. He calculated that a holistic system is incompatible with coining names for things and people, and with the extensive use of declarative statements. The absence of these two features of referential expression would inhibit information exchange and could explain the long period of technological and cultural stagnation between 1.4 million and 100,000 years BP (Mithen 1996).

It seems reasonable to look for a role for holistic processing in protolanguage, since, not only did protolanguage presumably develop out of a holistic communication system of some sort, but it also developed into a communication conglomerate which, besides words and grammar, continues to support holistic processing (Wray 1999). Recent research on the nature and extent of expressiveness in human language has revealed it to be a common and essential feature of every day communication. Expressive language has a number of communicative functions, of which almost all directly correspond with the manipulative socio-interactional functions observed in ape communication (Reiss 1989). Our socio-interactional expressions are directed towards the physical, emotional and perceptual manipulation of the hearer: commands, requests and warnings can all be expressed using fixed phrases; politeness is associated with fixed forms (Wray & Perkins 2000). A significant advantage to us of using such fixed forms for common interactional functions, rather than constructing a novel sequence to express the same idea, appears to be the ease with which they can be recognised and decoded by hearers who share our language variety.

In Wray & Perkins’ model, protolanguage messages are semantically complex and agrammatical. They are holistic, which means that a complete message is uniquely associated with an arbitrary form, not made out of smaller recombinable units of meaning. For instance, ho0mo sapiens might say that tebima means give that to her and mutapi means give that to me.There is no phonological similarity between sequences with similar meanings, because they are holistic. There is no part of tebima that means give or her. Simply, the whole thing means the whole thing (Wray 2000).

Much has been written over the years about the power of naming, and it seems logical to assume that the forerunners of language included amongst their attributes, from the earliest stages, names for things and people. Hypothetical protolanguages are characteristically depicted as heavy on referential items when still lacking any means for expressing the complex relationships between them. But in a holistic protolanguage there is no place for naming, and the use of pronouns in the glosses of tebima and mutapi above is significant. If a holistic system like this tried to be too precise, such as referring to each member of the group and to each common object individually, it would soon run into difficulties. Without recombinable constituents, you would need an entirely new sound-string for each possible utterance about each person and thing different ones for Give the stick to Mary, Give the stone to Joyce, and so on. Although highly precise in meaning, each individual string would have such a low functional load as to be rarely heard and used. This would make it difficult to remember, and once forgotten it could not be reconstructed by rule since there are no rules or individual words. Furthermore, this level of precision would generate so many strings that differentiating them would require an excessively large pool of phonetic variants in lengthy combinations and sophisticated brain.

There is a price to pay, however, for not being able to express the specific identity of individuals or objects. If you say give that to her, how will the hearer know to what, or whom, you are referring? For the purposes of disambiguation, such messages must be supported by indicative gesture, eye-gaze, or whatever. In short, although the speaker and the hearers all perfectly well know the difference between Mary, Joyce, and the other females, and between stones, sticks, meat, cave and other objects, they are handicapped in their ability to express linguistically these fine distinctions by the limitations in the expressive potential of the language.


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