Part 2 – The brain and our senses enable language but physiology limits languages

Part 1 –  “Language” is discovered but “languages” are invented

Part 2 – The brain and our senses enable language but physiology limits languages

The capability for language is an evolved ability and clearly a species-specific, cognitive attribute. This capability is not digital (On/Off) but varies first along the axis of cognition and second, the ability (both cognitive and physiological) to generate and receive signals. The capability for language, discovered within ourselves, together with the need and desire to communicate meanings, has led to humans inventing specific systems of language (Khoisan clicks, proto-Indo-European, Egyptian, Sanskrit, English, Braille, mathematics, ….). There are those who claim that humans are the only species having language and while it is true that only humans have all the characteristics of language (as defined by humans), the claim reduces to that “only humans have human language”.

Language exists not because humans exist, but because entities with brains, having the cognitive capability for language and desirous of communicating, exist.


(I take communication to be the intentional transfer of information, where information consists of facts or knowledge. Defining meaning leads either to circular logic (a meaning is what is conveyed by language and language communicates meanings) or to metaphysics. For this post I take meaning to simply be any coherent thought).

Brain 1>>meaning >>encoding>>output signal>>detection>>decoding>>meaning 2>>Brain 2


There is no doubt that most animal species have communication. Whether dogs or tigers or horses or even bees or ants, individuals of many species do communicate with each other. Individuals of some few species communicate in ways which suggest they may have a rudimentary capacity for language. Within some communities of monkeys and elephants and dolphins, for example, specific, repeatable sounds are used, voluntarily and with intent, to communicate specific meanings. The sounds and their meanings are learned and shared within particular communities. Monkeys within a troop are known to use different sounds to distinguish between snakes and lions, and then to communicate warnings about their approach. Even prairie dogs make different warning sounds for different kinds of predator. They even have a specific sound to sound an “All Clear”. However monkeys are not capable of forming or communicating more complex meanings such as “The lion is closer than the snake”. Only humans, it seems, even attempt to communicate abstract meanings, including any related to time or numbers. Animals may deceive but cannot, it seems, create false meanings (lies).

In the main, animals use sound and gestures for communication. Ants may communicate by the pheromones they emit, by sounds and even by touch. However, much of this is probably involuntary. Animals generally use their olfactory sense to garner information about the world around them. They even produce smells to mark territory and generate mating information, but it does not seem that they can produce different smells, at will, for communication purposes. Elephants use infra-sound to communicate over long distances. Bats use ultra-sound not only for echo-location but also, it seems, for communication. Even tigers, it is thought, produce infra-sounds at mating time. No animal system of communication remotely approaches the sophistication of human language, but that is not to say that their capability for language is zero. The capability for language exists when any entity having a brain

  1. desires to communicate with another similar entity, and
  2. shares a code with that entity wherein a meaning (including information) is represented by a particular signal, and
  3. can generate such a signal at will, and
  4. which signal can then be detected and interpreted as the intended meaning by the other entity.

Language: A shared system whereby two or more brains can communicate by the encoding of meanings into signals, which signals can then be transmitted and received and decoded back into their meanings.

All human attempts to communicate with animals are, in fact, a tacit acknowledgement that dogs and cats and dolphins and elephants and horses do have a rudimentary capability for language. They all seem to be able to generate specific signals to communicate specific meanings to others of their species. None have speech, but they can all make the cognitive leap that a particular human signal represents a particular meaning. Sometimes they generate their own particular signals (a certain bark or a rumble or a gesture) which humans are able to interpret as representing a particular meaning. It is apparent that the capability for language of a pet dog is greater than that of sheep, but it is also clear that neither is zero. The capability for language is often conflated with the ability for speech, but it is more likely that while speech enabled and allowed for an unprecedented sophistication in the human invention and use of languages, the capability for language had already appeared long before humans came down from the trees.

When our human ancestors achieved bipedalism they had brains about the size of current day chimpanzees. Australopithecus lived in Africa between 4 and 2 million years ago and had an average cranial capacity of about 450 cc, which is comparable to that of chimpanzees. By 1.5 million years ago the homo habilis brain had grown to a size of about 600 cc. Between 1.5 million and 300,000 years ago, homo erectus had a brain volume of between 800 and 1000 cc. Modern humans have a cranial volume of about 1350 cc but this can vary in individuals from as little as 900 and up to as much as 2,000 cc. (Neanderthals, Denisovans and even homo sapiens of their time are thought to have had slightly larger cranial capacities averaging about 1400 cc). The combination of physiological wherewithal and the associated brain control needed for speech as we know it today, was probably in place during the latter stages of homo erectus. Some form of speech was then probably available for Neanderthals, Denisovans and the earliest homo sapiens. Mammals first appeared some 200 million years ago. A plausible evolutionary time-line is that the capacity for language first began to appear with creatures at least several tens of million years ago. However, the invention of well codified languages, coincident with the arrival of speech, only came within the last million years, and perhaps only within the last 100,000 years.

In any species the emergence of the capability for language must precede the invention of communication codes. The inputs to, and the outputs from, a brain are limited by the physiology available to the brain through the body it controls. Strictly, cognition, as the ability to comprehend, is not just of the brain but of a brain together with the sensory abilities it has access to for getting inputs. An entity with a brain, even in isolation, may develop cognition as long as it has access to sensory inputs. The capability for language is thus dependent on, and constrained by, the cognition available which in turn is a composite of the brain and its associated senses. This capability must then be different for brains having access to different senses. Communication is undefined without there existing more than one brain. Communication becomes possible only when one brain can generate output signals which can be detected as input by a different brain. (In theory an entity could generate signals that it could not, itself, detect). For all living creatures the band of available sensory inputs is much broader than the range of output signals that can be intentionally generated. For example all mammals can hear a much wider range of frequencies than they can generate. Our vision can differentiate shapes to a greater precision than our hands can draw. The bottleneck for the invention of languages is thus the ability to generate coded signals which can be detected and interpreted. We do not use smell or taste or even touch (except for Braille as a proxy for sight) for language because we cannot generate unique signals at will. Touch was probably discarded as a primary means for signals because communication at a distance – but within hearing distance – was preferred.

Of all the senses available to us, human languages use only sight and hearing for inputs (again excepting Braille where touch is a proxy for sight). The underlying reason is that we are unable to generate unique, coded, repeatable signals detectable by our other senses. The predominance of speech in the languages we invent is of necessity. The languages we invent are constrained primarily by the signals we can generate. An entity with a brain capable of language but a different physiology would inevitably invent languages constrained by the signals it can generate.



 

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