Posts Tagged ‘language evolution’

Why did we start to count?

October 12, 2020

Counting and the invention of numbers and the abstractions enabling mathematics are surely cognitive abilities. Counting itself involves an abstract ability. The simple act of raising two fingers to denote the number of stones or lions or stars implies first, the abstract ability to describe an observed quality and second, the desire to communicate that observation.

What led humans to counting and when?

Before an intelligence can turn to counting it must first have some concept of numbers. When and how did our ancient ancestors  first develop a concept of numbers and then start counting? …….. 

It seems clear that many animals do distinguish – in a primitive and elementary way – between “more” and “less, and “few” and “many”,and “bigger” and “smaller”, and even manage to distinguish between simple number counts. They show a sophisticated use of hierarchy and precedence.

Some primates show some primitive abilities when tested by humans

…..  Rhesus monkeys appear to understand that 1 + 1 = 2. They also seem to understand that 2 + 1 = 3, 2 – 1 = 1, and 3 – 1 = 2—but fail, however, to understand that 2 + 2 = 4. ……

But even chimpanzees and monkeys rarely, if ever, use counts or counting in interactions among themselves. The abilities for language and counting are not necessarily connected genetically (though it is probable), but they are both certainly abilities which appear gradually as cognition increases. Mathematics is, of course, just another language for describing the world around us. Number systems, as all invented languages, need that a system and its rules be shared before any communication is feasible. It is very likely that the expressions of the abilities to count and to have language follow much the same timeline. The invention of specific sounds or gestures to signify words surely coincided with the invention of gestures or sounds to signify numbers. The step change in the size of brains along the evolutionary path of humans is very likely closely connected with the expressions of the language and the counting abilities.

The ability to have language surely preceded the invention of languages just as the ability to count preceded the expressions of counting and numbering. It is not implausible that the first member of a homo erectus descendant who used his fingers to indicate one of something, or four of something else, to one of his peers, made a far, far greater discovery – relatively – than Newton or Einstein ever did.

We must have started counting and using counts (using gestures) long before we invented words to represent counts. Of course, it is the desire to communicate which is the driving force which takes us from having abilities to expressions of those abilities. The “cooperation gene” goes back to before the development of bipedalism and before the split with chimpanzees or even gorillas (at least 9 million years ago).

The simple answer to the question “Why did we start to count?” is because we could conceive of a count, observed it and wished to communicate it. But this presupposes the ability to count. Just as with language, the ability and the expression of the ability, are a consequence of the rapid increase in brain size which happened between 3 m and 1 m years ago.

I am persuaded that that rapid change was due to the control of fire and the change to eating cooked food and especially cooked meat. The digestion of many nutrients becomes possible only with cooked food and is the most plausible driver for the rapid increase in brain size.

Raw Food not enough to feed big brains

………. our brains would still be the size of an ape’s if H. erectus hadn’t played with fire: “Gorillas are stuck with this limitation of how much they can eat in a day; orangutans are stuck there; H. erectus would be stuck there if they had not invented cooking,” she says. “The more I think about it, the more I bow to my kitchen. It’s the reason we are here.”


Gender is a continuum, gayness is not gaiety and language has to catch up

March 30, 2014

Gender as a binodal continuum

The view that human gender is strictly dimorphic is giving way to the view that gender must be seen as a binodal continuum. How many people are “transgender” at birth  is uncertain both in number and in definition, but estimates range from 1 in 2000 all the way up to 10%. In addition to this modified view of genetic, gender variations in humans, the range  of socially “acceptable” behaviours is expanding. More countries are legalising “gay marriage”. LGBT (for  Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) is becoming an accepted term.

Changes are happening faster than language can keep up with. Old terms are being used in new ways and new words will need to be found. Elljibeetee is almost a word. I find the term LGBT itself somewhat illogical since I take “gay” in its modern usage to mean “homosexual” and would have thought that “gay” would then encompass “lesbian”. There is no word for just male homosexuality. Also L, G and B are primarily behavioural traits whereas T is genetic and fixed by the time of birth. There are those who claim that sexual preference is also genetic but there is little evidence for that. What evidence there is speaks more to sexual preference being a behavioural trait acquired and developed largely after birth.

Unlike mathematics, the usage of most languages always trumps “correctness” or logic (and I like to think of mathematics as that special sub-set of language where logic prevails over usage). The spelling or even meaning of a word can be changed by weight of usage but 2+2 will not be 5 even if all 7 billion humans believe it is.

We now have the situation where monogamy refers not to one but to two people while bisexuality cannot be implemented without at least three people involved. Monosexual is taken to be a sexual preference for only one gender with a sub-set of homosexual (a preference for persons of the same gender) and a sub-set of heterosexual (a preference for persons of the opposite gender). Bisexual – in common usage – is taken to be a preference for any gender. The illogicality comes in that heterosexual is linguistically a sub-set of monosexual but is actually bisexualPolysexual or pansexual would make more sense than bisexual if gender is now to be seen as a continuum but they are rarely used. Having a gender continuum is going to get even more confusing for language.

Gaiety can still be used for the state of being gay (in the cheerful sense) and carries no connotations of sexual preferences. Gay however can no longer be used just to mean merry and cheerful since usage overwhelmingly means homosexual. Gayness is now presumably the state of being gay.

Currently monogamy is then the state where there is a permanent or semi-permanent partnership between a male and a female. If formalised by civil contract the state is called marriage. The male is termed the husband and the female the wife. Even if gender is a continuum and not dimorphic, these terms can continue to be used since societies expect these roles to be fulfilled. Perhaps we have to consider using grades of manliness and womanliness? In the diagram above a very manly man will be just as far from the “normal” (abnormal)  as a very womanly man or a very manly woman! The very manly man and the very womanly woman would be the most lonely.

A part of such a civil contract is the mutual exclusivity of sexual relations promised between the two individuals involved. Where a male breaks such exclusivity by having sexual relations with other females, such other females are called his mistresses. Where a female breaks such exclusivity by having sexual relationships with other males they are not her masters but are known as her lovers or paramours. Lovers and paramours can equally apply as the illicit partners of  errant husbandsIf either a male or a female breaks the exclusivity provisions by entering into another “exclusive” arrangement then it is called bigamy and the violator is called a bigamist. The term bigamist also applies in the case of multiple “exclusive” contracts being entered into by an individual (and using the more logical polygamist for such a person would go against current usage of polygamy).

When marriage is extended to include a new category of gay marriage, terms for the partners themselves and for any illicit partners are undefined. Husband, wife and mistress can no longer be used. New words will no doubt evolve. Language already lags behind socially accepted behaviour. Lover and paramour could still be used and I suppose that bigamy and bigamist would still apply. A conventional marriage would still need to be distinguished from a gay marriage. All marriage involving just two individuals should then be monogamy with conventional marriage being a bisexual monogamy and a gay marriage would be a monosexual monogamy. And with the continuum in mind some partnerships could be pansexual monogamies.

When there are more than two people involved things get complex. The possibilities that language must cope with increase in a geometric progression. Some societies permit a husband to have several wives simultaneously and this is termed polygyny whereas a wife having several husbands is polyandry. They are both forms of polygamy (or more logically both are bisexual polygamies assuming of course that sexual relationships in the group are always heterosexual or do I mean bisexual?). Group marriage has no special term and exists when several husbands are allied to several wives but any husband only has sexual relations with any wife (a poly-bisexual polygamy?) What should we then call a group consisting of a man with several husbands or a female with several wives? A poly-monosexual polygamy? And a group of people with no restrictions on sexual partners could then be a  polypansexual polygamy?

If gender were truly a continuum then the male/female distinctions could be dispensed with and many of the prefixes could be discarded. Misogyny and misandry would become obsolete. Misanthropy would still remain. But the gender continuum is weak  – even if real – and the fact remains that the distribution of gender characteristics among humans is very strongly binodal. “Binodal with a significant overlap” is probably the best description. As long as the clear nodal distribution exists then gender differences will also exist and legislating for gender equality will not remove those differences.

Prefixes from the Greek

  • mono = “one, only, single”
  • bi = “twice, two”
  • homo = “same”
  • hetero = “different, other”
  • pan =  “all, of everything”
  • poly = “much, many”

There are “keepers of language” who would like to guide its evolution and there others who are concerned about the “correctness” of usage. Both are futile exercises and actual usage will always prevail.


<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: