Good knockdown of a silly idea!

This article on the origin of language is sensible but sort of surprising. Apparently the idea that language started from gestures is becoming more common, and might even be the consensus assumption now.

The first paragraph is eloquent:

Some say language evolved by firelight, with our ancestors sharing stories deep into the night. Others suggest it began as baby talk, or as imitations of animal calls, or as gasps of surprise. Charles Darwin proposed that language started with snippets of song; Noam Chomsky thought it was just an accident, the result of a freak genetic mutation.

I’d agree with Darwin. Music first, then articulated music. How we acquired the ability to make music is an unsolved mystery. We share music and audio language with birds, not other mammals. The usual tree of inheritance doesn’t work. Perhaps horizontal gene transfer?

The new popularity of gesture-first surprises me. I’ve been reading and writing and teaching about language for 65 years, and never encountered the gesture-first hypothesis. Within the world of speech and hearing therapy, gradual elaboration from simple syllables is the universal assumption. Babies start experimenting with sound almost immediately, and their experiments are shaped by feedback from mothers and others. Gestures are optional, and gestures come later, not earlier. Specialized subcultures like sailors and football players and deaf people have developed gestural systems for unusual situations where sound is either unavailable or inaudible, but gesturing is clearly not the innate default.

The author does an excellent job of knocking down all the silly arguments for gesture-first. I’m left asking why anyone would even bother to make such a dumb claim!

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