Friday, February 26, 2021

Homo erectus already had language - says you, Daniel Everett!

Creation vs. Evolution: The other day I saw an article on "pre-human" language capacity · Assorted retorts from yahoo boards and elsewhere: Neanderthals Spoke · Φιλολoγικά/Philologica: Homo erectus already had language - says you, Daniel Everett!

I will be answering very shortly this video, agreeing with the main finding and disagreeing with one other thing, here it is, thank you for your talk at Harvard Science Book Talks and Research Lectures about a year ago:

Daniel Everett, "Homo Erectus and the Invention of Human Language"
31st March 2020 | Harvard Science Book Talks and Research Lectures

In fact, the title is misleading.

It is not about the invention of human language. After hearing you out to 59:35, when applause breaks out, you have very clearly concluded Homo erectus very certainly (or "nearly certainly") already had language. Let me resume your lines of evidence:

  • Levallois tools, or rather larger but same process, have been dated to erectus only (no Neanderthals yet) time periods.
  • Levallois tools per se could possibly also be from pre-Neanderthal ages.
  • The process of Levellois tools is too complex to be transferred by imitation only.
  • They had settlements, with diversified places.
  • They had fire.
  • They used ochre to colour tools.
  • A tool buried by a skeleton suggests deliberate burial.
  • They are there on all continents, which needs sailing.
  • And this is impossible without some kind of human language.

It is very difficult to see why we would withhold the judgement that they likely had language. And what they had to have had was more than simply grunts and squeals. They had to have something that was able to communicate actual content about the world around them, the kind of thing that would have been essential and been discovered in symbols.

Thank you very much, Daniel Everett. I wholeheartedly agree.

I was back in 2005 in Sarlat or somewhere and read a Frenchman attributing to Homo erectus a proto-language of 10 + 10 "phonemes" (but "ad" being another one than "da"), each of which had some kind of abstract or emotional meaning and their combinations resurging in modern words, like Adam and Aden showing two things meaning, I recall, "earth + harmonious" or something. Ah, no. It has to have been more than that.

But how much more?

Well, here I think, Daniel Everett, you shoehorn your conclusions into an Evolutionist shoe that doesn't fit.

Once we take off the burden of languages looking like modern languages, and we realise that a language is the transfer of transfer of information by the discovery and use of symbols and elaboration of those symbols over time, then we see a gradual evolution of language.

No, in fact we don't. In historic linguistics, we see gradual (somewhat) evolutionS of languageS, we can state that between "adiuvare" with its more relevant iterative "adiutare" in Latin and the French "aider" we can place "ayudhar" of Strassburg oaths, which is closely resembling to Spanish "ayudar" (especially as in Spanish "d" is pronounced "dh").

But in Homo erectus we don't see any single gradual evolution of language as phenomenon. We see language already there. In their supposed ancestor, Australopithecus, we see language very clearly not yet there. There is no clear case for toolmaking and neither ear nor hyoid is more human than simian. For hyoid, it is simian. For ear, the external auditory tract and malleus are more human than simian, but the incus and stapes are more simian than human. Not a good starting point to hear consonants the latter, nor to pronounce vowels the former. Even in Solo man, arguably the least human version of erectus preserved, or the least anatomically modern human, all four are more human than simian.

We have no reason not believing the language of Homo erectus looked like a "modern" language. Modern in the sense that everything from Sumerian to Cockney are modern ... and Piraha (from Amazonian jungle) too.

  • talking of concepts that are absent (mentioned, definition of symbol)
  • using recursivity
  • talking of the type of absence (negation, distance, time distance)
  • and ... necessary to get to many symbols ... double articulation.

A simian vocal message is one not so much symbol as icon of emotion or whatever, in one sound. And one gesture. It means one thing, often an emotion (fear, contentment) or enjoinment (come play with me). Look at the work of Dr Katja Liebal here:

Parlez-vous le chimpanzé ?*| Extraordinary Animals | BBC Earth
9th May 2014 | BBC Earth

Nothing in Homo erectus suggests this state. In any "modern language" (your special sense), you have messages divided into one or usually more than one morphemes, each meaning something on its own, each being a symbol more often than icon or index, and you have morphemes divided into one or usually more than one phonemes, each of which has no meaning on its own (obviously, a phoneme in a one-phoneme morpheme has a meaning, while used in that morpheme, which is contextually different from when that same phoneme is part of other morphemes).

I described the problem of transition in terms of a telegraph evolving to a computer inventing ASCII from Morse. But Morse has more in common with ASCII than chimp with human. And both Morse and ASCII were invented by actual people intelligently designing things far less complicated than human language is. How do you get a first morpheme that is composed of at least two phonemes in a communication world which has only one phoneme (including scream) per sentence? How do you get a first sentence of three morphemes making subject verb and object, in a communication world where you usually don't talk of absent subjects, and where you may at best have one pointing at a present object to represent object and one sound or other gesture to represent suggested action in the imperative? How do you get a combination of these two?

Now, the problem of transition, supposing there were an evolution, is not solved by claiming the transition happened further back then previously thought.

And on a smaller note, there is no material evidence for the language of Solo man differing from modern languages or even from each one of them. On a creationist view, they would have been speaking Hebrew before the Flood, if possibly with some deafness due to the slightly less than normal human tinge on the form of incus and stapes. At least some kind of Hebrew. If Moses spoke Proto-Sinatic, of which there are traces in the extant form of the Torah, the pre-Flood Hebrew would have been slightly less like Biblical Hebrew than proto-Sinaitic. There is nothing we know of Homo erectus - as opposed to datings**, which are inflated by the K-Ar faults, probably all from volcanism in the Flood - that precludes this.

So, Daniel, thank you for highlighting that Homo erectus were fully human, but be a bit careful about how you throw about allegations of evolutionary gradualism without any evidence!

If you like to take a look at my view on K-Ar dating (most relevant for Homo erectus), see here:

Creation vs. Evolution : Water Temperature, K-Ar Dating, Temperatures around the Ark, and Heating

Thank you, in advance, for your attention!

Hans Georg Lundahl
Ember Friday of Lent

* I view the video in France, and its title is automatically translated for this channel. It means "do you speak chimpanzee?". ** If the "latest" Homo erectus were from a bit more than 100 000 years ago, and if generations never were as long as those of pre-Flood patriarchs, it would be a miracle of coincidence if their language coincided with any one that we know even partially.

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