Many linguists and philosophers have come up with a myriad of theories, suggestions and approaches in their bid to try to explain the origin language as a means of communication.
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Moreover, many researchers, scientists, animal behaviourists and archaeologists have conducted many experiments and excavated many historical sites to try to understand this means of communication which can be used to convey non-figurative information and performing routine manipulations in our daily lives. Mostly, these studies have involved comparative studies among the primates.
While these studies have revealed that primates other than hominids are capable of using gestures, their use of language constructively was limited to a few words only comparable to language competency of two year old.
While many scientists and researchers attribute the emergence of the use of language among Homo sapiens to spontaneous emergence in a manner similar to the “big bang theory” of the origin of the earth, others propose that language use originated genetically and evolved over time. M
ichael Corballis, in his quest to determine the origin of language, proposed gestural and vocal theories. In his theories, he proposed that human language faculty preceded the development of vocally transmitted speech. Moreover, he argued that human language faculty relies heavily on gestures.
This paper scrutinizes Corballis theories and aims at determining how convincing and/ or promising these theories are. It aims at examining Corballi’s view on human language that may have evolved from manual gestures (Corballi 24)
Over the years, the origin of use of language has generated a lot of interests from many professionals due to the uniqueness it offers as a means of communication. The versatility that comes with using language as a means of communication is one of such driving forces. Using sentences, we are able to refer to occurrences both in the past, present and the future.
Moreover, with language, we are able to let our imaginations run riot and conjure up unseen and probably non existent events. Language can be used without the limitation placed by barriers such as physical barriers or lack of vision. It is possible for a blind person to effectively communicate via language as long as they are able to vocalize their message.
With the use of language, the parties involved in a communication channel are not restricted in any way by the number of messages that they can convey using language as a means of communication.
Corballis factually points out that this enormous advantages enjoyed by the advanced hominids, the Homo sapiens who replaced other primitive hominids, results from their ability to manipulate language using language rules, grammar. (21).
This set of rules devised by the advanced hominids as a result of their cognitive abilities, is the driving factor in the success currently enjoyed by language as a means of communication. In his view, Corballis contends that language has evolved together with the primates., in particular, H. sapiens, capable of using complex language to communicate.
In trying to justify his point of view that the evolution of language and primates are coupled, many researchers have drawn conclusions from studies aimed at teaching apes and other primates language use. Evolutionarily, hominids and these primitive primates separated millions of years ago. This probably explains why their ability to master language use is limited.
However, these primitive primates have shown remarkable success in their ability to learn and master numerous gestures and signals. Since we share a common origin with these primates, this directly points to the fact that the present day capabilities humans have in using language as a means of communication must have originated from gestures.
Moreover, it is the capability of human beings to use language among other factors that makes them be considered as more advanced primates than others. H. sapiens share a common ancestry with the monkeys and thus the comparability between their neurons’ activity in response to gestures resembles those of Wernicke’s and Broca’s aphasias in human beings’ brains which control language faculties.
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Thus, this is further evidenced according to Corballis, which points to the direction of gestural language origin. Indeed, such studies tend to show that at first our ancestors used gestures but later the use of gestures was gradually replaced by the use vocals, and hence language now is the means of conveying information (Fitch 20).
The ancestors of primates always worked on all fours which enabled them to survive in among the trees. However, this posture restricted their movement and their ability to communicate with others. As a result, they were prone to attacks by predators.
As time went by, however, they adapted a bipedal walking style which not only enabled them to widen their field of vision, but also freed their arms to perform other duties such as making tools, hunting, and gathering. With the coming of bipedalism, these ancestors managed to come up with a form of communication that played an integral role in their survivorship.
This new form of communication was the use of gestures which later evolved together with the evolution of the individual primates to give rise to the use of language. Pointing out studies by Bickerton which concluded that the use of language emerged spontaneously with the emergence of H. sapiens as late as 150,000 years ago, Corballis shows his stand on the origin of language.
This time period is also connected to the time when H. sapiens, who have mastered the use of language as a communication means, emerged. Due to their association with language use, it is easy to associate them with the demise of gestures and signals as single means of communication.
This view is also supported by the fact that present day languages have been existence for a short while; probably they originated with the emergence of H. sapiens who replaced other hominids that used gestures primarily as their means of communication.
However, tracing the origin language from the gestural point view would be a futile attempt without understanding how these primates separated into hominids and apes. Archaeological evidence shows that these two groups of primates which shared a common way may have been separated by the Great Rift Valley.
Those hominids that moved into savannah grasslands faced a great challenge in defending themselves since in the grassland they were easily preyed upon unlike in the forests as Corballis opines. Such vulnerabilities required a sense cooperation that could only be achieved by the use of efficient and effective means of communication. The means of communication of choice was the use of gestures.
Corballis rightly puts that this is the only thing we share with the apes especially at childhood when we can only use gestures, a strategy our ancestors used while inhabiting the open grasslands of savannah. This conferred relative secrecy in the communication process compared to the use of vocalization.
It is from these gestures that these hominids began to use vocals to represent these signals and gestures which have been restructured and their complexity increased with time making the use of language the most effective means of communication.
However, it is important to note that, as Corballis points out, the use of signals has not been abandoned all together by the H. sapiens; they have been integrated into the present day language. They may be used singly especially by the deaf or together with grammar language to lay emphasis on points which may not be achieved by relying on language only.
Use of gesture is deep rooted in the human race to the point of being innate. It has served a myriad of purposes from religious to social functions. Many religions, especially indigenous ones, may prohibit the use of language as a means of communication during some times or between some genders. Hence, once permitted means of communication in such scenarios is the use of gestures.
Our innate ability to use gestures as a means of communication, as Corballis puts it, is shown by the spontaneously use of gestures and signals by blind people without learning it from anyone.
This points to a common ancestry between human beings and other primates who rely on gestures and signals as a means of communication. Moreover, it shows that our complex means of communication, grammar, originated from the gestures and signals of the closest relatives of H. sapiens.
Drawing conclusions from various studies across the globe, Corballis further gives evidence that not only humans have an instinctive ability to develop gestures and signals when deprived of the capability of using language as a means of communication.
Deaf people world wide use almost the same gestures and signals; both blind and the sighted show a common tendency to use gestures in their speeches, just to mention but a few instances which Corballis points out as living testimonies of our inherited ability to use gestures.
However, among these examples that he points out, it is only the combination of gestures and language by the sighted individuals while speaking clearly points out the gestural origin of language (Corballi 24)
To further prove his theory of gestural origin of language, Corballis rightly puts it that there is resemblance in the activities of the Broca’s and Wernicke’s of the brains of both the deaf and sighted individuals when exposed to the same stimuli, vocalization of words.
This conclusion he draws from the study conducted by Helen J. Neville et al. Moreover, humans tend to have their left brain being the most active in determining which hand to use in gestures and also controlling their speech. Speculatively, such dominance can be traced back to the ancestral hominids in their bid to adapt to the use of language as their dominant means of communication.
More studies into brain functions also indicate connectivity in the origin of language. Corbially clearly contends that to him gestures are not just necessary tools in the communication process but rather, they are the main means of communication process capable of functioning independently and are the source raw materials that led to the evolution of language that we use today.
He contends that it is these manual gestures that, through an evolutionary process, have formed the foundation on which the complex grammar that the H. sapiens use today, is built. (Fox).
The primates have undergone a period of transition in their means of communication. The new advancements in the language use were associated with a complexity and advancement in all aspects of their lives including social, religious and economic among others. The Homo sapiens which replaced the other relatively primitive hominids invented the use of tools mainly because of their increased brain capacity and bipedalism movement.
The increased brain capacity, as Corballis points out, resulted in development of cognitive skills and as a result, the change of lifestyle. These led to the need to have an effective means of communication that would allow passage of information and enable the communities of hominids to learn these new ideas. Thus, this necessitated the need for not only using gestures but also the use of language as a means of communication.
The emergence of language can be traced to a few thousand years ago when, as the fossil records reveal, H. sapiens emerged to replace other hominids as H. erectus. It is this group of hominids that are associated with the introduction of technology and the use of language as a means of communication.
With the emergence of language, Corballis contends that these hominids were able to overcome such communication barriers as the need for vision or light to effectively pass information. In addition, they had the capability to communicate without being limited by the physical barriers.
Corballis also contends that it is not the invention of superior technology and bigger brain capacities that have enabled us to survive and dominate the world and all other primates. Rather, he states, it is our ability to effectively use these technologies by learning how to use them using a proper means of conveying information.
In conclusion, one must emphasize that the use of language has enabled many inventions and brought a lot of changes. However, humans in their bid to glorify their literary skills and vocalization capabilities tend to forget a very important component of communication which is the use of gestures. Gestures, though nonverbal, convey the deepest feelings that otherwise would be lost in the process of using verbal communication.
In this quest, they forget that indeed, gestures are the source of language that we use nowadays. Gestures are innate and hence are passed on from generation to generation. The deaf have learnt to communicate effectively in the world without seeing anything while strangest have formed strong bonds despite language barrier by just using gestures. This just shows how independent gestures are as means of communication.
Studies that cut across the world reveal that these gestures are, in most cases, similar, thus giving further indications that gestures are inborn. Walking down the lane of evolution of primates with special attention to their means of communication, shows there is a connection between the origin of the modern day language and gestures that our ancestral hominids used many millions years ago.
Corballis, C. Michael. 1991. The Lopsided Ape. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fitch, Tecumseh. The Evolution of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Fox, Margalit. “Talking Hands”. New York Times. 2011 Web.