Various enterprises and personal interests, such as Man-Machine Interaction (MMI), gesture studies, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Category: Gestural Origin of Language

Evolution according to Tomas Persson & Co

[email] Hi Jeroen,
Happened upon your blog. Thought you might enjoy this paper on a proposed iconic-gestural origin of language. Or perhaps another of the publications [from SEDSU].
All the best,
Tomas Persson

Frontpage illustration from the paper.

Well, I checked it out and for all those interested in evolution it might be nice to do the same. The paper’s full title is ‘Bodily mimesis
as “the missing link” in human cognitive evolution’, by Jordan Zlatev, Tomas Persson and Peter Gärdenfors. First impression: Strange how people tend to think that the topic of their study (in Lund’s case it is a workpackage on ‘imitation and mimesis’) is the one decisive factor in human evolution. And I never have a shred of evidence to prove them wrong. But it will be interesting to read their case in more detail.

{I, for one, believe that it is our ability to blog that sets us apart from other animals. And, of course, I mean blogging in a broad sense. For what is blogging if it is not the continual provision of unelicited non-information on how we feel about things and about what we know. Humans have always ‘blogged’, even before the internet and before the alphabet. We filled the world with our own thoughts and listened to ourselves, not to anyone else. This constant egoistic reflection created an evolutionary pressure whereby only individuals who could sustain this confrontation with the inner blogger, were still confident enough to reproduce. Since then, most of the strains of humanity who had any shame or humility left have died out in (relative) silence. What is left is what we are now: wanderers of the web, captains of comments, and slaves to our next posting.}

[SEDSU’s main hypothesis:] There remains, despite centuries of debate, no consensus about what makes human beings intellectually and culturally different from other species, and even less so concerning the underlying sources of these differences. The main hypothesis of the project Stages in the Evolution and Development of Sign Use (SEDSU) is that it is not language per se, but an advanced ability to engage in sign use that constitutes the characteristic feature of human beings; in particular the ability to differentiate between the sign itself, be it gesture, picture, word or abstract symbol, and what it represents, i.e. the “semiotic function” (Piaget 1945).

Substantial work has of course been done on gesture (or sign language) with primates (see this entire issue of Gesture). In some cases chimpansees or gorillas were taught to use gestures or pictures as signs (with a semiotic function). How does that fit into SEDSU’s picture?

By intuition, I would sooner propose that it is our ability to create ‘systems of systems’ of signs that sets us apart. Or maybe our ability to create and remember such large quantities and varieties of signs. I think even most animals and perhaps (what the hell) plants can be argued to ‘gesture’. Do they differentiate between a signal and that which it represents? I think they do. Any animal that warns his group against predators is sending out a signal. The group members see the signal, not the predator, right? Or perhaps they can only communicate about what is actually present and not refer to things in other times and places?

Enough speculation. It is time to read. I expect your reactions to the paper within this week…

ps. Did you wonder about the semiotic function of the {curly brackets} as used above? Then you must be human. The answer: I signaled a humorous intermezzo.

Doodling, Gesture, and Language Origins, the Movie

Here is a very entertaining video (nice music) that tells the tale of gesture and the origins of language in a nutshell. Much has been written about how the language capability may have evolved in humans with gesture as a stepping stone or how Man’s first language may have been a signed language. Recent brain research findings (gesture+speech, mirror neurons, lateralization, sign language aphasia) have added more indirect ‘evidence’ for these theories. It is still hard to really prove anything about pre-historic events though…

One thing that struck me is how the author talks about how people might be aided in their thinking when the gesture, or doodle and fidget. A reference to fidgeting! Hooray! Should I point out that I think gesture and fidgeting are quite different? No, I will just let it be.

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