Language in Context: evolutionary questions in Deacon’s book, The Symbolic Species

This week, our readings expanded on the puzzles about language last week’s readings posed, to connect language to cognition more broadly.  Right away, something in this week’s readings resonated with me more than last week’s.  It seems that cognitive linguists are trying to put meaning and context back into the study of language.  Syntax, for cognitive linguists, is not some sort of independent system formed in isolation and following its own logic, as it sometimes seems Chomsky et al. are implying, rather, syntax ties into evolutionary forces and social forces.

Thoughts on Terrence Deacon’s, The Symbolic Species

Last week in my post, I brought up the film Project Nim. I explained that I felt that scientists were missing a lot by insisting that Nim showed no ability to learn language because he did not learn syntax.  Nim was clearly a sophisticated communicator but the scientists did not deem this interesting.  In his book The Symbolic Species, Terrence Deacon suggests some rich new ways of thinking about non-syntax communication (including the communication of animals, and non-verbal human communication).  His conceptions give me a structure with which to critique the anthropocentric thinking of Chomsky et al. in a way that really resonates with me.

First of all, he reinserts evolution into the study of language.  Evolution is not teleological, he reminds readers.  Language is not some superior, end destination, that any species headed in the right direction will eventually achieve.  Rather, it is an adaptation to a particular environmental niche, evolved by humans for very specific reasons, to solve very specific evolutionary problems, just like bats evolved eco-location to catch bugs, or turtles evolved shells to be safe from predators.

The next thing he does, is reinsert our thinking about language into broader thinking about communication, and he argues against the misconception that things like human body-language or animal communication systems are comparable structures to language.  “Of no other form of communication is it legitimate to say that ‘language is a more complicated version of that.’…. Nonhuman forms of communication are something quite different from language… [and] comparison is misguided.”  This strikes me as a much more effective way of thinking about non-human communication, because it recognizes its complexity, draws connections to rich human non-verbal communication rather than to human language, and allows us to analyze these two systems (verbal and non-verbal communication) without expecting them to act like each other.

I love the phrase Deacon uses to critique how some linguists have downplayed the role of evolution in language development: “the hopeful monster theory.”  This theory essentially posits that it was some sort of one-shot mutation that created full-blown syntactic language out of previously unintelligent humanoids.  This type of theory does not need to address the messy questions of the context-specific adaptivity of language.  For Deacon, the main mystery underlying language is its uniqueness to humans, and not because it is too complex for other animals to master, but because it is fundamentally, structurally different.  He phrases his puzzle thus: “despite the intelligence of other species and the fact that they engage in communicative behaviors that are as complex in other ways as a simple language might be, no other language system exists.” And the fundamental structure that makes language different, is its symbolic reference, in other words, that words refer symbolically to each other and are primarily defined by their interactions with other words, rather than any object or action in the real world.