“Profound and engrossing” – The Dawn of Language by Sverker Johansson

IMG_13Oct2021at111536Who spoke the first words, and what were they? Why are humans the only animals that can speak a complex language? Why is the origin of language so elusive? These are some of the questions answered in this new book about how we came to talk, by physicist and linguist Sverker Johansson.

There have been numerous experiments during the last century to try to understand whether humans are indeed the only animals capable of spontaneous linguistic communication; some of these have involved a tapping horse called Clever Hans and others a bonobo called Kanzi, who handled telephone conversations. But there are problems. Clever Hans was looking for cues and acting on them. There was no real spontaneity. As for the bonobo, he was being hothoused. It is certainly possible to teach a chimp how to communicate at a higher level than it would normally manage, but the process is unnatural. We can wax lyrical about animal communication skills until the cows come home, but the fact is that a requirement for a certain level of linguistic complexity has to be in place before a language becomes exponentially complex. As Author Sverker Johansson points out, ‘no-one has ever seen a chimp in the wild frying an omelette or making a stone knife (or playing Pac-Man)’.

Johansson, Doctor of Philosophy in Physics and Master of Philosophy in Linguistics, has been working on the origins and evolution of language since 2006. The Dawn of Language is a wide-ranging, scholarly book that examines the subject profoundly but eloquently and with moments of humour, in a way that is accessible to anyone who has an interest in the subject and wants to further his/her understanding of anthropology and linguistics.

One of the pre-requisites of language is an awareness of self. One way of proving self-awareness is mirror recognition. The mirror experiment, one of the fascinating examples referred to in this book, has been used as a way of evaluating sentience in animals. It consists of placing an animal in front of a mirror and observing the reaction. Problems arise, inevitably, according to the animal. Placing an elephant in front of a mirror is a real challenge. ‘While elephants found the test easy,’ writes Johansson, ‘the researchers were hard pressed to produce a big enough mirror…’ I’ll bet they were. Dolphins, primates and orcas have all passed the mirror test. Magpies too, in fact. But as Johansson points out, language is a two-way process. There would be no gain in speaking to another animal unless it actually thought its peers were sentient, ‘for what would be the point of communicating with a zombie?’ Mr Johansson has obviously not come home to a family after a twelve-hour day knowing there is no food in the fridge.

Still, interestingly, human children pass the mirror test at two years of age. From then on, they tend to look for clues in their environment to help them understand language. Artificial Intelligence developers have been drawing on such techniques for years now, using contextual information to help robots construct language, thus mimicking human linguistic evolution. One can only hope that robotic linguistics will evolve sufficiently well that one day the bot will not be quite so annoying, but AI’s ability to ‘read between the lines’ is sketchy. In recent experiments robots were set up to communicate with each other and observe the outcomes. The problems were essentially semantic. Picture the scene: a robot in a room finds an object. It has to tell the other robot exactly what it has found, but curiosity, sadly lacking in most automatons, is bound to be a stumbling block. There is an object in the corner of the room, but I have no definition for it. Hard to communicate if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Context is the tool that brings about intelligent deduction and language evolution. Ultimately, there has to be a need for cooperation. Both sides would need to benefit from each other’s experience, so it is more about creating the conditions for language to flourish, than expecting it to arise spontaneously. Significantly, the origin of language is also about learning to trust each other. ‘As it is far too easy to lie with words, language would have been stillborn as an idea,’ writes Johansson, ‘had we not been able, by and large, to trust each other’s words’.

It is interesting that the origins of language were based on such an abstract concept as truth, given that humans have spent the past thousand years debating over what it actually is.

Any Cop?: A profound and engrossing book and a great addition to any non-fiction reader’s bookshelf

Lucille Turner

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