7. Talking

Language is the other great defining characteristic of humanity, along with the bipedalism and tool using which I have already suggested are linked. What if language and thing using are linked as well? Once more, for this argument, a minimalist view of language is enough for our purposes. We must pass by the fascinating discussion about whether we can trace the existing tongues of mankind back to an original language,36 since we are concerned with what happened before language existed. Let Chomsky's basic ideas serve for a rough working definition of language and then try to see how our 'thing user' might acquire such a thing.

1. Language is universal. Chomsky points out how easily young human children learn language. They learn not only to separate strings of phonemes into words, but they discover the rules of syntax as well. The child finds out for itself that nouns and verbs work in different ways. They quickly arrive at a competence in dealing with deep structures which are hard to express in simple rules. In Chomsky's own example, quite a young child will turn 'The man who is tall is in the room' into the question form 'Is the man who is tall in the room?' This transformation needs structural understanding, not mechanical rules, to move the second 'is' to the beginning of the sentence. 'Chomsky maintains that it is only by assuming that the child is born with a knowledge of the highly restrictive principles of universal grammar, and the predisposition to make use of them in analysing the utterances he hears about him, that we can make any sense of the process of language-learning.'37

2. If language is universal and the brain is not a 'general purposes' machine but specifically endowed with universal grammar, can this lead to any hypothesis about the earlier functions of this form of thought?

Arguments for a common grammar set up neurally in the brain are often based on complex linguistic structures, like transformations and markers.38 Perhaps we should look at simpler structures in considering language origins. One can reasonably suppose that simple statements preceded complex subordinate clauses. All human languages have verbs and nouns, and have statements with the general form subject + verb + object.39 Individual languages have varying devices for expressing this. In English the word order tells us whether the man or the dog is biting or bitten; in inflected languages like Russian and Latin, the word endings tell us which is subject or object. Despite the variety, the underlying grammar is the same and -as Chomsky puts it - a Martian would think that we all speak the same language. After all, though it may seem the obvious one to us, is it the only basic structure a language might adopt? Human beings can learn other human languages and can think in them. But could there be languages we are not adapted to think in?40

3. Human beings use language creatively. Chomsky points out that even young children use language creatively, in the sense that they form meaningful, correct sentences which they have never heard before. Every day we make new sentences out of our grammar and vocabulary. Indeed, these can generate an infinite number of different statements.41

If this is a fair account of Chomsky, then language closely resembles the 'thing using' thought discussed earlier. I suggest that the mental machinery for producing language does not originate in communication, but in the mental faculties which accompanied the evolution of the thing using brain. (Perhaps there was a preliminary period of gesture). Now let us compare the characteristics which Chomsky gives for language with the those needed by the thing using brain.

I have tried to show that the 'thing user' has to abstract, and that the concepts in this abstract thinking can exist in non-verbal form. But words are labels we apply to concepts we have abstracted. When we grope for a word, we are seeing that the thought must exist before the word. The propensity for 'thing using' is universal among humans. So, says Chomsky, is language. Another feature common to tool use and language is creativeness - the ability to apply the abstractions, shapes, forces and materials, in new contexts. Lastly, I suggest, the syntax of Chomsky's universal grammar is closely parallel to wordless thing using thought. Subject (somebody / something) + verb (action / what a tool does / operation) and perhaps object (the thing that is operated on, changed or made).

This argument is left at the simplest level, that the subject-verb-object seems like the thought of a simple 'thing user'. R. Wallace explored a similar idea, relating areas in the brain known to support language with adjacent areas that provide our ability to map territory. He suggests that there is a link here with the brain's ability to provide markers, and to embed clauses in complex statements.42 It seems to me that Wallace is considering linguistic forms that would appear later in language development. It is easier to believe that language was originally grafted onto simpler structures. Then, once the process started, it could spread to all the accessible functions of the brain. Such spreading of the language activity through the brain may have taken place over a long period. Thing using, being parallel to the simplest grammatical forms, seems a likely place to start.

There are good evolutionary precedents for this proposed transformation of organs, from one function to another. The mammals' air-breathing lung evolved from the swim bladder of fish. Fish fins have ended up as human arms and hands, and bats' wings started off the same way too.

Other clues point the same way. The neural motor areas for speech lie next to the right hand's zone, and we gesture with that hand when we talk - that is we use it for communication as well as for manipulation. Right-handed musicians can finger with their left hand, but they find it much harder to conduct with the wrong hand, suggesting that the right hand is the instrument of the individual's conceptions and intentions.43 A possible process has been suggested by which this kind of parallel neurological equipment might evolve. J. M. Allman and J. H. Kaas have suggested that cortical areas can replicate themselves, and that the new areas can assume new functions while the original area continues to perform its initial task.44

Chimpanzees use simple tools, but their voice organs do not let them talk. They can however be taught to communicate by sign language, but this happens under artificial conditions, not in the wild. It therefore seems most unlikely that this brain function, supporting the unspoken language, could have evolved for communication. But it could derive from the thing using which they share with ourselves. If so, it supports the suggestion that the brain functions used in human language did not originate for communication, but in thing using.

Is 'thing using' being forced to explain too many things here? In nature, a mono-functional behaviour often leads to multiple adaptations. Because it flies, the bird has evolved feathers, light cellular bones, as well as an aerodynamic shape and a 'retractable undercarriage'. The ocean environment led to similarly extensive changes in dolphins and whales. Limbs became fins or flippers; the skin, the shape, the breathing, the diet - all changed as they adapted from being land to sea mammals. In the case of human evolution, attention focuses more on brain function and behaviour than on physical form; but the similar principle can apply, that simple causes led to multiple complex results.

Stick using games and perception jokes like droodles have already been mentioned. More speculatively, one might consider the possibility that the origins of magic lie in the link between thing using and language in the brain. Magic is universal among primitive and not so primitive peoples - pronouncing the right incantations makes things happen. In many cultures, names for things and people have a far deeper significance than mere labels for communicating ideas and become taboo words. Might this be an atavistic extension of the thing user's thought processes into the later age of verbal consciousness? If words were descended from tools and their use, this could explain the urge to use words themselves to make things happen. Speculating further, if the likeliest early tool was the stick, then at a deep level of displacement we have the prototype magic wand.

In formal logic - from Aristotle to Descartes and Hegel - we certainly see language being used as a tool, a making of conclusions by means of words alone. If we compare them, language logic is a weaker implement than spatial logic. Aristotle's logic tells us nothing new that was not already implicit in the premises; as for Hegel's logic -his dialectic led to anything he wanted us to believe. This is not to say that Hegel had no perceptive insights; but one can jettison all the paraphernalia of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis - and the insights remain. By contrast, a good house-builder senses wordlessly where a beam is needed to strengthen an opening in a wall, or which wall bears loads. What he does is effective as well as logical - which is more than can be claimed for most verbal arguments. Fortunately for word users, arguments do not usually collapse with the same disastrous consequences as defective buildings.