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Dear Researchers,

The other day, on the radio I caught a snippet of info which others may know more about. If I got it right, the man said that because of the dexterity of human hands, sign language developed before speech. Anyone know more about this?

 

Donald McCaig

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Dear Researchers,

The other day, on the radio I caught a snippet of info which others may know more about. If I got it right, the man said that because of the dexterity of human hands, sign language developed before speech. Anyone know more about this?

 

Donald McCaig

i've not heard this idea, but it does seem logical. language requires a type of concensus between people. they have to agree certain sounds mean certain things or concepts. sign language, not the kind we think of today, could express things easily between different ancient people. if i see a flock of birds that seem like good eating, i may give you the come here hand signal and put my hands together to make wings (think hand shadow puppets). this would quickly give you the idea of what i want. also think of 2 people who meet who speak vastly different languages. the first thing they do is try to communicate through signs and signals.

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It is likely that symbolic meanings got associated with hand gestures before early humans developed a vocal tract capable of producing speech sounds--but whether those gestures were full human languages in the sense that we have them now is open for debate. No one really knows all that much about how language evolved, [ETA: but the most critical element for language was most likely the development of a particular kind of mind. Robin Dunbar has an interesting book, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, that locates the evolution of language in grooming (e.g. social) behavior in ancient primates. Unfortunately, his linguistics is pretty dismal, but it's an intriguing idea. Not exactly tied to the question, I know.]

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My old Pop did alot of sign language.

 

Especially when buying horses.

 

It involved alot of eye widening and eye rolling.

 

Banging the palm of his hand on his forehead

 

 

And looking down shaking his head

 

It was like dance.

 

It mesmorised the folks selling horses.

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I essentially did a double major in college, though not officially. My second major was anthropology.

 

We do have very specific body language that can reveal more than words. Hand gestures are universal aross every language and seem to be our oldest form of communication. These gestures don't communicate complex ideas, only the most basic of needs.

 

On the other hand, there are monkeys, not even apes, who have specific "words" they use. One call means "Look out, hawk!" The response is to duck for cover. Another call means, "Snake on the ground!" The response is to get into the trees ASAP. These calls cause a very specific defense behavior. The monkeys don't need to waste time figuring out how to respond to the danger, they know what the best reaction is based on the "word."

 

A theory I have read was that by walking upright we freed our hands to carry tools, food, helpless babies, etc. Sign language doesn't exactly work if you have to put down your valuables to talk. Our brains, ability to walk upright and to speak must have coevolved.

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My Opa spoke no English and I no German. We did well with our own form of sign language, and as key words were learned, we had about a elaborate of conversation as a kid and grandpa could have.

 

I've noticed that many people use the same gestures and conversational non-verbal cues when communicating with family members who have had strokes. I have pretty good success with even non-family members (there is an advantage to knowing the person before they didn't speak) - probably because of my Opa.

 

I love LizP's information about primate sound cues. I think humans have more of these than we would admit at times. The universal AAAAHHHHHHT is definitely one.

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On the other hand, there are monkeys, not even apes, who have specific "words" they use. One call means "Look out, hawk!" The response is to duck for cover. Another call means, "Snake on the ground!" The response is to get into the trees ASAP. These calls cause a very specific defense behavior. The monkeys don't need to waste time figuring out how to respond to the danger, they know what the best reaction is based on the "word."

 

Prairie dogs also have those specific calls ("alert! death from above!" "alert! death from the ground"). They also have an all-clear call. Burrowing owls living in the colony will react correctly to the calls. Sort of interesting, I wonder if just colonial living provides selection pressure for such calls, as it is clearly not just a primate thing.

 

I read somewhere that sign language was useful for communicating for specific hunting instructions across long distances/quietly while in cooperative groups - don't know if that is true or if it meant that it came before spoken speech.

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As far as I know, there is no indication that first human language was a sign language with the properties of spoken human language.

 

Concerning other species: of course, we do share many properties of communication with other species. E.g. our main channel of communication is vocal-auditory, but we also use gesture-visual channel, which is similar to primates’ who use both gesture-visual and vocal- auditory plus olfactory channel.

 

 

However, it is not the type of communication channel that matters. Humans have a specific communication system, which is the way it is because of our cerebral activity not because of the channel. That’s why, non-hearing people’s system of communication is in its crucial properties identical with vocal-auditory systems of other people. Whereas human vocal-auditory system is crucially different from the systems of other primates, even though we share the same channel.

 

Warning calls are very common among animals as described in previous posts. Here is a warning by a rooster:

 

 

You'll probably find you've heard this call many times. This call means 'danger from the ground'; the other call for danger from above I have not managed to catch, since it requires a convergence of a hawk, a rooster, a camera and a camera operator . It is very distinctively different. Of course that does not exhaust the list of communicative signals among poultry, which are very interesting to observe.

 

Best wishes,

Maja

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Dear Doggers,

 

Ms. Liz wrote:

We do have very specific body language that can reveal more than words. Hand gestures are universal aross every language and seem to be our oldest form of communication. These gestures don't communicate complex ideas, only the most basic of needs.

 

 

I'd appreciate recent references on this subject.

 

Thanks,

 

Donald

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Anybody familiar with "The Straight Dope"? This is what Cecil has to say on the subject:

 

"Dear Cecil:

 

Why do we nod our heads for "yes" and shake them for "no," instead of the other way around? Are there any peoples who reverse the gestures?

 

— Have to Know, Chicago

 

Cecil replies:

 

Believe it or not, H., some people think this is a silly question. Little do they know. No less a personage than Charles Darwin looked into it and wrote up his findings in a book called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Darwin was interested in finding out whether there were universal gestures and expressions, so he sent out a questionnaire to missionaries and whatnot that, among other things, asked what gesticulations the locals used to convey "yes" and "no." Nodding and head-shaking turned out to be pretty common, but there were some striking exceptions. For example, certain Australian natives, when uttering a negative, "don't shake the head, but holding up the right hand, shake it by turning it half round and back again two or three times." One Captain Speedy--I can't say the name inspires much confidence--told Darwin that the Abyssinians said "no" by jerking the head to the right shoulder and making a slight cluck, while "yes" was expressed by the head being thrown backwards and the eyebrows raised for an instant. The Dyaks of Borneo supposedly raised their eyebrows for "yes" and slightly contracted them, "together with a peculiar look of the eyes," for "no." Eskimoes nodded for "yes" and winked for "no."

 

The only place I know of where they completely reverse the meaning of our nod and head-shake gestures is Bulgaria. There a nod means no and a shake means yes. One shudders to think of the implications this has for cross-cultural dating in that country. The Turks are almost as confusing--they say "yes" by shaking their heads from side to side, and "no" by tossing their heads back and clucking. Head-tossing for "no" is also common in Greece and parts of Italy, such as Naples, that were colonized or heavily influenced by Greeks in ancient times.

 

Still, cultures ranging from the Chinese to the natives of Guinea nod and shake their heads like we do, leading Darwin to believe that the gestures were innate to some extent. He noticed that when babies refused food they almost always turned their heads to the side, whereas when they had worked up an appetite they inclined their heads forward in a nodding gesture.

 

Other gestures are much more arbitrary. One of the most notorious of these is making a circle with thumb and forefinger, which to to Americans and most Europeans means "OK." In Brazil, however, and some other places, it means something on the order of "screw you." (The actual term is more pungent, you understand.) Cecil learned this to his sorrow on a little jaunt he made to Sao Paulo some years ago. I seldom make the OK gesture at home, but once I got down south and learned its obscene significance I felt a sudden compulsion to make it 20 or 30 times a day, thus antagonizing Brazilians by the thousands. It was only with the most determined effort that I was able to stifle this low impulse and make the thumbs-up sign that, in Rio as in the U.S., signifies everything's copacetic.

 

Which reminds me. You probably think we make the thumbs-up gesture because that's what the Romans used to do when they wanted to spare a fallen gladiator, right? Wrong--that's a myth based on a succession of mistranslations. The truth is when the Romans were feeling merciful they hid their thumbs in their clenched fists (symbolically sheathing their swords, some historians believe). To have a guy offed they didn't turn thumbs down but rather extended their thumbs in a stabbing gesture. For whatever reason, though, thumbs-up today means OK just about everywhere--except in Sardinia or Greece, where it means "screw you." I'm told that for rookie travelers this makes hitchhiking in Athens a pretty lively experience. Caveat viator."

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Dear Mr. Donald,

 

When processing verbal communication, the majority of the population uses certain areas in the left hemisphere, where the main (but not the only) language centers are Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. This is the way speech is processed in almost all right handers and the majority of left-handers. These areas are responsible for prosecuting (producing and comprehending) sounds, syntax, morphology, and lexicon. To do this they cooperate with each other through a bundle of nerves called arcuate fasciculus and with other areas in the brain such as motor cortex, primary auditory area, visual area. The ability to produce speech is actually quite amazing, if one looks e.e. at the rate with which we can produce sounds.

 

Left hemisphere in general cognitive functioning is often used for linear, analytic processing. The right hemispheres is used for general cognitive functioning for parallel, synthetic processing. Thus for many functions the two hemispheres are ( not surprisingly) complementary.

 

However, for a long time it was thought that the right hemisphere was not involved in language. But it is. The right hemisphere for example is involved with metaphorical understanding of language (such as "I was so mad I was boiling inside"), jokes, puns, but also prosody (tone, intonation, etc. of speech) and other non-verbal communication. Gestures, facial expressions are processed in the right hemisphere. These and prosody often give a tweak for the ultimate interpretation of the overall discourse, being in line with the hemisphere's parallel and synthetic forte.

 

If you need elaboration on any point please let me know, I will reply to the best of my knowledge. Any corrections of this post are welcome :rolleyes:

 

Maja

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One small point of clarification concerning prosody--prosody does more than "tweak" interpretation in many cases. tone, for instance, and depending on the language, can work more like a regular speech sound (for instance, a change in the tone of a vowel in Chinese changes the word to a different word).

 

Prosody (as Maja noted--tone and intonation, but also speech rhythm, loudness, pausing, and vocal modality, like breathiness) is a funny part of language--being able to convey both linguistic, discourse-oriented and non-linguistic information simultaneously and as such is almost certainly processed bi-laterally.

 

It also is very much linked to more primal aspects of (non-linguistic) communication that you find across species (loudness and deepness, for instance are commonly, though not universally, associated with larger and more authoritative stances--kind of like dogs' different vocalizations where the louder, deeper ones almost always signal a more authoritative response to threat whereas the higher ones typically signal a more defensive or "weaker" response)

 

One very interesting thing concerning prosody and gesture is that signed languages have gestural markers for prosody that work just like intonation in verbal languages (for instance, at the end of declarative sentences, many spoken languages have a drop in pitch. In signed languages, the same kind of thing is often indicated by a drop of the hands below the waist). This is one of the many characteristics that shows, as Maja noted above, that signed languages are true human languages and not the kinds of gestural systems that make up more general non-verbal communication.

 

All of which highlights what Maja and I both said above--that what probably mattered most for the evolution of language (and what continues to distinguish language from other communication systems) is the development of a particular kind of mind/brain capable of producing and processing all kinds of pretty complicated grammatical properties. [ETA: Ever wondered how English speakers know that "Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is a perfectly well formed English sentence????]

 

Now, that I've completely brought out my ultra-nerd credentials, I'll fess up that I earn my keep (and the dogs' kibble) as a linguist (and happen to have done a lot of work on prosody and intonation)

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Nerd though I am, I'm by no means an expert in neurolinguistic stuff, though I remember one of my professors in graduate school, who did work on those issues, saying that the idea of strict brain lateralization for language has been challenged.

 

With respect to prosody, the only brain imagining work I know about has looked at things like the resolution of sentence ambiguity (for instance, in a sentence like, "Mary saw Molly with binoculars", the phrase 'with binoculars' could describe either Mary or Molly--it's ambiguous when written, though in speech, via prosody, it will almost always be disambiguated). In that work, it looks like listeners process prosody in the same places in the brain that they process other aspects of grammar, so probably more in the left.

 

Be interesting to do that kind of brain imagining work with non-human species to see how prosody (obviously not sentence processing :rolleyes:) gets processed. Patricia McConnell did her dissertation on the acoustic properties of whistles used with dogs cross-culturally--but it was purely production based and didn't do anything on the processing side.

 

Julie--Anna is indeed a linguist. Maybe this thread will lure her out of lurkerdom. I was just telling grenzehund that I missed seeing her posts.

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Nerd though I am, I'm by no means an expert in neurolinguistic stuff, though I remember one of my professors in graduate school, who did work on those issues, saying that the idea of strict brain lateralization for language has been challenged.

I think that the right hemisphere functions I listed (e.g. figurative language, discourse context and meaning) make it clear that language is bilateral. The generative grammar tradition makes too little, in my opinion, of figurative language and fails to see its ubiquitousness. But the general functions of Wernicke's Broca's areas and their location in the left hemisphere, I think have remained the same. Of course I am not sure, since I teach at a tiny college where linguistics is not the priority for ordering books :rolleyes:

 

Tis abstract would indicate that for phonemic tone contrast it would be nonetheless in the right hemisphere:

http://journals.lww.com/neuroreport/Abstra...ocessing.5.aspx

This would of course strengthen the bilaterality idea.

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One small point of clarification concerning prosody--prosody does more than "tweak" interpretation in many cases. tone, for instance, and depending on the language, can work more like a regular speech sound (for instance, a change in the tone of a vowel in Chinese changes the word to a different word).

You don't need to go all the way to China. The Norwegian word bønder (farmers) differs in pronunciation from bønner (beans) only by tone [the 'd' is silent].

 

I have long suspected that dogs depend far more on tone, intonation and other cues than we do. I suppose that they don't our specific language processing centers, so they would need to depend more on primitive/generic processing plus context and body language.

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I have long suspected that dogs depend far more on tone, intonation and other cues than we do. I suppose that they don't our specific language processing centers, so they would need to depend more on primitive/generic processing plus context and body language.

My herding instructor always tells us that it does not matter what we say, the tone is most important.* So I agree with that particularly when you take into account how well our human perception is honed for speech sounds, and how well dogs use other cues. However, I am not sure I'd use the term "primitive" (I understand you're using them in reference to time) - the dog's ability to read tone and body language is absolutely amazing, which every god person knows, so perhaps it is not necessarily more primitive.

 

And about prosody: in Polish, there is no grammatical marker for questions. It is only marked with intonation. I suppose this would be processed like disambiguation Robin is talking about.

 

Maja

* of course we must use commands properly, he was just making us sensitive to how we talk to our dog.

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At the moment, I don't have much to add, as my brain is still on vacation (school doesn't start again until late September :rolleyes: ), and is not willing to consider such academic topics...but, I will indeed come out of lurkdom, as I am getting a new computer tomorrow (thanks to the ram lambs who went to the sale earlier this week). I have been pretty much without, using a friend's computer for a quick email check and not much more most evenings...

A

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That's very interesting, because when the question was asked I felt like I wanted to pounce on it, because suddenly there was something I knew something about for a change. I'm spending this vacating training my puppy and if there ever was a dumbbell in herding, it's definitely me :D. So I am suffering mental anguish thinking about herding all the time, knowing I can't stop now because Bonnie would go up Niagara Falls like a deranged salmon if she knew there were sheep on top, and suddenly Mr. Donald asks about something I know enough about to know what I know and what I don't know :rolleyes: .

 

Maja

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Dear Smarter-than-Moi,

 

If I recall correctly, the article hinted that body language and some form of sign language was prior to vocal language. Prior to, how? In evoutionary history? In human learning? Iinfants have mastered a fair amount of body language before they venture into speech but so what?

 

I don't believe anybody got much further than Wittgenstein with this until the nueroliguists got up to speed and I don't know what they're doing.

 

These are Border Collie boards. Why inquire here?

 

I know - not surmise but know - that our dogs' first language is body language and they speak and comprehend it with great precision and over considerable differences. It isn't merely an inferior version of vocal language and, in some respects (reading emotions) may be superior.

 

Experienced sheepdoggers begin training by appealing to their dog's inherited (and learned?) body language and simple vocables. These vocables become, over time, very sophisticated and if dogs' own vocal language is fairly crude - Coppenger to the contrary, greeting barks aren't the same as 'stranger coming'! barks and fox and coon hounds have fairly intricate speech.

 

I am interested in the segue from body langauge to the other.

 

 

Donald McCaig

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"These are Border Collie boards. Why inquire here?"

 

Because you aren't the first story-teller to sense a connection between handler to sheepdog communication and narrative framework.

 

I've probably posted this before. As you read bear in mind that hand/arm signals a century ago on the range were far more complex than those handlers use today. Here is Mary Austin's take on bedtime stories for sheepdogs from her autobiography written, rather confusingly, in both first and third person:

 

It had been for a long time on Mary’s mind that the story—that knot of related and inter-consequential incidents which make up the pattern called experience—must have come down to man by more intimate ancestral inheritance than the poem even. What she needed for uncovering the line of descent was a vocabulary expressive of experience—that is, things done leading to appreciable consequences, by which stories could be conveyed. She was finally to discover that vocabulary in the language of signs—arm signs chiefly and two or three vocables invented by herders for communication with their dogs. This is much more than the vocabulary of verbal commands such as are used in the hunting-fields; a vocabulary of sentences expressive of the whole phase of an experience such as "Sheep missing on the left, go and find them; Round the flock and hold; Round and bed the flock." What Mary discovered that winter was that, by piecing these sentences and signs together in the pattern of an incident which had happened often enough to come easily to mind, and by narrating the incident in this fashion on occasions on which it was plain to the dogs that it could not refer to present circumstance, she could afford them pleasure, such as they learned to invite in the same way a young child invites the re-telling of a favorite tale. Of there were dogs who remained always uneasily in doubt as to the relevance of such a narrative to the momentary reality, and dogs, who, convinced that it did not refer to anything actually going on at the time among their charges, were always a little suspicious of your intention, so to speak, of ‘pulling their leg.’ Curiously, although the certainty so arrived, that given the proper vocabulary there can be transmission of experience between man and dog is probably the most important contribution to the story-teller’s art that Mary will ever make, I found no story-teller in America in the least interested. Indirectly it opens up the whole question of the communication of experience among animals, and alters the comparative values of instinct and training in animal behavior. It led on, for Mary, to a renewed curiosity about Indian sign languages and their experience-carrying possibilities.

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