Origin of symbol-using systems: speech, but not sign, without the semantic urge

Martin I. Sereno


Natural language—spoken and signed—is a multichannel phenomenon, involving facial and body expression, and voice and visual intonation that is often used in the service of a social urge to communicate meaning. Given that iconicity seems easier and less abstract than making arbitrary connections between sound and meaning, iconicity and gesture have often been invoked in the origin of language alongside the urge to convey meaning. To get a fresh perspective, we critically distinguish the origin of a system capable of evolution from the subsequent evolution that system becomes capable of. Human language arose on a substrate of a system already capable of Darwinian evolution; the genetically supported uniquely human ability to learn a language reflects a key contact point between Darwinian evolution and language. Though implemented in brains generated by DNA symbols coding for protein meaning, the second higher-level symbol-using system of language now operates in a world mostly decoupled from Darwinian evolutionary constraints. Examination of Darwinian evolution of vocal learning in other animals suggests that the initial fixation of a key prerequisite to language into the human genome may actually have required initially side-stepping not only iconicity, but the urge to mean itself. If sign languages came later, they would not have faced this constraint.

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© 2014 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.

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