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The Gestural Origins of Language

Human language may have evolved from manual gestures, which survive today as a "behavioral fossil" coupled to speech

Michael Corballis

Gestural Language Today

Gestures are not simply figments from some imaginary past. David McNeill of the University of Chicago has shown that manual gestures are intricately interwoven into our present-day speech patterns. Speech carries the burden of grammar and most of the load of symbolic representation so that we can listen to taped lectures or listen to the radio with little loss of information. Nevertheless, gesture supplies a visual, iconic component that can provide extra information or circumvent prolonged explanation. Ask someone to tell you what a spiral is or to tell you the size of the fish they claim to have caught. Moreover, people naturally resort to manual gestures when trying to communicate with people who speak a different language. Susan Goldin-Meadow and colleagues at the University of Chicago have shown that gesture quickly takes on a grammatical role if people are prevented from speaking.

Figure 4. Speculative scenarios can serve . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Gestural languages have been observed in religious communities pledged to vows of silence as well as in other situations where speech is difficult or forbidden. Among the most intricate of living manual languages are those invented by Aboriginal Australians. These do not provide direct evidence that gestural language preceded vocal language since they are in fact based on vocal language, but they can function autonomously and are fully grammatical. They appear to have originated in the North Central Desert of Australia and spread from there. They are used in part to overcome speech taboos, which are observed by women in the North Central Desert following the death of a close relative, and are also imposed on male novices in initiation. Sign languages have also been widely used by the Plains Indians of North America, where they seem to have served mainly to allow tribes who spoke different languages to communicate with one another.

The most abundant and extensively studied manual languages are the sign languages invented by the deaf. Sign languages were not recognized as legitimate languages until the late 18th century, beginning in France. In 1864 the U.S. Congress passed legislation recognizing a national deaf mute college that was later named Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University) after its first principal. In the late 19th century, however, there was a strong reaction against the use of sign language, and often fruitless efforts were made to teach the deaf to speak. At the International Congress of Educators of the Deaf, held in Milan in 1880, there was a vote in favor of "oralism" (teaching the deaf to lip-read or make use of whatever residual hearing they may have), and sign language was declared officially prohibited. This attitude persisted until recently, with the consequence that deaf children typically left school with drastically reduced literary and pedagogical skills.

The tide began to turn again in the late 1950s, largely through the efforts of William C. Stokoe, a professor (now retired) at Gallaudet University. Even though sign language was not properly recognized even there, Stokoe saw that the students nevertheless used it abundantly and that it had the characteristics of a true language. Stokoe and others have amply confirmed this in research, and American Sign Language (ASL) is now the recognized language at Gallaudet University. Students are taught all the usual subjects—mathematics, chemistry, philosophy and even poetry—without a word being spoken. There are countless different sign languages invented by deaf people all over the world, and there is little doubt that they are genuine languages with fully developed grammars. The spontaneous emergence of sign languages among deaf communities everywhere confirms that gestural communication is as "natural" to the human condition as is spoken language. Indeed, children exposed from an early age only to sign language go through the same basic stages of acquisition as children learning to speak, including a stage when they "babble" silently in sign!

If there is truth to Chomsky's notion of "universal grammar," it seems to apply as much to sign language as to spoken language. In a study recently conducted by Susan Goldin-Meadow and Carolyn Mylander of the University of Chicago, eight deaf children born to hearing parents were found to have created sign languages that were much more sophisticated than the primitive gestures used by their parents to teach them. Four of the children were raised in the United States and four in China, yet there was much more in common between the children's sign languages across the two cultures than between the signing of the children and their parents. The children of both countries spontaneously produced complex sentences (expressing more than one proposition), and they ordered their gestures in a similar fashion. The children also spontaneously adopted an ergative structure to their signing, in which intransitive actors are distinguished from transitive ones. For example, the word "mouse" is an intransitive actor in the sentence "The mouse goes to the hole," whereas it is a transitive actor in the sentence "The mouse eats the cheese." In an ergative language, the sign for mouse would be different in the two contexts. The Chinese and English languages make no such distinctions. Such studies give quite strong support to the idea that there is an inborn component to children's development of language, whether spoken or signed.

The innate capacity of human beings to communicate by gesture is also evident in a study of the congenitally blind—people who could not possibly have acquired the habit by observing others. Goldin-Meadow, this time with her colleague Jana Iverson at Indiana University, observed that 12 blind speakers gestured as they spoke at the same rate as a group of sighted people, conveying the same information and using the same range of gesture forms! (For example, a tilted C-shaped hand in the air was used to indicate that a liquid had been poured from a container.) Remarkably, the blind people would gesture while they spoke regardless of whether the listener was sighted or not, suggesting that gestures are tightly coupled to the act of speaking. Such coupling has its origins in the brain.

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