LANGUAGE HAPPENS

WHAT WAS ON EARLY MAN'S MIND? HIS TOOLS, BUT HE COULDN'T BRING HIMSELF TO TALK ABOUT IT.

One of the peculiarities of academia is that its own defining language seems to have evolved beyond speech into prose in which ideas swim desperately upstream against a torrent of polysyllabic words. The Wilkins and Wakefield article set off a dialogue in which no one actually spoke to anyone else.

Behavior and Brain Sciences edited the article and then sent copies of the manuscript to linguists and psychologists and anthropologists and other experts in the field. Twenty-two of them answered with written critiques, each of them disagreeing with some of the researchers' conclusions. Wilkins and Wakefield wrote a rebuttal and the journal published the whole catfight. When all was unsaid and done, it was hard to figure out if anyone agreed with anything.

Some of the respondents had broader definitions of language and communication or felt that other communicating animal species--especially language-learning chimps--might have been slighted. One anthropologist complained that Wilkins and Wakefield didn't know bones about skulls.

The major dispute came from those proponents of natural-selection theory who insist that language emerged out of the higher survival rates of those human species who could convey such messages as, "Og, don't pet the woolly mammoth."

"We can't prove that there was no pressure for an improved communicative repertoire," says Wilkins. "What we think we can show is a pressure for improved use of the hand and the ability to hunt at a distance. And we think there is an evolutionary trail of artifacts that shows that did happen. What changed evolutionarily was how perception and cognition are organized. If you suddenly have a brain with this internal configuration rather than that one, it's going to change your whole view of what's out there and how you process what's out there. It leads to an anatomical configuration where things are in the right place for language to happen.

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