WHO TAUGHT ADAM TO SPEAK?
“Speech is the best show man puts on. It is his own “act” on the stage of evolution, in which he comes before the cosmic backdrop and “does his stuff.”
Benjamin Lee Whorf
Language, Thought and Reality
MANY YEARS ago Humboldt observed that if there was a transition from animal to man, that transition took place with the acquisition of speech. (1) But he added with rare insight, that in order to speak, man must already have been human. The problem of accounting for the origin of speech appeared to him therefore to be insoluble. Apart from revelation, it still is.
Because of the influence of Darwin’s theories, it seemed at one time unnecessary to question the derivation of human speech from animal cries. Essentially the two were the same; it was merely a question of the degree of complexity. Following in the steps of earlier social anthropologists, who were arranging the various primitive cultures in a sequence from the simple to more complex, thereby illustrating man’s supposed climb to Parnassus, those who philosophized about language assumed that the strange grunts, clicks, and grimaces of the lowliest “savages” were evidence that speech, like all else, had evolved by barely perceptible steps from simple to complex. (2)
1 This observation is referred to by Lyell, in his Antiquity of Man, 4th edition, 1873, p.518. A very useful passage from Buffon on the same basic point is quoted by J. C. Greene, The Death of Adam, Iowa State University Press, 1959, pp.202, 203.
2. A. Goldenweiser has a beautiful illustration of this principle: “What is the theoretical justification for designating as historical, i.e., actual, a series of instances never observed in this successive form in history? The only answer the evolutionist could give here would be that according to the general principles of evolution such were the stages, and that now they were concretely illustrated; therefore the evolutionary hypothesis is correct. . . . The argument is therefore circular; something that is to be proved, or an inherent part of that something, is assumed in order to make the proof valid. The evolutionist, unable to discover his stages in the historical perspective of one tribal culture, for the simple reason that such a perspective is never available except fragmentarily, proceeds to substitute an instance found in one tribe as a stage succeeding upon an instance drawn from another, and so on until the entire series is completed. The resulting collection of instances is therefore historically a hodgepodge. What makes the collection an historical or a presumed historical series is once more the assumption of uniformity of development which makes the evolutionist feel at liberty to fill in the gaps in the series of instances wherever found. . . . Throughout then we find that what is to be demonstrated, is already assumed to validate the demonstration” [my emphasis]. Anthropology, Crofts, New York, 1945, p.508.
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1. The Evolutionary Account
But little by little it appeared that the problem was more difficult. To begin with, more careful studies of the most primitive societies made by men in the field who spent enough time to learn to use the native languages they were studying, began to reveal that far from being simple, they were often exceedingly complex. (3) Indeed so rich in terms did they eventually prove to be in many cases, that such an authority as Levy-Bruhl came to doubt (perhaps unjustifiably) whether they even thought as we do. The difference could no longer be measured in terms of “higher” and “lower” but as a different way of conceiving reality, indeed from one point of view, a more complex way of viewing it. (4) G. G. Simpson rightly remarked: (5)
At the present time no languages are primitive in the sense of being significantly close to the origins of language. Even the people with least complex culture have highly sophisticated languages, with complex grammar, and large vocabularies capable of naming and discussing anything that occurs in the sphere occupied by their speakers.
Eric Lenneberg has said that primitive languages actually require more intelligence to learn than our so-called sophisticated languages do. (6) That language of a highly abstract nature must have been with man in very, very early times seems to have been recently confirmed by the finding, reported by Alexander Marshack, (7) of what appear to be clearly mathematical notations on a number of bone fragments dated (expansively) at 15,000 to 13,000 B.C.
In fact, the simpler the culture, the more complex in this sense
3. A. L. Kroeber remarks in this connection, “Dictionaries compiled by missionaries or philologists of languages previously unwritten, run to surprising figures. Thus the number of words recorded in Klamath, the speech of a culturally rude American Indian Tribe, is 7,000; in Navaho, 11,000; in Zulu, 17,000; in Dakota, 19,000; in Maya 20,000, in Nahuatl, 27,000. It may safely be estimated that every existing language, no matter how backward its speakers are in their general civilization, possesses a vocabulary of at least 5,000 to 10,000 words.” Kroeber then adds this note: “Jesperson, who allows 20,000 words to Shakespeare, and 8,000 to Milton, cites 26,000 as the vocabulary of Swedish peasants.” Anthropology, Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1948, p.231
4. Levy-Bruhl, Lucien, How Natives Think, translated by Lilian A. Clare, Allen and Unwin, London, 1926, is full of fascinating material illustrating this point.
5. Simpson, G. G., “The Biology of Natural Man,” Science, vol.152, 1966, p.477.
6. Lenneberg, Eric, The Biological Foundations of Language, Wiley, New York,1967, p.264.
7. Marshack, Alexander, “Upper Paleolithic Notation and Symbol,” Science, vol.178,1972, p.817ff.
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was its language likely to prove. Evidently therefore, the whole concept of arranging these cultures in an evolutionary scale was quite wrong. (8) Abandoning this principle cleared the way for a more careful investigation of the origin of human speech, and attention was turned to the problem from several different directions. To begin with, an answer was sought to the questions, What is the nature of human speech, and Do animals “speak” to one another at all? If so, are the two forms of communication related or comparable? If they are not, we cannot easily derive the one from the other. Since, as we shall see, a negative conclusion was reached by a number of investigators, the origin of human speech remained a profound mystery.
Further investigation soon revealed other complications. Speech was always assumed to be instinctive. But the discovery from time to time of “wild” or feral children without speech, showed clearly that it results only where there has been social contact. Moreover such contact must be with speaking individuals, for it was further discovered that someone else has to start the process off for each one of us. Company alone does not create communication by speech. Without the spark from one party already the possessor of the faculty, there is no conversation.
Having arrived at this point, it was felt that human beings should be able to encourage animals to speak, unless the organs of speech were different in the latter. In the course of time it was concluded from investigation of the anatomy of the higher apes that the organs of certain animals are not basically different, and that they therefore ought to be able to speak as we do. (9) And indeed, there are some creatures such as parrots, which, though not in the supposed evolutionary base line from amoeba to man, can be taught to
8. Clyde Kluckhohn in his prize-winning book, Mirror for Man, McGraw Hill, New York, 1969, p.148, remarks: “In contrast to the general course of cultural evolution, languages move from complex to simple” [my emphasis].
9. A. L. Kroeber remarks, “All indications are that no subhuman animal ever has any impulse to utter or convey such information. This seems to hold as essentially for dogs and apes, or for that matter for parrots, as for insects. . . . Chimpanzees, with larynx, tongue, and lips similar to ours, do not even try to learn to reproduce human words to which they respond in their behaviour. There is an old epigram that the reason animals do not speak is that they have nothing to say. Its psychology is somewhat crude, but fundamentally correct.” Anthropology, Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1948, p.41.
Munro Fox asks, “Can animals ever learn to understand our human language? Most pet-lovers would answer unhesitatingly in the affirmative. But usually a dog learns the tone of voice, not the actual words. If you say to a dog in a cheerful voice, ‘I’m going to beat you,’ he will wag his tail. If you tell him in a mournful tone, ‘I’ve got a bone for you,’ he will put his tail between his legs.” The Personality of Animals, Pelican Books, London, 1952, p.28.
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reproduce all the sounds of common speech successfully. Yet apes and monkeys cannot speak. . . . Indeed, as J. B. Lancaster rightly observed: (10)
The more that is known about (communication systems in monkeys and apes) the less these systems seem to help in the understanding of human language.
And G. G. Simpson, commenting on this, wrote, (11) Many other attempts have been made to determine the evolutionary origin of language and all have failed.” Maybe language did not evolve at all!
On the other hand, history soon provided instances of human beings who lacked all the normal faculties of speech, i.e., sight, hearing, and voice, and yet who learned to speak (with their fingers of course) and to communicate ideas at a very high level of abstraction. This once more seemed to indicate that the real secret lay in the structure of the brain, or in some other quality of human nature, and not in the organs of the voice.
It was therefore concluded that some genetic strain must suddenly have appeared to alter the structure of the human brain in some way at present unknown, thus paving the way for the appearance of this peculiarly human faculty. (12) Yet this does not answer the main problem, even if such a mutation could be shown to have occurred. For we have on record the case of two feral children, brought up entirely in the wilds, without any human companionship except that they were themselves companions in isolation, who never between them spoke a single word of any form whatever. Thus we find that even the presence of another human being, and the possession of a truly human brain (for subsequently they were taught to speak, though always with limitations) do not in themselves constitute the necessary framework within which speech must inevitably appear.
We are still left, therefore, with the problem as to who started the process, for the process must be started by someone. While it is true that a few authorities believe that the human race may be an amalgam of several distinct and independently originated stocks, springing from lower forms of life, there are many others equally committed to an evolutionary origin for man, who hold that he must be derived from a single stock. (13) In this single stock we must have a
10. Lancaster, J. B., The Origin of Man, edited by P. L. DeVose, Wenner-Grenn Foundation, New York, 1965.
11. Simpson, G. G., ref.5, p.477.
12. Cassirer, Ernst, An Essay on Man, Yale, 1948, p.31: it should be noted that he has to fall back simply on the concept of some unusual mutation, never again repeated.
13. The official statement of UNESCO is to the effect that the human race is to be derived from a single stock. Man, Royal Anthropological Institute, London, June, 1952, p.90, section 125. In Europe there are some dissenting voices, although in the New World almost all authorities agree with this.
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first man and a first woman. It matters little what we call them, whether Adam (which simply means “man”) and Eve (which really means “child bearer,” i.e., mother), or some more technical name, we are still dealing with the same two individuals. What is to account for the fact that they began to talk to one another and this has continued wherever their descendants are found, and without exception, for no people on earth are known without a fully developed language. People are known in one part of the world or another without almost every faculty which we hold to be essentially human, even without mother-love, but not one people has ever been found without the faculty of speech.
It may be stated simply then, that scientifically the question is beyond our reach. About all that scientific investigations can do is to demonstrate what cannot be the origin.
2. The Biblical Account
In Genesis, however, the story of the first conversation on earth is revealed. And since it is the only story that shows insight into the nature of man’s first steps at conversation, it is of peculiar interest no matter whether we view it as fancy or as fact, for all about us every day are children learning to speak for the first time and showing us consistently a certain pattern of learning which by its very persistence leads us to suppose that it is the only pattern by which man ever learned to speak. Not merely the subject of conversation of the first pair, but the consequences of it, and the circumstances in which it came to pass, are of real significance for all those who today are concerned with the problem of human nature and conduct. For it is man’s power of speech which has enabled him to do what he has done and to be what he is, whether for good or for ill. The power of speech involves the power of abstraction and of self-consciousness, and of delayed reaction and decision. It has in short made man in part a free-willed agent. But it has also enabled him to learn in a unique way and to pass on the substance of his learning so that culture has become cumulative.
Sounds of Speech: Signs, Symbols, Words
But let us revert once more, and consider the points raised in the foregoing in greater detail. It is strange how frequently what is obviously true turns out to be quite false. For centuries it was obvious to everyone that the sun moved around the earth; and until acceptance of this obvious fact was entirely undermined, no further progress in astronomy was possible. That animals talked to one another was equally obvious. In times of danger a shrill warning was uttered, and the answeringprecautions of flight were undertaken by those who heard the signal, obviously indicating that they clearly understood what was being “said.”
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Signs vs Symbols
Curiously enough some of the most profound observations regarding the real nature of so-called animal speech have finally come not from a man who was a naturalist, but a man who was basically a philosopher interested in the nature of human nature. George Herbert Mead (14) showed in a way which virtually compels assent that animals are not self-conscious and therefore can only utter signals, which are not expressions of thought or of emotion. Such sounds are uttered involuntarily, like the “Oh” and “Ah” of a man too deeply moved for speech. The excited whining of a dog in anticipation of food is not the dog’s mind expressing anticipation, but a reflex expressing itself. The dog does not express emotion consciously, but the emotion expresses itself. Raymond Pearl has pointed out that herd leaders are not leaders in the sense that human beings may be, for no thought or reasoning is involved. (15) They serve rather as a special sense organ for the whole herd, and their position as leader is in a way an accident of biological processes. Thus Mead distinguishes between a sound which is a sign, and a sound which is a symbol. The first is shared by all creatures able to express emotion, including fear and anger, hate and love, and of course in man, laughter. But a sign of such a nature is involuntary as a rule; always involuntary in the case of animals, but not always so in the case of man who is such a prodigious actor. The “Oh” of a man suddenly injured is not “thought” out. It expresses itself. Naturally we understand it all — the scream of fright, the roar of laughter: both are read, but neither are truly language. Mead points out that it is not until a child discovers what the meaning of his own sound to others is, and then deliberately makes the sound with this meaning attached to it, that the child speaks. In this sense speech might be held to start when a child discovers that it can cry (without compulsion) merely to gain attention to its self. Such an attitude arises out of self-consciousness, and the consciousness of others as being similar to oneself.
A child thus discovering the trick of gaining attention becomes an actor. Darwin was interested in the question of “acting” because he felt it threw light on the origin of language. (16) He felt that the
14. Mead, George Herbert, Mind, Self, and Society, University of Chicago Press, 7th edition, 1948.
15. Pearl, R., Man the Animal, Bloomington, Indiana, 1946, p.115.
16. In his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (published in 1872), Darwin has shown that expressive sounds or acts are dictated by certain biological needs and used according to definite biological rules. Thus a sneer was held to be the remnant of “baring the teeth,” and so on. However it is recognized today that Darwin had over-simplified the problem of speech by equating it with the ability to make noises and express emotions.
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actor in “pulling a face” to indicate anger was only doing what a dog might do when it bared its teeth to frighten its enemy. But this assumed that the dog is conscious of the face he is pulling and realizes that by doing it he can frighten his opponent. In actual fact it seems quite certain now that for the dog “the face is pulling itself,” and no self-consciousness is involved. To the other dog it is a sign to which he responds in a characteristic manner. But because the originator is moved by emotion and not by abstract or self-conscious thought, no speech is involved. It is a sign and not a symbol, for symbols have a nature arbitrarily (and therefore consciously) assigned by user and reader alike. The actor pulls a face consciously, knowing that it will be interpreted in a given way, and his thought so expressed in a symbolic form, read and understood by the audience, is communicated deliberately by what must be termed symbolic language. In common speech we may speak of a sign language, but it seems desirable to distinguish between what is in reality a symbol language and the unconscious sign of anger which an animal may express in the presence of an enemy.
Words: emotional vs. propositional
That animal cries are emotional only, and not conceptual, is now the considered opinion of those who have made a study of the matter. Cassirer pointed this out: (17)
Everyone who examines the different psychological theses and theories with an unbiased and critical mind must come at last to the conclusion that the problem cannot be cleared up by simply referring to forms of animal communication and to certain animal accomplishments which are gained by drill and training. All such accomplishments admit of the most contradictory interpretations. Hence it is necessary, first of all, to find a correct logical starting point, one which can lead us to natural and sound interpretation of the empirical facts. This starting point is the definition of speech . . . . The first and most fundamental stratum is evidently the language of the emotions. A great portion of all human utterance still belongs to this stratum. But there is a form of speech that shows us quite a different type. Here the word is by no means a mere interjection; it is not an involuntary expression of feeling, but a part of a sentence which has a definite syntactical and logical structure. . . . As regards chimpanzees, Wolfgang Koehler states that they achieve a considerable degree of expression by means of gesture. Rage, terror, despair, grief, pleading, desire, playfulness, and pleasure are readily expressed in this manner.
Nevertheless one element, which is characteristic of and indispensable to all human language is missing; we find no signs which have an objective reference or meaning. “It may be taken as positively proved,” says Koehler, (18) “that their gamut of phonetics is entirely
17. Cassirer, Ernst, ref.12, pp.28, 29.
18. Koehler, W., The Mentality of Apes, Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1925, p.317.
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subjective and can only express emotions, never designate or describe objects. But they have so many phonetic elements which are also common to human languages that their lack of articulate speech cannot be ascribed to secondary (glosso-labial) limitations. Their gestures too, of face and body, like their expressions in sound, never designate or describe objects.”
Cassirer added, (19)
Here we touch upon the crucial point in our whole problem. The difference between propositional language and emotional language is the real landmark between the human and the animal world. All the theories and observations concerning animal language are wide of the mark if they fail to recognize this fundamental difference. In all the literature of the subject, there does not seem to be a single conclusive proof of the fact that any animal ever made the decisive step from subjective to objective, from affective to propositional language. Koehler insists emphatically that speech is definitely beyond the powers of anthropoid apes. He maintains that the lack of this invaluable technical aid and the great limitation of those very components of thought, the so-called images, constitute the causes which prevent animals from ever achieving even the least beginning of cultural development.
The English neurologist, Jackson, introduced the term “propositional” language in order to account for some very interesting pathological phenomena. He found that many patients suffering from aphasia had by no means lost the use of speech, but they could not employ their words in an objective, propositional sense. Something had therefore reduced their speech to the level of animal noise which, like the cry of the parrot, was no longer human language at all.
19. Cassirer, E., ref.12, p.30. Similarly Munro Fox (ref.9, pp.22, 23): “We ourselves, of course, have to learn how to talk, but babies do not learn to make cries of various sorts corresponding to their feelings. Such cries of infants are not learned but are made by instinct. This leads to a most important question. Does an ape, too, know how to make its various characteristic sounds and grimaces by inborn instinct, without any learning, or does it learn its ‘language’ from its mother? This question has been answered by keeping an ape quite alone from its birth until it was five years old. For the first five years of its life this ape did not hear or see any other apes. The investigator found that the animal was able to express itself in ape language just as well as any other ape of that species. All its cries and expressions were made by instinct; they had not been learned. It is clear that the language of these animals has nothing in common with our speech; it resembles cries we may make such as ‘Oh’ and ‘Ah,’ or shouting for joy, or weeping.”
Subsequently, he writes: “The chief difference between the sound-language of animals and human language is that while animal’s sounds or movements express its feelings, and may communicate feelings and intentions to its fellows, we do more than this. We have words for things, and words for thoughts, and we make these words into sentences. With animals this is, of course, not so. If I take a banana away from a chimpanzee, he can show that he is angry; if he wants a banana, he can show that he is hungry; if he gets a banana, he can show that he is glad. His movements and expressions indicate that he is angry, hungry, or glad, even if they are made unwittingly. But the chimpanzee cannot say anything about a banana. Animals have no conversation.” (p.29).
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Meanwhile the clicks and grunts which in popular imagination were taken to be a major part of some primitive languages actually take a very minor place in the structure of such languages. It can be said that the languages of the most primitive people, as for example the Australian aborigines, are exceedingly full of terms and are definitive and specific in the extreme. Indeed they are so rich in terms and names for things that abstract thought becomes well-nigh impossible, for there are no such simple things as “classes”; everything is individual and specific. (20) We may quote Cassirer again, (21)
Hammer-Purgstall has written a paper in which he enumerates the various names for the camel in Arabic. There are no less than five or six thousand terms used in describing the camel; yet none of these gives us a general biological concept. All express concrete details concerning the shape, the size, the color, the age and the gait of the animal. . . . In many American tribes we find an astounding variety of terms for a particular action, for instance for walking or striking. Such terms bear to each other rather a relation of juxtaposition than of subordination. A blow with the fist cannot be described with the same term as a blow with the palm, and a blow with a weapon requires another name than one with a whip or a rod. In his description of the Bakairi language — an idiom spoken by an Indian tribe in Central Brazil — Karl von den Steinen relates that each species of parrot and palm tree has its individual name, whereas there exists no name to express the genus “parrot” or “palm.” “The Bakairi,” he asserts, “attach themselves so much to the numerous particular notions that they take no interest in the common characteristics. They are choked in the abundance of the material and cannot manage it economically. They have only small coin, but in that they must be said to be excessively rich rather than poor.”
The languages of primitive people all over the world show this same amazing wealth. Here objectivity is a characteristic in excess. What is specifically lacking therefore in animal forms of communication, is here exemplified to the nth degree . . . and yet it was formerly thought that such societies would provide us with the very links between civilized man and the primates below him.
Levy-Bruhl has gone into this question very extensively. It is true that his views of primitive mentality are questioned today in many quarters, but the question mark is placed against his use of
20. Levy-Bruhl can be quoted to good effect in connection with this: “The (Australian) languages bear witness to this, for there is an almost total absence of generic terms to correspond with general ideas, and at the same time an extraordinary abundance of specific terms, those denoting persons and things of whom or to which a clear and precise image occurs to the mind as soon as they are mentioned. Eyre had already remarked upon this and noted that such terms as tree, bird, etc., were lacking, although specific terms were applied to every variety of tree, fish or bird.” Lucien Levy-Bruhl, How Natives Think, translated by Lilian A. Clare, Knopf, New York, 1925, p.170.
21. Cassirer, Ernst, ref.12, p.135.
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the concept of “prelogical” thinking. He argued that native people did not use the kind of logical constructions in their thinking that we do. But it is quite evident today that they are as capable of logical thinking as we are, though their premises are different. Allowing for this misconception, if misconception it be, Levy-Bruhl nevertheless has done great service in showing the amazing degree of language development which characterizes the most primitive people known to us. Certainly such people do not provide a missing link from animal grunts and cries to cultured speech. Thus Levy-Bruhl wrote: (22)
This concept, that in the evolution of thought the simplest is the earliest, is a concept which undoubtedly proceeds from Spencer’s philosophy, but that does not make it any more certain. I do not think it can be proved in the material world, and in what we know of the world of “thought” the facts would seem to contradict it. Sir James Frazer (who was committed to the evolutionary principle) seems to be confusing the simple with the undifferentiated here. Yet we find that the languages spoken by peoples who are the least developed of any we know — the Australian aborigines, Abipones, Andaman Islanders, Fuegains, etc. — exhibit a good deal of complexity. They are far less simple than English, though much more primitive.
Similarly he quoted the experience of Livingstone in South Africa: (23)
It is not the want, but the superabundance of names that misleads travellers, and the terms used are so multifarious that good scholars will at times scarcely know more than the subject of the general conversation. We have heard about a score of words to indicate different varieties of gait — one walks leaning forward, or backward; swaying from side to side; loungingly or smartly; swaggeringly; swinging the arms; or only one arm; head down, or up, or otherwise, and each of these modes of walking was expressed by a particular verb.
Levy-Bruhl stressed the specificity of native languages from various parts of the world, drawing on the reports of many travellers of the last century: (24)
Eyre remarks upon this with the Australian Aborigines. He states that generic terms such as tree, fish, bird, etc., were lacking although specific terms were applied to every variety of tree, fish or bird. . . . In western Australia, the natives have names for all the conspicuous stars, for every natural feature of the ground, every hill, swamp, bend of a river, etc., but not for the river itself. Lastly, not to prolong this list unduly, in the Zambesi district, every knoll, hill, mountain, and every peak on a range has its name, and so has every watercourse, dell, and plain. In fact, every feature, or portion of the country, is so distinguished by appropriate names that it would take a lifetime to decipher their meaning.
22. Levy-Bruhl, Lucien, ref.20, p.21.
23. Livingstone, David, The Zambesi and Its Tributaries, 1865, p.537.
24. Levy-Bruhl, Lucien, ref.20, pp.170-174.
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We could go on indefinitely. The Aymara Indians of Chuciutu in Peru have 209 distinct words for potatoes, and such northern people as the Eskimo of Canada and the Chukchee of Siberia have an almost unlimited number of names for snow and ice, in every conceivable form, yet not a single word for “snow.” Suffice it to say, therefore, that primitive languages may be primitive only in so far as they do not permit the refinement of abstract ideas, such a refinement as is essential for the construction of a pure science. But this lack by no means implies that they have a deficient language. Their terms for dealing with objects exceed our own many times; their dictionary would be correspondingly many times the length of ours.
Speech: Instinctive or Learned
We have pointed out that no people are without a language. From this observation and because all subjects investigated up till a few years ago had possessed the power of speech no matter how primitive their culture, it was assumed that speech was instinctive. (25) But in time it became apparent that this was not so. We may repeat that throughout the centuries of historical record, so-called “wild” or feral children have been reported. It was not till comparatively recently that such children were found and studied by men whose judgment and scholarship were sufficient to guard them against sensational conclusions intended to stimulate public imagination. Such children have always been found to be without speech.
Recently a very complete treatment of all known cases of feral children up to 1966 was republished by J. A. L. Singh and Robert M. Zingg, under the title Wolf-Children and Feral Man. (26) In all, 36 cases believed to be reasonably well documented are dealt with in some detail. Many are well attested, others rather less so, but the cumulative effect is to show that such children have indeed been brought up, due to early total isolation, by animals which include wolves, bears, pigs, a jackal, and even a leopard. Without exception, they did not learn to speak a word while in the wild and almost nothing even when later attempts were made to re-educate them.
25. Edward Sapir, an incomparable scholar of linguistics, wrote: “The gift of speech and a well-ordered language are characteristic of every known group of human beings. No tribe has ever been found which is without language, and all statements to the contrary may be dismissed as mere folklore. . . . The truth of the matter is that language is an essentially perfect means of expression and communication among every known people.” Article on “Language,” Encyclopedica of the Social Sciences, Macmillan, New York, 1933.
26. Singh, J. A. L. and Robert M. Zingg, Wolf-Children and Feral Man, Archon Books, 1966, xli and 379 pp., ills., with forewords by R. Rugglesgate, Arnold Gesell, F. N. Maxfield, and K. Davis.
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Susanne Langer remarked in this connection: (27)
The only well-attested cases are Peter the wild boy, found in the fields of Hanover in 1723; Victor, known as the “Savage of Aveyron” captured in that district of Southern France in 1799; and two little girls, Amala and Kamala taken in the vicinity of Midnapur, India, in 1920. Even of these, only Victor has been scientifically studied and described.
One thing however we know definitely about all of them: none of these children could speak in any tongue, remembered or invented [her emphasis]. A child without human companions would of course find no response to his chattering; but if speech were a genuine instinct, this should make little difference. Civilized children talk to the cat without knowing that they are soliloquizing, and a dog that answers with a bark is a good audience; moreover Amala and Kamala had each other. Yet they did not talk. Where, then, is the language making instinct of very young children?
It is as though Providence had secured for us by historical “accident” the materials we particularly need for testing all such hypotheses. Had we on record merely the instance of lone waifs and strays such as Peter and Victor, we might still have argued that they did not speak because they did not have company. Quite apart from the observation which Langer makes — that children talk to animals without sensing any incongruity (as adults do too!) — we have also the record in very recent times of the finding of two children who shared their strange childhood upbringing in the wild and still never spoke one word to each other. Moreover, every subsequent effort to teach the boy Victor the use of language failed conspicuously, and when the question is asked, Why did he fail, when others succeeded in part (though very inadequately), the answer seems to be in Langer’s own words, “Because he was already about twelve years old. . . .” In other words, when Victor was found, he had evidently passed the stage of development where he could learn a language, whereas the other children in varying degree, were still young enough to be taught at least a few words and expressions, though none of them developed into normal human beings.
We may draw a further conclusion from all this, therefore, that the capacity is latent in every child for the learning of a language, even in those who are reared in the wild, but this capacity does not guarantee that language will automatically arise of its own accord. On the contrary in each of the four children known to us, no language whatever did appear of its own accord. It was only after they were spoken to, that they spoke in turn, and even then only provided that the capacity for acquiring the faculty of thinking in words had not been outgrown and lost through lack of use. (28)
27. Langer, Susanne, Philosophy in a New Key, Mentor Books, New American Library, New York, 1952, p.87.
28. See J. W. Tomb, “On the Intuitive Capacity of Children to Understand Spoken Language,” British Journal of Psychiatry, vol.16, 1925, p.553-55.
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How Sounds Become Speech
Having arrived at this point, the question immediately arose as to whether it might be possible to teach animals to speak as men speak. We have already mentioned that the absence of speech among animals cannot be attributed to the absence of the secondary glosso-labial anatomical structures, for they have many phonetic elements which are also common to human languages. Granted that some of the sounds we make might be beyond the capacity of some animals, at least they ought to be able to reproduce a kind of dialect of their own. But they never do. It is felt that this must therefore be due to some lack in the brain. Formerly it was customary to assume that the essential difference in animal and human thinking processes was one merely of degree. But it seems now that it is one of kind rather. Briffault pointed out some years ago: (29)
Between the mental constitution of the rudest savages and that of any animal, including the anthropoids, there is a wide gap, and that gap consists of more than a difference of degree, it amounts to a difference in kind. Primarily that difference depends upon the conceptual character of human mentality.
It is this conceptual character in man permits speech. Again from the pen of Henri Bergson: (30)
The same impression arises when we compare the brain of man and that of the animals. The difference at first appears to be only a difference in size and complexity. But judging by function, there must be something else besides . . . . , between man and the animals the difference is no longer one of degree, but of kind.
Efforts have been made for years, and continue to be made, to open up lines of communication with animals. The prodigious and patient labours of the Kelloggs (1933), (31) Hayeses (1951), (32) Gardners (1967) (33) and Premack (1969) (34) have revealed some surprising facts. It is certain that animals do communicate with each other successfully, and man ought therefore to be able to establish contact by this means, as indeed he may with his horse or his dog. But apparently in those animals which seem therefore capable of understanding speech, they do not themselves have the capacity to speak. Such creatures as Premack’s chimpanzees did “talk” by signs, but vocalization has proved
29. Briffault, Robert, “Evolution of Human Species,” in The Making of Man, Modern Library, Random House, New York, 1931, p.762.
30. Bergson, Henri, Creative Evolution, Modern Library, Random House, New York, 1944, pp.200, 201.
31. Kellogg, W. N. and L. A., The Ape and the Child: A Study in Environmental Influence on Early Behaviour, McGraw Hill, New York, 1933.
32. Hayes, K. J. and C, The Ape in our House, Harper, Neew York 1951.
33. Gardner, R. A. and B. T., reported in an article, “Teaching Sign Language to a Chimpanzee,” Science, vol.165, 1969, p.664-672.
34. Premack, David, “Language in Chimpanzee?” Science, vol.172, 1971, p.802-822.
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quite beyond their physiological capacity thus far. By contrast, birds which can vocalize meaningfully to the hearer, seem nevertheless without the mind necessary to make their own vocalization meaningful to themselves. Birds have vocal organs adequate to the task but no mental equipment to make the capability useful to them. Other animals may have the mental equipment but no vocal organs adequate to communicate their thoughts usefully to men. (35) At the present time it does not seem that any animal communication system could possibly account for the human one. This is as Eric Lenneberg concluded:
The rather widespread belief that many animals have a language of a very primitive and limited kind (or that the animal pupils of English instruction can enter the first stage of language acquisition) is easily refuted by a comparison with man’s beginnings in language.
Animals do not speak, nor have they thus far been taught to speak, not because they lack the mechanical means, the muscles in the tongue and throat, etc., but evidently because they do not have the brain structure necessary to permit conceptual thought.
On the other hand, and this is of profound importance, a human being can be lacking in all the normal requirements for speech and yet, because of the structure of the brain, the mechanical and secondary handicaps can be overcome, and conversation be carried on at a very high level of abstraction. It would almost seem as though Providence were again at work in history, for we have two examples of individuals who were blind, deaf, and dumb, and yet who developed a high degree of understanding and education, one becoming an internationally famous spokesman for her fellow sufferers. Both the fact that such handicapped people could learn to communicate ideas and the circumstances surrounding the first steps by which they learned to speak at all, are of very great significance for our purposes. Moreover when it is found that both individuals passed from speechlessness to speech by the very same kind of process, it is a matter of considerable interest here.
The names of these two blind deaf-mutes are Helen Keller and Laura Bridgeman. Their story, in so far as it immediately concerns us, is best told in the words of their teachers and their own. It is desirable to comment that in the experience of both individuals, they had learned to tap out with their hands certain signs communicating needs as they arose. In the experience of both individuals a day came when the real meaning of these signs was discovered by each in turn.
Miss Sullivan, the teacher of Helen Keller, has recorded the exact
35. See the Doorway Paper, “Is Man an Animal?” Part V in Evolution or Creation?, vol.4 in The Doorway Papers Series.
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date on which the child began to understand the meaning and function of human language: (36)
I must write you a line this morning, because something very important has happened. Helen has taken the second great step in her education. She has learned that everything has a name and that the manual alphabet is the key to everything she wants to know.
This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for “water.” When she wants to know the name of anything, she points to it, and pats my hand. I spelled w-a-t-e r and thought no more about it until after breakfast. . . . [Later on], we went out to the pump house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled w-a-t-e-r in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “water” several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name, and pointed to the pump and trellis and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “teacher.” All the way back to the house she was highly excited and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary. The next morning she got up like a radiant fairy. She has flitted from object to object asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness. Every thing must have a name now. Wherever we go she asks eagerly for the names of things she has not learned at home. She is anxious for her friends to spell, and eager to teach the letters to everyone she meets. She drops the signs and pantomime she used before, as soon as she has words to supply their place, and the acquirement of a new word affords her the liveliest pleasure. And we notice that her face grows more expressive each day.
What a simple account this is, and yet how dramatic. It is almost like being present at the birth of a soul! And how significant do the names of things become. What this is to be called, and what that, is now of supreme importance, for the name of the thing is the thing itself. To possess the name is to possess the very object.
But we also have Helen’s own account of this experience: (37)
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by all the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water, and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over my hand she spelled into the other the word “water,” first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free. There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that in time could be swept away.
36. Sullivan, Anne M., in the Supplement to The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1905, p.315.
37. Keller, Helen, The Story of My Life, ref.36, pp.23, 24.
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I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange new sight that had come to me.
It seems presumptuous to attempt to interpret Helen’s experience, as it would be foolish for a blind man to describe the colour of a sunset. But it appears that Helen realized for the first time that w-a-t-e-r was not a sequence of taps indicating her need, but a substance which stood apart from her need, though it could also supply it. It stood apart from her need, objectively — it was the substance in its own objective existence. W-a-t-e-r was not her supply, but water, whether from the pump or in a cup, or in the rain, or in a stream. Naturalists often remark that one of the chief delights of a walk in the country is that they can identify the plants and animals of which they know the name. When we know the name, in some peculiar way we understand the nature of a thing. It is this kind of conviction which prompted Moses to ask God His name. To most primitive people a name is most secret, for when one has obtained the name of a person, one has obtained a peculiar power over him. Indeed if a child in its first few months, turns out to be constantly unwell, the Chukchee of Siberia believe it has been given the wrong name, and they will change it. The Eskimo do not believe the child has a soul until it has a name, and thus no murder is involved in infanticide so long as the child is still unnamed. Recently there is on record the case of a child in a psychiatric ward who having reached a certain point in her recovery, decided to change her name; and no one could persuade her to retain the name she formerly had. (38) It is strange how often names suit people, and yet it is obvious that the name is given before the personality is developed to match it. Edward Sapir remarked on this: (39)
Language is heuristic . . . in that its forms predetermine for us certain modes of observation and interpretation. . . There is a widespread feeling, particularly among primitive people, of that virtual identity or close correspondence of words and things which leads to the magic of spells. . . . Many lovers of nature, for instance, do not feel that they are truly in touch with it until they have mastered the names of a great many flowers and trees, as though the primary world of reality were a verbal one and as though one could not get close to nature unless one first mastered the terminology which somehow magically expresses it.
Cassirer gives us the record of Laura Bridgeman’s experience: (40)
38. Bettelheim, Bruno, “Schizophrenic Art: A Case Study,” Scientific American, 1952, p.31ff.
39. Article on “Language,” in Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, Macmillan, New York, 1933, p. 57. See also Arthur Custance “What’s in a Name?”, Part IV in The Flood: Local or Global?, vol.9 in The Doorway Papers Series.
40. Casserer, Ernst, ref.12, p. 37. He quotes Miss Drew, her teacher (p.35): “I shall never forget,” writes Miss Drew, “the first meal taken after she appreciated the use of the finger-alphabet. Every article she touched must have a name and I was obliged to call one to help me wait upon the other children while she kept me busy in spelling new words” (See Mary Swift Lamson Life and Education of Laura Bridgeman, the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Girl, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1881, pp.7ff.).
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Long before Laura Bridgeman had learned to speak, she had developed a very curious mode of expression, a language of her own. This language did not consist of articulated sounds but only of various noises which are described as “emotional noises.” She was in the habit of uttering these sounds in the presence of certain persons. Thus they became entirely individualized. Every person in her environment was greeted by a special noise. “Whenever she met an acquaintance unexpectedly,” writes Dr. Lieber, “I found that she repeatedly uttered the word for that person before she began to speak. It was the utterance of pleasurable recognition.” But when by means of the finger alphabet the child had grasped the meaning of human language the case was altered. Now the sound really became a name; and this name was not bound to an individual person but could be changed if the circumstances seemed to require it. One day, for instance, Laura Bridgeman had a letter from her former teacher, Miss Drew, who, in the meantime by her marriage had become Mrs. Morton. In this letter she was invited to visit her teacher. This gave her great pleasure, but she found fault with Miss Drew because she had signed the letter with her old name instead of using the name of her husband. She even said that now she must find another noise for her teacher, as the one for Miss Drew must not be the same as that for Mrs. Morton. It is clear that the former “noises” have here undergone an important and very interesting change in meaning. They are no longer special utterances, inseparable from a particular concrete situation. They have become abstract names. For the new name invented by the child did not designate a new individual, but the same individual in a new relationship.
Laura Bridgeman subsequently studied arithmetic and geography, and actually became a successful teacher of others who were both blind and deaf, and like Helen Keller she manifestly lived an amazingly full, interesting, and genuinely enjoyable life.
From both these instances there is much to learn. In the first place, there seems to be some form of inborn capacity to make emotional noises, and this is shared by animals. That this is not dependent upon mimic is evident from the fact that animals brought up in entire isolation make all the ordinary cries and calls of their species, although trained animals and domesticated animals, develop certain additional sounds or variant cries. It is generally held, for example, that dogs only bark when domesticated, howling only when entirely wild. The second thing that we may note is that both girls developed an entirely different, and it may be said specifically human personality, once they had acquired genuine speech. Moreover, in the initial stages of this acquisition, it was a hunger for the names of things which most rapidly built up the power of
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speech, and not the desire to understand the things they could name.
This is characteristic of all children. Dr. David Major wrote in this connection: (41)
By the beginning of the twenty-third month, our child had developed a mania for going about naming things, as if to tell others their names or to call our attention to the things examined. He would look at, point towards, or put his hand on an article, speak its name, then look at his companions.
Commenting on this, Cassirer remarked:
The hunger for names which at a certain age appears in every normal child and which has been described by all students of child psychology proves . . . that he learns to form the concepts of those objects, to come to terms with the objective world.
Henceforth the child stands on firmer ground. His vague uncertain fluctuating perceptions and his dim feelings begin to assume a new shape. They may be said to crystallize around the name as a fixed center, a focus of thought. Without the help of the name, every new advance made in the progress of objectification would always run the risk of being lost again the next moment.
As Eric Lenneberg points out, (42) in Greece in the period of Classical philosophy, the relationship of the name of a thing to the thing named was the focal point of discussions on language. The question was, Did the object predetermine the name in some way? But the object can hardly do this since different languages appoint to it their own identifying tags appropriate to their world-view as a language. In his dialogue Cratyles, Plato (427-347 B.C.) sought a solution to this relationship of name and thing, but his answers do not really clarify the problem today and certainly we are no nearer solving the problem of origins for ourselves.
So Who Did Speak First?
The question still remains for us, as we consider this extraordinary and long overlooked or minimized trait of human nature, Where and how did it all begin? We have the case of two Indian children, Amala and Kamala, neither of whom had spoken one word between them, although they shared each other’s company. Reverting back to the very first pair, whom we may most reasonably refer to as Adam and Eve for purposes of identification, who or what first induced them to talk to one another?
41. Major, David, First Steps in Mental Growth, Macmillan, New York, 1906, p.321.
42. Lenneberg, Eric, ref.6, p.445.
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Names stand for processes, and knowing the name seems to deceive us into thinking we understand the process. Those committed to the evolutionary origin of man must fall back upon the use of a magic word for the appearance of the special kind of brain man has which makes speech possible for him. They tell us it was a “mutation” of some sort! And there we have the whole “explanation.” But even if a name were an explanation, they still have not told us who spoke first to start the process off, nor are we told what kind of a conversation would be most probable — though we might have guessed by now that the one who began the process must be one who was other than Adam and Eve, and prior to them and must already have been a speaking person. And we might have guessed too that the first words would have to be a list of the names of things.
In the first chapter of Genesis we are constantly told that “God said . . .” and not merely that God did. (43) Moreover in the creation of man a peculiar change takes place in the narrative, for having noted the recurrent phrase “Let the sea bring forth” or “Let the earth bring forth,” as though directions were given to that which is inanimate to obey the word thus spoken, when the creation of man is in view, we are immediately presented with a conversation in heaven. (44) That God was not speaking to the heavenly host of angels when He said, “Let us make man . . .” is clear from the fact that man was to be made in His image, and after His likeness. This surely means that man was made in the likeness of God, and not in the likeness of the angels. When God therefore said, “Let us make man in our image . . .” He was not addressing Himself to the angels at all. This conversation was therefore originated and carried on within the Godhead. He who first spoke to Adam was God, who had already been conversing about him.
What follows in the story is of real importance. Any thoughtful reader must surely be struck by the frequency with which the idea of “naming” things occurs in this early record. In some books one finds the glossary of terms at the end. Although they are needed at the beginning, it is discouraging to find oneself faced with such a list before some interest has been aroused in the subject matter. But in this instance, and for reasons which are obvious in the light of what we now know of the faculty of speech which man was given, the meaning of the first words and the names of the ordinary phenomena about which God wished to inform Adam, were given to him in some detail. Thus a name is given to the heavens, and to the earth, making more specific the general reference to them in Genesis 1:1. It is as though God had said, “Now I wish to tell you about these phenomena, and henceforth therefore we will refer to the sky as heaven, and to the soil upon which you stand as earth, to the
43. Genesis 1:3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 14, 20, 22 and 24.
44. Genesis 1:26.
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light as day and the darkness as night, to the waters as sea, the atmosphere as the firmament, and we will name the rivers, and the sun and the moon, and even the stars.” Then two trees are singled out and given compound names, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Then Adam received his own name. But there is a break in the narrative at this point. Having established a frame of reference, Adam was now invited to speak for himself. (45) Most of us like to name our own pets. Part of the commission given to Adam was that he should govern the animals, and it was natural therefore that he should be invited to name them for himself. None of them had any name up till then, and thus with artless simplicity the record says that whatever Adam called any creature, that was thenceforth its name.
Now we are not told how he named them. We do not know whether he was guided by their colour, size, shape, or the cries they made. But what followed this naming ceremony seems to imply that there was a more significant reason for giving him the task. There are some who believe that Adam was merely one of many such representatives of man-like creatures, perhaps a special Homo sapiens singled out by the Creator who had then given him the benefit of a unique spirit. But the record seems in a remarkable manner to go out of its way to make it clear that Adam was the only man alive at that time. In Genesis 2:5, we are told that “there was not a man to till the ground.” In Genesis 2:18, we are told that God had remarked “It was not good that man should be alone.” In Genesis 2:20, we are told that “there was not found a companion for him.” And finally in Genesis 3:20, it is stated that Eve became the mother of all living. It seems clear from the wording of Genesis 2:18-23, that God wanted Adam to discover for himself that he could never find among the lower forms of life a suitable companion in his loneliness. It seems manifest too, that if Adam had been a slouching half-ape creature God might well have brought to him other creatures little different from himself of the primate stock, which might have sufficed for his half-intelligent mind as an appropriate mate. However, with proper insight, Adam gave to each animal brought to him a name by which he signified in some way his reaction and his evaluation of its relative position with respect to himself.
That this is so seems clear when one reads what followed this naming process, for, removed into a state of unconsciousness, perhaps tired by the exercise of judgment in such a critical matter, Adam is “divided” and from himself is taken a true help-meet. Awakening
45. Genesis 2:19.
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from this sleep, and quite probably still supposing that the process of naming must continue, he is presented with this creature in whom he instantly recognizes a true help-meet, and a very part of himself.
The whole story is so simply written and so profound in its insight into the nature of speech and the forms which it first takes in childhood, and the true significance of the use of names for things, that it is almost as though God had cast the record in such a form deliberately that it might shed its own light on one of the profoundest of all mysteries. At any rate it is the only light we have. There is no other from any other source.
Susanne Langer made a significant admission therefore when she wrote: (46)
Language though normally learned in infancy without compulsion or formal training, is nonetheless a product of sheer learning, an art handed down from generation to generation, and where there is no teacher there is no learning. . .
This throws us back upon an old and mystifying problem. If we find no prototype of speech in the highest animals, and man will not say even the first word by instinct, then how did all his tribes acquire their various languages? Who began the art which now we have to learn? And why is it not restricted to the cultured races, but possessed by every primitive family from darkest Africa to the loneliness of the polar ice? Even the simplest of practical arts, such as clothing, cooking, or pottery, is found wanting in one human group or another, or at least found to be very rudimentary. Language is neither absent nor archaic in any of them.
The problem is so baffling that it is no longer considered respectable.
At the risk of over-loading a Paper already more than a little weighted down with quotations, valuable as they are, I cannot refrain from one last one by Roger Brown in his Words and Things who sums the situation up very effectively by writing: (47)
Neither feral nor isolated man creates his own language these days, but must not such a man have done so once in some prehistoric time and so got language started? Actually the circumstances in which language must have begun represent a combination for which we can provide no instances.
We have animals among animals, animals in linguistic communities, and humans among animals; but in none of these cases does language develop. We have humans raised in linguistic communities and in these circumstances language does develop. What about a human born into a human society that has no language? We don’t know of any such societies, and so we don’t know of any such individuals. But these must have been the circumstances of language origination.
46. Langer, Susanne, ref.27, pp.87, 88.
47. Brown, Roger, Words and Things, Free Press, Collier-Macmillan, London, 1968, p.192.
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Revelation is all that remains to us, and that revelation has been set forth in clear simple terms. God spoke to Adam first. And in due time Adam learned to speak with God. This is the unique relationship which man has with God, the capacity for conscious fellowship and communication, and all that these imply.
For this fellowship he was created, and without it he is like a feral child, an orphan and terribly alone. To communicate with others is necessary for the generation of a soul in the personal sense of the term. To communicate with God it is necessary for that soul to be truly alive, and this kind of communication involves a fellowship based upon a true reconciliation between God and man.
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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
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