Ok, enough speaking in parables. My point is that communication is not the same thing as language, and even complex economic transactions can be successfully carried out with only communication and no language.
And that's why I'm not a big fan of this TED Talk by Mark Pagel, called How language transformed humanity.
I think his introduction is far too simplistic, especially with regards to his passing comments about language acquisition. He says
"Just imagine the sense of wonder in a baby when it first discovers that merely by uttering a sound, it can get objects to move across a room, as if by magic, and maybe into its mouth."It is obvious that there must be more to the secret sauce of language acquisition than that. Even Nim Chimpsky was able to work out that by merely waving his hands around, he could get things into his mouth. Just read his quotations: Wikipedia/Nim Chimpsky/Quotations. But Nim never acquired language.
There's also something strangely self defeating about his entire evolutionary argument. He seems to say that humans evolved language as a means to the end of creating large, modern societies. I'm sure he doesn't really think it worked like that. Evolution isn't goal oriented, and he's a biologist. Anyway, the last part of his talk is devoted to the "problem" of language diversity, and how we use it to build barriers between populations. The whole talk, laid out in one sentence, becomes:
Humans evolved language in order to encourage cooperation and to build large societies, but then, we actually used it to build divisions between population groups, and that's a problem because of globalization.How on earth could language be failing at the very goal for which it was apparently evolved?
Now, I'm not saying the world would be exactly the same if there was no language. We probably wouldn't have an iPhone, as Pagel playfully illustrated in his talk. But how much language do we really need to achieve the goal of a large society, and arrive at iPhone? Does language really need to be recursive? If we couldn't say
- I know [that you hate me].
- Whati did you see the man who bought ti
These are technical properties of language I'm talking about. They may seem like little details, but they're actually very fundamental to very nature of language. And it's almost impossible to connect them directly to the evolutionary story Mark Pagel is telling. All that story needs is some means of communication, but says nothing about why we have the specific system of language that we do, out of all the possible systems that could have existed.
Needless to say, linguists never concern themselves with questions like "is the evolutionary consequence of high applicatives an iPhone?" and good thing too.