Notes on Language and the Semiotic Revolution

Some draft notes in connection to my recent article, to be worked out into proper articles:

The case of the Piraha language (see, for example, shows that a simple culture can do without a lot of the logico-semantic machinery that was long thought to be both universal and essential. “…Piraha˜ culture constrains communication to nonabstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of interlocutors. This constraint explains a number of very surprising features of Piraha˜ grammar and culture: the absence of numbers of any kind or a concept of counting and of any terms for quantification, the absence of color terms, the absence of embedding, the simplest pronoun inventory known, the absence of “relative tenses,” the simplest kinship system yet documented, the absence of creation myths and fiction, the absence of any individual or collective memory of more than two generations past, the absence of drawing or other art…”

It seems likely that the ancestors of this small group probably had a more elaborate language and that this language might be the result of some process of simplification (maybe caused by cultural factors, maybe by a desaster that was survived only by some children, I don’t know) and is not a remnant from an earlier time, but it is interesting that the human brain is capable of so simple a culture and language that is laking all of these things. For example, there is no universal quantification in Piraha (i.e. no possibility to express sentences about all instances of some set, like “All people are mortal”. This indicates that universal quantification (for example) is not “hard-wired” into our brains. It is part of our culture. If that is so, it must have been invented at some point in history. (I think Kant thought of it as something a priori, and Hamann thought Kant was wrong because we get it through language – to be explored in more detail…).

If such semantic or logical devices are not genetically hard-wired into our nervous systems, they must have been historically invented at some point and are completely part of culture, and there must have been a time when all human cultures and languages where as simple as the one of the Piraha, or even simpler. So the “semiotic revolution” that seems to show up in the archaeological record, a sudden increase in the complexity of cultures (around 100.000 years ago in southern Africa and then spreading) could have been a completely cultural development.

Anthropologists often seem to asume that it was a biological/genetic change. The assumption seems to be that cognition evolved biologically step by step, with genetic changes in the brain enabling hominids to think in novel ways. Instead, the bulk of this development could have been completely cultural. Once a certain intelligence threshold is passed (at a far earlier point in time, I think even before the development of Home Erectus), language is invented and then bit by bit, new semantic and syntactic constructs are (culturally) invented. During this development, the cognitive capabilities, i.e. the range and types of thoughts that where possible, where extended, not by biological changes but by cultural inventions. At some point (and this might well have been the invention of universal quantification) cognition became markedly more complex because the expressive power of language increased.

The Piraha show that this is possible. The assumption that these changes where genetic then turns out to be pure speculation. It is just as well possible the semiotic revolution was purely cultural. There is also no reason to believe that other populations of humans (e.g. the Neanderthals or the Denisovians) had inferior cognitive abilities in genetic terms. They might have had simpler cultures. And the fact that they mixed with the people coming out of Africa indicates that it does not make much sense to view them as separate species. (The assumption that these where separate “species” then appears totaly arbitrary and a remnant of 19th century “scientific” racism).


2 thoughts on “Notes on Language and the Semiotic Revolution

  1. My husband wrote a book about language and truth (I’m not sure if this is correct, but I believe the title was “Truth, Meaning, and Generosity”). It was never published, but in it he does a thought experiment in which he imagines the first time someone used language. Whatever was said, whether it be a grunt or a shout or whatever, would necessarily point to the immediate circumstances. For instance, if a group of people are sitting around and a predator comes around and is visible, the utterance would most likely be interpreted to mean, “There’s a predator! Watch out!” The circumstance of those listening would determine the meaning. The most salient feature would be the object. So, “Wahhhh!” (or whatever), would necessarily be confined to the salient feature of the environment in order for language to occur. Mixups about the salient feature would make “Wahhh” nothing more than a sound.

    The point is that truth runs ahead of language, not vice versa (as some suggest). So there must be a universal component to any language, although not in the sense you’re talking about, such as “All men are mortal.” But abstraction must happen on some level, although the precision of the abstraction would have to be honed.


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