Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Animal Crackers

This is in my head and I think I need to get it out before I can continue doing monsters.

Sub-scientific rambling and nothing to do with RPG's below


Thinking about animals and language has lead me to believe, or more truly to suspect, that the observation of animals formed the basis of human language.

Arguing with Noisms a few weeks ago he said (if I remember correctly) that no language can exist without syntax. I understood this as:- For the ceaseless flow of natural experience to be divided into abstracted parts and used to communicate, then there must be a structure within which to arrange these parts. (this may not be what he meant)

I am assuming a specific pattern of development for human language. I have read about the transformation from oral to written communication. Patterns of oral and written remembering and abstraction interact as one method slowly supersedes the other. Written culture grows within oral culture and uses it's patterns. Eventually, like a thing escaping a petri dish, it explodes and becomes the dominant pattern of memory. They way we write changes the way we speak. They swap places and, instead of oral culture having written culture inside it, a written world carries a fading oral tracery in stuff like music and patterns of humour. Once, the song would have outweighed the bureaucratic form as a symbol of authority and intent, literally. Now its the other way around.

So I imagine a similar exchange with movement. I think oral culture took over from a movement culture. I do not mean a culture of sign language and silence, but one in which the way you move carries the dominant information and the sound you make goes along on top to add inflection and mild precision.

I think we learnt our movement-words and syntax from animals because they occupy a special position in our world.

To provide this syntax a phenomena must be clearly definable against the endless flow of natural life. Weather and trees and seas and stars and the sun all move but they do not carry the right kind of information for humans to pick out and use.

I believe other people also fail to carry the right information. We are too close to ourselves and each other. We burn too brightly in the mind for us to reduce ourselves to abstracts. We are also irregular. You cant make a regular language by observing an intelligent being who is also observing you at the same time. Its too complex. We did not draw human forms for a long long time after we started painting animals. We did not make human faces for a long time after that. It that because humanity was not important to us? I think the inner lives and presence of other people swam in our vision like a flame held to close to the face. We could not see it.

Animals. We were close to them. We observed them. Needed them. Our ability to track and persistence-hunt meant we had a complex theory-of-mind for them which was reinforced by hunting success. They are distinct from the flow of nature. Clearly their own thing. And they move. They move in particular ways, in particular patterns. They repeat the patterns again and again. Mimicking thee patterns comes naturally to use. Those mirror-neurones designed for social development can be hacked to mirror other things.

Each animal has a kind of active language embodied in its movements. Watching a lion hunt is like seeing a sentence encoded in space and time. You do not know exactly what will happen but you know the pattern. It will end only two ways. A predictable series of signs.

I imagine early humans learning the hunting movements of a lion, mimicking them before the group, and then abruptly, right at the end, just at the 'lion' is about to pounce, substituting the signature move of some other creature. The lion leaps and turns into a bird. The bird nests and has chicks. It flies off and picks up an elephant to feed to them. Like a kind of kinetic joke. Mixing and matching well known kinetic signs to describe something that could never happen in the original arrangements of those signs.

So it would go:-

Natural flow> Movement>sounds/music/language>written word>?


  1. Rrrrrrronto-BOSH!!!!!

    Teeeeglo CARbon!

  2. I think that the part that complicates all of this is that there is a biological component of language. Our evolutionary ancestors and relatives didn't have the brains or bodies to use language like we do today. It may not be that natural flow begets movement begets sound/music/language, but that those things happened in that order because whatever human ancestor was around at that time didn't have the cognition to do anything more. So like, one of our most distant ancestors could only handle natural flow, but the next species that arose had the physiological equipment for communication through movement, and then the next species had sounds/music/language, just because it had the brain and body for it.

    I'm not sure about the progression from natural flow to written word. Writing systems are not the default for language, and I do not know that it is inevitable that languages acquire them.

  3. There definitely is a biological component to language. I was thinking of the whole process taking place in genetically-coherent humans. We became anotomically modern about 200,000 years ago and behavioraly modern (language, symbols) about 50,000 years ago. So theres 150,000 years where we dont know much about what happened.

    There is a grand mutation theory, that something got 'switched on' in out heads. And there is the 'slowly learning stuff' theory, and a bunch in between.

    But whichever one is true, at some point someone had to actually learn something. Genes can allow language but they (probably) cant make it on thier own.

    I doubt my bullshit theory is true with a capital T. But I think it may well turn out to be part of the truth.