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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

The Power of Words

Perrin Braun

Communication and language are not always synonymous. Gesticulations and facial expression can convey certain messages that often make verbal expression unnecessary. Although I appreciate the endless possibilities that are associated with speaking, our primary means of communication, I have discovered that the human capacity for speech might not be as extremely innate as the linguist Noam Chomsky claimed. A few years ago, I had the privilege of encountering a thirty-five year-old woman named Joann at a summer camp for adults with multiple disabilities. Being extremely autistic, Joann was unable to close her mouth, let alone form distinguishable words. Instead of talking, her principal method of communication was to make clicks and guttural noises when she was upset or wanted something. Unlike the case of Genie, who was reared in a small room without human contact, Joann and many other autistic people are not raised in silence and should have theoretically learned to talk (as per Chomsky's theory). The camp counselors encouraged Joann's attempts at speech and tried to build her verbal skills, but they were never able to progress beyond monosyllabic words. Why wasn't she able to speak and why did they fail?
To a certain extent, language is innate, but Daniel Dennett trivialized the depth and complexity of linguistics. He wrote, "'s so effortless...for even 'slow' children to learn to speak. They aren't really learning at all, any more than birds learn their feathers. Language, and feathers, just develop in species..." (Dennett 388). This generalization is horribly arrogant and unfair to people like Joann, for whom any form of verbal communication is hardly 'effortless.' I think that some form of learning and shaping in the brain does occur, though most of it probably results from human interaction and constant verbal absorption. Genie was never able to learn how to properly talk and was rendered verbally impotent by her silent environment, but according to Dennett, shouldn't she have been able to learn? However, Joann did seem to be able to understand what was being said to her, though she was not capable of responding since she was able to comprehend and follow simple directions. Even some of the most autistic people in the camp were able to recognize when someone was talking to them, which confirms the innateness of oral comprehension, but not speaking. Understanding and talking are not interchangeable, so a clarification is needed in order to distinguish the two. I sometimes have moments in which a "verbal freeze" occurs, in which I have a thought that I can't manage to verbalize. Perhaps Joann lives in a constant state where she is unable to express what she is thinking—the thought processes are there, but the language is not. If this is true, then the capacity for language is innate, but cannot be so simply accessed in all people.
Therefore, is it possible for Joann to think without using language? Are language and thought somehow linked? For our Neanderthal and early human forbearers, verbal communication probably consisted of a series of grunts and gestures and language as we know it today subsequently ensued. Thus, did thought precede language? Our ancestors were able to create fire without words, which displays some form of intellect, but I think that language is somewhat more of a superficial indication of thought than a sign of intelligence. I believe that emotions are the foundation of speech and are the predecessors of our words. For example, an infant is not able to articulate that he is angry or frightened, but he can cry when comfort is desired. However, it is only when they get older and has developed their language skills that they can verbally label their emotion as 'anger' or 'fear.' Joann has been developmentally trapped within that infant stage, for she has proven herself able to think and feel via her actions (such as vehemently nodding) and facial expressions, but cannot express how she is feeling. Dennett
discusses the notion of language as an adaptation and I believe that this is true, for humans would not be able to construct such a complex society without some form of communication. An adaptation implies that something existed before; namely, emotion and thought, which are even more innate than language.
However, Joann could have been using verbal communication. She often uttered clicks and guttural noises when she opened her mouth, which might have indicated a basic form of speech. Currently linguistic research suggests that our early ancestors depended on similar clicks to communicate and that such noises were the first language. Clicks are currently used by a few groups of tribal Africans and aboriginal Australians, some of which do not use any verbal sounds at all. Interestingly enough, some researchers believe that click languages died out when humans moved from being hunter-gatherers to agrarian farmers, which coincides with the notion of language as a societal adaptation (Pennisi 1319-20). Infants and small children often make clicks which seem to be precursors to language, but these noises become assimilated into more concrete words as their lingual skills develop. Clicks still remain human speech, but are indications of emotion (like disgust) rather than conveying a certain message. Joann's clicks all sounded the same to me, but was she in fact uttering a language similar to that of the tribal groups? Since clicks were supposedly the first human language, Joann theoretically could be speaking or trying to covey some message when she makes those utterances, as if she had completely bypassed the evolution of clicks into words.
It has been suggested by psychologists that there is a "critical period" for language acquisition which theorizes that children lose the capacity to readily absorb new languages by the end of their toddler years. The fact that children are able to learn new languages so quickly shows that to some extent, language is innate, but speech is not acquired so easily. Joann will
probably never be able to speak like other people, but there exists the possibility of her understanding much more than Dennett would give her credit for.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Simon and Schuster: New York, 1995.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. "The First Language?" Science 27 Feb. 2004: 1319-1320.

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