Why Do We Speak?

Why Do We Speak?

As has often been remarked, language is a rare biological accomplishment. It is not spread widely across the animal world and took billions of years to evolve. I am referring here to communicative speech not the cognitive machinery that underlies human linguistic competence (which may be directed more towards the use of language as an aid to thought). I want to know why we spend so much time and energy chatting, speechifying, conversing, and asserting—that avalanche of speech acts. The question is pressing because most animals get by without speech, or only rudimentary forms of speech (signaling, directing, expressing). Why do we humans talk so much? After all, speech is costly: the brain has to use up energy in order to speak, which imposes metabolic demands. So, our question might better be put as why most animals don’t speak—why do they get on perfectly well without the incessant communicating. The first thing to say is that speaking supplies information: it gives the hearer knowledge, remedies his ignorance, enables his learning. That is the purpose of speech, its function and rationale. It presupposes relevant ignorance—that the hearer doesn’t know what he or she needs to know. Evidently, animals don’t experience this problem: they don’t need assertions by others (teaching, instructing) in order to function biologically (survive, reproduce). They know by instinct or individual learning (sometimes with a bit of parental nudging) what to do when. Plants need no verbal instruction on how to live their lives, and neither do bacteria, worms, reptiles, and most mammals. So, why do we? If we knew the answer to that, we would know why we speak—speaking being a means of instruction. What is the cause of our relevant ignorance?

Suppose you live in a small social group in an environment that is pretty uniform and predictable—as it might be, the corner of some jungle or other. You never go anywhere far from home and you never meet anyone new. Everything you need to know can be picked up by direct experience plus a dose of instinct. You don’t use sophisticated tools or cooperate much with other people on large construction projects. Then, you really don’t have much use for language, because you know what you need to know. If anyone were to offer to tell you something, you would say (or think) “Yes, I know that”. You would regard it as a waste of your valuable time to be listening to the verbal reports of others about where such-and-such is or what to do about a so-and-so. Nor would you feel any desire to tell other people things—you know that they know already. In such circumstances, speech would not evolve—what would be the point? You would be like a mollusk or a marmot—literally speechless. But imagine that you had cause to move, to travel, to migrate—to go far away, to distant lands, where things are different. You and your group relocate to somewhere completely new, requiring quite different practical knowledge, where your old knowledge will not cut it survival-wise. Suppose, indeed, that you become rootless, nomadic, forever changing your environment. Then speech would become an asset: you can learn a lot from your fellow man by listening to what he or she has to say. Each person in the group may possess information not possessed by everyone, and this would be a valuable characteristic—he who knows most and can communicate it becomes a valued member of society. It might be a matter of life and death: where the food and water are to be found, what trees make the best huts, where the predators lurk, etc. Language solves (or helps to solve) the relevant ignorance problem. Natural selection then begins its patient work; and before you know it, human speech has achieved its mature form, to be exploited for less practical ends too. So, the reason humans speak and other animals don’t is that humans have traveled all over the globe for many thousands of years, occupying new habitats, learning local facts, and communicating these facts to each other. And, of course, we know that this happened: from Africa to the Arctic, from Norway to England, from Manchester to Liverpool—always encountering new conditions and challenges. The gypsy is the original speaker. Stay-at-homes tend to stay mum. Language is all about geographical education, originally and primitively.[1]

But isn’t there an obvious objection to this story–what about migratory animals, like birds, bison, and whales? They don’t have anything like human language and yet they yearly find themselves in fresh and contrasting environments. So, the migration story can’t be sufficient for language (though it may be necessary). Here we run up against the complexities of evolution, its multi-factor nature. First, it is notable that birds and whales are more verbal than most animals: they have elaborate communication systems, some more than others. Second, the variations in their environment are relatively limited and fixed—nothing like human exploration and variety in modes of living. Third, there is another factor at work in addition to the multiple environment problem, namely the relatively long maturation period of human childhood. Human children require lengthy instruction over many years before they can survive independently, so they need more verbal coaching and guidance than other animal offspring. They need an education in a more or less formal sense. Without a verbal education they would be much slower to develop the skills and knowledge necessary for survival. The family accordingly becomes a linguistic unit—the source of educational speech. Human children have a lot to learn about both the physical and social environment, and this would be difficult without language as a means of learning. Transporting children to a new home (biological niche) poses a significant challenge to parents; they need language to meet that educational challenge. Whales face a similar problem, though not as severe as in the case of humans, and it is notable that they have a relatively sophisticated system of communication, thus confirming the migration theory. Mark, however, that language is rare in the animal kingdom—it doesn’t evolve simply because it is nice to have, or the reason for species dominance; for it imposes significant costs that have be borne by the animal’s brain and vocal organs. There has to be a clear reason for it to take root and grow—an adaptive demand that it meets. And the demand has to be specific and necessary—as the migration theory (the diaspora theory) recognizes. Humans are uniquely widespread and environmentally adaptable, and also uniquely linguistic: the two things go together. They go together because they are connected: the former explains the latter. The explanation has nothing to do with such facts as that humans have “big brains” or “enquiring minds” or “complicated thoughts”; it has to do with a basic fact of human physical evolution, viz. inter-continental travel. We are the globe-trotting species and therefore the speaking species, the exploring species and therefore the fact-stating species. We rely on each other’s speech in order to navigate the alien territories that we encounter on our travels. We wander; therefore, we communicate. If we stayed boringly at home, we would remain silent, except for the odd sigh or grunt, because there would be nothing worth talking about, nothing new and interesting to report. Meaningful speech requires novelty, presupposes ignorance, and aims for enlightenment. Knowledge is thus the enemy of language—that is, generally shared knowledge. Language requires asymmetries of knowledge, and they arise when novel things have to be learned. Travel, as they say, broadens the mind—and it gives you something important to talk about. Sitting around the same campfire every night with the same old people provides little in the way of lively topics of conversation: “I saw a new rat today” will only get you so far in the conversation game. And remember that a trait like language will only be selected by evolution if it serves some vital purpose; otherwise, it is an energy suck. Humans could only survive in new environments if they acquired the ability to talk about them, the better to tame them. The basic speech act is: “You’ll never guess what I saw today”.

Language is like clothing. Back there in old Africa there was little need for clothing, given the temperatures, but colder climates call for heavier garments. As humans spread out across the globe, clothes became a necessary tool of survival; so, they were invented. Other animals don’t bother, though a change of habitat can prove lethal. Humans dress because they travel—because they have come from somewhere far away with a different climate. They are the only species to do so. Clothing didn’t evolve because of a taste for fashion but because changes of geographical location necessitated it. We dress because we live in environments that differ from the environment in which the human race initially evolved (a tropical climate). Of course, clothes take on new functions and meanings once they have been adopted, but their initial biological rationale arises from survival requirements under conditions of diaspora. Novelty of environment, occasioned by travel, is the trigger and shaper of the new adaptation. No doubt these acquisitions (speech and dress) were gradual and halting; people didn’t start dressing and speaking overnight. They are still being refined and perfected. But they didn’t happen in a vacuum; they were driven by the need to adapt to the variegated planet on which we live and move. Clothing arose because people were too cold without it; speech arose because people were too ignorant without it. Cold new worlds led to dressing and speaking; to put it simply, it was Europe that did it. Did our distant ancestors (say, Homo erectus) speak in Africa before they spread to other continents? The migration hypothesis suggests they did not, or not much, but it is hard to say. Maybe our prehistoric ancestors were contentedly taciturn, secure in their familiar world, locally omniscient, not in need of updates and news reports. That is how apes seem to us today (not that we evolved from any of these species)—quietly going about their business with only the most rudimentary linguistic skills. But perhaps our ancestors were actually quite chatty, if they had arrived from somewhere else in Africa, or were still adjusting to life on the ground after their descent from trees. I see the human race as accelerating their pace of language development as they reached new destinations with different wildlife, different predators, different weather patterns, different land elevations—then they became really loquacious. They excitedly report what they have seen that day to their curious neighbors. That was when human nature, as we know it today, was forged—clothes, speech, endless learning, perpetual restlessness. We are deracinated creatures in our essence. We talk because we are of no fixed abode.[2]

[1] A consequence of this emphasis on travel and geography is that space and time will have a central place in language (a Kant-Strawson theme): what we primarily talk about will be places, what is at them, and how long it takes to get from A to B (not sense data and the like). Our linguistic scheme will be fundamentally spatiotemporal. Call this naturalized (biologized) linguistics.

[2] Some say that we are essentially rational, some that we are essentially free, some that we are essentially warlike, some that we are essentially sinful; I say that we are essentially homeless. This is our great anxiety, but also our great strength, the reason for our species dominance. It makes us able to boldly go where no other animal has been before. Without language that would not be possible. Language is the adaptation that permitted unlimited geographical dispersal.

Share
5 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    One could extend your suggestion to the context of finding oneself in a new social environment. Joining a new social group as well as trying to rejoin a group one had been ostracised from could presumably be facilitated by talking. Or, in less binary terms, if one is heading towards the fringe of a social group, one could try to talk one’s way back towards the centre. Odds would fair better for a conventional human than for an elephant that is heading towards being ostracised.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I agree. Informants about the ways of an alien social group would be particularly useful to someone wanting to be in harmony with that group. Without such informants it would be hard to ascertain the relevant facts by oneself. This would apply to taking up residence in a foreign country.

      Reply
      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        I like the idea, find it romantic in fact, that fringe dwellers (those living on the edges of tribes, who were forced to move between tribes) played a real evolutionary role in the development of language capacity. I say this knowing that one could argue against such a view given fringe dwellers would have less opportunity for daily chit chat.

        Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.