A Second Look Back – Part 1

Although I have listed these before, I want to make sure that they stay fresh in readers’ minds while look at this and other posts.  So here are the questions and the elements of measurement that I will continue to address and reference.

The Questions:

1. What is measurement?

2. How is it done?

3. How did it develop, when and why?

4  Why is it so important: what is the function of measuring?

5. Is it being used appropriately?

The Elements:

  • Measurement is a social activity, in that measurement is not usually for one person only
  • Measurement is done to something (object, process, performance) in order to capture some characteristic of that something, for comparison, communication or replication
  • There must be sufficient language to communicate the measurement of that something’s characteristic(s), not just the words but the concepts behind the words
  • A way to record or capture the measurement of that something beyond language, such as writing, symbolic marks, numerical system, etc.
  • Scales against which to compare the measurement, either previous measurements done in a similar fashion or perhaps, some standards

This post is principally devoted to looking at the third element, and will move somewhat beyond the way it was discussed in the earlier post: A First Look Back.   Having a language that can be used to communicate depends on developing and having the conceptual tools to make the measurements, most critically, and then requires the words to describe those measurements to others.

To take a look at the development of language, one needs to exercise some caution, and the best statement of that caution is a favorite passage from one of the books I’ve read while conducting this inquiry.

Needless to say, the lack of reliable information about when and how speech first emerged has not prevented people from speculating.  Quite the reverse – for centuries, it has been a favourite pastime of many distinguished thinkers to imagine how language first evolved in the human species.  One of the most original theories was surely that of Frenchman Jean-Pierre Brisset, who in 1900 demonstrated how human language (that is to say, French) developed directly from the croaking of frogs.  One day, as Brisset was observing frogs in a pond, one of them looked him straight in the eye and croaked ‘coac’.  After some deliberation, Brisset realized that what the frog was saying was simply an abbreviated version of the question ‘quoi que tu dis?’  He then proceeded to derive the whole of language from permutations and combinations of ‘coac coac’.

It must be admitted that more than a century on, standards of speculation have much improved.  Researchers today can draw on advances in neurology and computer simulations to give their scenarios a more scientific bent.  Nevertheless, despite such progress, the speculations remain no less speculative, as witnessed by the impressive range of theories circulating for how the first words emerged: from shouts and calls; from hand gestures and sign language; from the ability to imitate; from the ability to deceive; from grooming; from singing, dancing and rhythm; from chewing, sucking and licking; and from almost any other activity under the sun.  The point is as long as there is no evidence, all these scenarios remain ‘just so’ stories.  They are usually fascinating, often entertaining, and sometimes even plausible – but still not much more than fantasy.1

What Dr. Deutscher says is true: there is very little evidence, if any, of the actual path followed by the early adopters of language to go from no more language than noises made by other species to a full-blown human language.  Given his caution, we can look at what there is as evidence and try to avoid “just-so story” inferences.

Evidently one of the primate evolutionary development lines separated approximately 6 million years ago (MYA) proceeding in two principal directions: one that led toward chimpanzees and bonobos; the other being the hominid line, with a bush-like proliferation of species, the last one standing of which is us.  This puts a first limit on the evolution of language: while other species have capabilities that maybe are “necessary” to language and speech, none reach the “sufficient” capacity.  John McWhorter in The Power of Babel puts the development into a smaller box, within the last 150,000 years.  I think this may be a controversial dating, but his reasoning is somewhat persuasive.

In regard to dating human language, what is important here is that if this genetic instruction or predisposition for language is real, then it must have been created by mutation.  In this light, it is more economical to reconstruct that such a mutation occurred once in the stem population of Homo sapiens 150,000-odd years ago and was then passed on to all descendents, rather than emerging at various later times in separate offshoot populations.2

It does seem “more economical” to have a single person or small group of people undergo some form of genetic transformation that provides both the necessary equipment and the predisposition, and with luck, that may be found to have been the case.  Given the complexity of the equipment, from the development (or adaptation) of the apparatus in the speech-producing portions of the chest/lungs, throat and mouth with their attendant musculature to the brain areas controlling the muscles and thoughts, it does not seem that a single gene mutation would do the trick.  I have no wish to describe this as a ‘just-so story’, though, because I’m not sure all the evidence is in, and besides, I would like for it to be true.  Obviously, the actual development has occurred without regard for what I would like.

Based on genetic markers, it does seem as if there was a small initial population of homo sapiens in Africa between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago, that passed through a population bottleneck known as Eve, the mitochondrial grandmother of all modern humans.  So there is some plausibility to his argument of a single population in which language, or at least the initial constellation of physiological and perhaps intellectual capabilities were developed, that could be passed on like the mitochondrial DNA.

Even if all or most of the physiological elements could have been fully developed by then, words, “pre-words” and “pre-language” might take some time leading up to the point where there is actually a language with syntax, parts of speech and grammar as well as an assemblage of words/sounds.  But it does not stretch belief too much to imagine the physiological elements being in place and the use of sounds grouped into short phrases building to a point where suddenly – on a more geological scale of several hundred to several thousand years as opposed to instantaneously on human scale – the ability to talk begins to proliferate and dominate the interactions of social animals like us.

McWorter does make a statement that may support my sense that even with the equipment assembled, developing could take some time:

Yet there remains the problem that only just 35,000 years ago do we see the kinds of cultural explosions among human beings that mark them as indisputably “us”.  The possibility theoretically remains, then, that language did not arise right when sapiens did, but only arose, say, 35,000 years ago.3

Since measurement is the subject I’m trying to address, I have looked at work on the evolution of language believing that acquiring language would be required before numbers and measurement would become part of the human repertoire.  The most informative survey that I’ve found is a book called The First Word by Christine Kenneally.  She makes the point that until the 1990s, linguists who tried to develop theories of the evolution of language were discouraged from their endeavors, most likely as a combination of understandings similar to the quote from Dr. Deutscher, but for sure because in “…1866, when the Societe de Linguistique of Paris declared a moratorium on the topic.”4

On pages 166 to 170 in The First Word, Ms. Kenneally assembles the ideas from a set of researchers into what appears to be a plausible sequence of the “conceptual” developments that have to take place to ignite language.  While it is possible to quibble with some of it, it makes a nice jumping off place because of one aspect that appears to be common among the researchers: the ability to use words as “symbols”.

The ability to use words as abstract symbols is a fascinating subject, which seems almost self evident once pointed out.  All of the reading that I’ve done in this direction so far indicates that a fundamental capacity or activity that must occur is to look at a concrete object and abstract from it, the elements of importance.  If one had a companion that was fuzzy, had a wet nose, stood on four legs, swung its fifth appendage back and forth, had a tendency to lick one’s hand or face, and whose smell was comfortably familiar, this companion could be recognized in future encounters.  At what point would one differentiate this companion by giving it a name: a sound indicating an abstract symbol of the entire sensual experience of this particular companion?  And further, at what point would Fido become one of an abstract class – friendly wolf as opposed to the other hostile ones?  (Is that order reversed?  should one recognize a friendly wolf first and then name it?)

One fairly early development on the way to abstraction, it seems to me, is the ability to recognize patterns quickly and “classify” (abstract the information for a simplified form for response) them into “hostile” or “non-threatening”.  This pattern recognition must result from whatever can be sensed: sight – did I see something move?; hearing – was that rustle of leaves a result of something moving toward me?; smell – do I recognize that newly-perceived scent from my last encounter with a jackal? and any other possible inputs.  The process “abstracts” from the background of bushes and underbrush a movement that doesn’t match the normal swaying in the breeze; from the insect, breeze and birdsong background noise, the scraping of a leaf that is more than a puff-of-air long; from the scents – my own odor, the smell of the dust/dirt, and flowering bush – a greasy smell.  From a combination of inputs, the pattern of possible attack is abstracted and reacted to.  If this was a pattern our ancestors might have encountered or discerned, is this a kind of precursor to measurement – judging the various sense inputs, and only if they appear to be above a certain threshold, would the perceiver react?

I don’t believe this ability to “abstract” is unique to humans.  I suspect that this type of pattern recognition is probably available to a large number of animal species (mammals only?, birds? reptiles? not sure how much to extend the list) that have been evolutionarily successful enough to be in existence today, though with individual variations of competence among the populations within species.  Exactly what the elements that are abstracted by the various species in their respective pattern recognition most likely varies as well.

Is some of this a chicken/egg dilemma?  No.  The cells and cell arrays that, over the eons, evolved to become the eye and the processor of the input gathered by the eye (those parts of the brain that resolve the signals sent from the eye in response to the electromagnetic wavelengths the eye captures/perceives) became sensitive to a specific pre-existing small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  While there are, apparently, multiple eye forms that developed, some different enough that they appear to have evolved under different physical circumstances, the differences do not lie in the electromagnetic spectrum.  The spectrum itself is the same for all existing beings and for all that have existed.  The portions to which the capture organ is sensitive, the strategies used to capture the “data” and to process it into “information” may be different, but the spectrum does not change.

At some point, the complex animals we live with today developed the ability to abstract the patterns that stood out from the generalized sense input and to use those patterns in determining their responses: fight, flight, or lick the hand.

This example is from biological evolution: the physiological senses and the processing of the sense input involved in response to pre-existing physical elements of the world.

At this point, I will do some (further?) speculating about something that I’ve considered, which seems to have the scent of truth, but I have no way to confirm it.

My speculation, though even as I write about it and think about it, I can see other sides, is that language is generally concerned with and involved in the relation of humans to other humans and/or to objects (living or not).  The relationships of humans to the world in which they live have pre-existing conditions, to which language has evolved greater and greater sensitivity.  The kinds of pre-existing conditions I conceive as being outside of our subjective control are the existence of objects, nouns, if you prefer, and actions that we perform in relation to those objects, verbs.  I find it impossible to imagine a language that does or did not have nouns and verbs, at least.  And so I believe that the capacity to use language in response to being alive is physiologically pre-set to capture inputs and process those inputs by way of noun-like sounds/abstractions and verb-like sounds/abstractions.  The hard-wired or genetic portion is in the neural networks which are built upon in the development/acquisition of language in a child.  They are all set to “encode” nouns and verbs, though the specific nouns and verbs are a result of the experiences of the child through its family and acquaintances.

When re-reading The Unfolding Of Language, mentioned above, which I had purchased and read before I started working on measurement. I found several quotable passages, the first of which opens of this post and is the most fun, and the second of which follows, and is clearer about my speculation than I have been, so it merits repeating.  Was he responsible for my speculation?  Quite possibly.  The quote is:

The point is that the thing-versus-action distinction and the noun-versus-verb distinction are altogether different.  …the distinction in meaning between things and actions goes much deeper than language – it is a fundamental feature of human cognition that precedes language by millions of years.  As far as language is concerned, therefore, the thing-versus-action distinction is an axiom.  Language did not draw the dividing-line between the two types of concepts, it simply mirrored a division that was already there, if not in the world itself, then at least in the way evolution has programmed our neurons to interpret the world.5

While I talked about nouns and verbs, as a non-linguist, I suppose I was not being sufficiently clear.  And the statement above where I say that I can’t imagine a language without verbs and nouns may be more a statement about the limits of my imagination than about language possibilities.

My close friend, Alma, worked as the lab manager for several professors involved in understanding the way that nerves follow paths as they grow in post-natal animals: grasshoppers, cats and others.  In discussion with her, reading some of the articles the professors have written, and visiting once or twice, I’ve learned enough to be dangerous.  So while this doesn’t have anyone’s stamp of approval, what I believe I should have learned is that the nerves do seem to make similar connections within each species, but they are not actually present until after the birth of the animals and they do grow along similar paths from animal to animal within a species, assuming similar experiences “trigger” the growth.  Additional understanding of neurology shows that nerves are activated by stimuli, and reinforced by repeated stimuli.

Thus, my speculation.  Since I wrote it down, I learned that several of the researchers for whom I have a high regard would dispute this.

This, then, appears to be the time line in the development of humans of today.

So where along this timeline did measurement start?  Is it fundamental to pattern recognition, perhaps in the period between the 6 MYA and the 2 MYA, or even before the 6 MYA?  Is it fundamental with the advent of language, and if so, what would the evidence look like?  Repeatable tools, which might be aligned with the 2 MYA and later?  Did it rely on the development of more sophisticated abstraction, and thus contemporary with the beginning of artistic expression in the 50 KYA period?  If there, how can we tell: what does the evidence look like, or should it look like?  Are there artifacts that can be reliably dated to before the Lebombo (Lembombo) Bone (approx. 37 to 43 KYA) or the Ishango Bone (approx. 20 to 25 KYA)? The Ishango Bone has been interpreted to contain scratches representing prime numbers, a ‘base ten’ primer, a ‘multiplier by 2’ primer, and lunar phase calendar.  Fascinating.  So it looks like this might be when numeration began.  Is there more or clearer evidence?

After the end of the ice age and the beginning of the transition to agriculture (by the way, were animals domesticated before the end of the ice age, and if so, which ones? Dogs? Sheep? Chickens? Cattle? Others?) one starts to see undisputable evidence of “measurement”.  The early cuneiform tablets show enumeration, tallies of various sorts, and there are small tokens that have been deciphered as representing an enumerated set of the same sort of objects, evidently in the possession of one or another of the parties involved in the communication.  All of the archeological books and articles that I’ve read, all of these sources appear to “assume” the existence of spatial and temporal measurement systems during the period between 12 KYA and 6 KYA, which means that measurement tools and concepts had been in development for some time before then.  If the interpretation of the scratches on the Lebombo and Ishango Bones is correct, that the scratches represent enumeration of some sort, then it looks as if the complete definition of measurement as something that is not only “measured” but “recorded” for accuracy of communication began at least in Africa by about 40 KYA.  Amazing.  But more in the next post.


1 Deutscher, Guy, The Unfolding of Language, Holt Paperbacks, Henry Holt and Company, New York, N.Y. 2005. P. 15.

2 McWhorter, John, The Power of Babel, Perennial, HarperCollins, New York, N.Y. 2003. P. 8.

3 McWhorter, John, The Power of Babel, Perennial, HarperCollins, New York, N.Y. 2003. P. 8.

4 Kenneally, Christine, The First Word, Penguin Books, New York, N.Y. 2007. P. 7.

5 Deutscher, Guy, The Unfolding of Language, Holt Paperbacks, Henry Holt and Company, New York, N.Y. 2005. P. 244.

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