Mailbag: Hawks can't manage protolanguage

Derek Bickerton writes regarding my item earlier this week pointing to Edmund Blair Bolles’ reviews of protolanguage talks:

Your blog is normally accurate as well as entertaining, but I have to take exception to your remark that Deacon's and Progovac's contributions to a recent protolanguage conference "seemed to give a different view of the concept from the essentially pidgin language hypothesis of Derek Bickerton." Please enlighten me as to how it did this, when what they said is fully consistent with, even supportive of my work: DEACON: "Symbolic communication began with the rise of stone tools for cutting meat, about 2.4 to 1.8 million years ago...Although protolanguage is symbolic, it is still rooted in the here and now. To move beyond that, to talk of absent things, protolanguage had to become a full language by evolving syntax." PROGOVAC: "So these words seem to combine features already suggestive of protolanguage. Imperative VN compounds thus appear to be great candidates for the very earliest word combination, a clear pre-syntactic protolanguage....Whatever the answer, it appears that no extra intelligence needs to have evolved for protohumans to have had the sense to put words together appropriately but asyntactically." So both of them presuppose just the kind of restricted, structureless material that I have always claimed. Moreover, although they don't spell this out, it's clear that they presuppose an analytic, rather than a holisitic, protolanguage, just as I do (though many don't). I think you owe your readers, and me, either an explanation or an apology. With best wishes, Derek

I apologize for expressing myself so clumsily. I wrote that the talks in question “seemed to give a different view” as I believe (from Bolles’ description) that they suggest ideas not present in Bickerton’s writings to date. But I’m happy to accept the correction.

I’ve been working my way through Bickerton’s recent book, Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans. It is interesting to compare Bickerton’s book with Deacon’s 1998 book, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain (I wrote about Deacon’s book here in 2005). I do think the two approach the central issues from rather different perspectives, and so it is interesting to see the points of overlap and tension. I will describe my reactions here when I finish working through Bickerton’s text.