By my count yesterday’s post brings to three the number of different types of communication that are peculiar to humans: meaningful, emotional, and now, how shall we call it?, maybe ceremonial.
Ceremonial speech is language that transforms something, typically an identity. The most familiar example is saying, “I do,” in a wedding. On one side of the speech act they are a betrothed couple, then each one says I do, and they now see themselves as husband and wife. The change these days is often seen as legalistic, but the traditional view has been that the nature of the couple changes. The speech is a public sign of some invisible change.
Today many people dismiss such a notion as “magical thinking,” but the world would come apart in a hurry if contracts, oaths, and other binding transformations were seen as mere words with no more power than wind that has ceased to blow. During the past several centuries transformations that were once understood religiously have became seen as legal transformations and the rise of law as a replacement for religious obligation and authority has been a defining characteristic of modernity, but the result has been a rethinking and rewriting of ceremonially based identities rather than their abolition.
One strong objection to adding ceremonial speech to the list of elementary communications is that it foreshadows endlessness. We can take it as given that any use of speech whatsoever is exclusive to humans because only humans speak. If ceremonial speech is to be included, why not storytelling and technical procedures? Why not cursing and blaspheming?
This kind of objection was raised in a short paper by linguist Derek Bickerton titled, “Language use, not language, is what develops in childhood and adolescence” (abstract here). He was writing in response to an article by John Locke and Barry Bogin that I have been discussing this month (abstract here). Bickerton writes:
Life experience ensures that older children and adolescents have more to talk about: … socialization obliges them to use their linguistic skills in a wide variety of contexts … The [ceremonial aspects of language] are without exception, not aspects of language at all, but rather aspects of language use. [p. 281; ‘ceremonial’ is my word, not Bickerton’s]
Locke and Bogin reply by saying this line of argument distracts us from examining the evolutionary sources or “behavioral processes that led to language” (p. 305).
Their reply brought me up a little short, but I must concede that this blog’s expectations have changed dramatically since it began in September. Originally I assumed I had to investigate where words and syntax came from. I tossed in a note that listening was important too, but hadn’t given that issue anywhere near the attention it required.
Since then I have indeed been forced by my reporting to move in a different direction, one that focuses on the evolution of “behavioral processes that led to language.” These processes include:
- paying attention to what somebody says,
- expanding on the powers of joint attention, and
- developing emotional bonds.
So the evolution of another behavior—ceremonial bonding—seems in keeping with the way the blog has developed.
It is not that the rise of words and syntax no longer seem important; obviously you cannot speak without them. Yet they now appear secondary. If you develop the vocal flexibility to make a range of cooing syllables, you will soon associate the sounds with something because the brain power for that linkage already existed among the apes. After developing a few words, evolution will fine tune and strengthen the behavior. Similarly, the existing ape brain was already smart enough to allow for at least a few combinations, and after that fine tuning and strengthening can step in.
But there is still a question of whether ceremonial speech is so remarkable that some additional process of selection is required. I think the answer is yes, but Locke/Bogin do not specifically address the question. Here’s how I would ask it:
If you take an ape and add in enough openness for it to be interested in the thoughts of its fellows and enough vocabulary and syntax for it to say what it is thinking, would that be enough to produce a species that engages in ceremonies?
I don’t think so, though I cannot swear to it.
The reason for my doubt is that the transformations achieved by ceremonial speech are not part of the perceptual world. Emotional speech establishes bonds between existing individuals; meaningful speech directs a listener’s attention to some aspect of perception. Ceremonial speech moves beyond the world of perception, however, to a world in which it is possible to have emotional attachments to abstractions and to draw attention to duties and changes in identity that are nowhere perceivable. I suspect that it takes the evolution of something extra to make talkers willing to organize their lives around “mere words.” I do not suppose that even if we managed to teach an ape how to produce full sentences it would feel itself obligated by its words, or feel itself somehow bound up in the names of invisible things.
Locke and Bogin are at their weakest when analyzing ceremonies, largely because they do not realize how much speaking, listening, and emotiona bonding emerged before Homo sapiens. Locke and Bogin also put a surprising emphasis on male transformation at the adolescent stage. Many of their peers comment about this strange overlooking of female coming of age. Anthropologists Chris Knight and Camilla Power take them to task especially effectively, complaining that Locke and Bogin select examples
typical of horticultural “Big Man” societies—as opposed to egalitarian hunter-gatherers who are more likely to be representative of early human societies. (p 290)
Their emphasis on males arises from what they see as the characteristic element of adolescent speech, which is boasting and bringing attention to themselves. This material is of less interest on this blog where the use of speech to direct attention is old news, even when the topic is the speaker himself (and in the Locke/Bogin case, “himself” is the correct word).
It is Knight and Power who note the centrality of “pubertal initiation rituals” to adolescence and it was only reading them that I realized we were talking about a different form of communication than either the meaningful direction of attention or the creation of an emotional bond.
There is one other elementary communications task, that of control. It is the communication found throughout the nonhuman world as computers control other computers, genes control the construction of proteins, and dominant baboons control subordinates. Much of this communication in humans is through body language and is of only secondary interest in this blog.
The table below lists the elemental types of communication and summarizes their role:
These elements of course can be mixed and compounded in a very large number of ways. For instance, “Please stand to hear the gospel,” is controlling, but “please” adds a polite touch of bonding, the sentence uses the words and syntax of meaningful speech, and the whole context is part of a ceremonial event that assumes a shared identity.