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← Monkey Lip Smacks Provide New Insights Into the Evolution of Human Speech

Monkey Lip Smacks Provide New Insights Into the Evolution of Human Speech - Comments

TetrahedralPT's Avatar Comment 1 by TetrahedralPT

Fitch neither knew nor cared to know anything about sound symbolism in human languages when I met him more than a decade ago. Labials associate with the gathering/fluid separation functions of lips in other primates with much more robust musculature there, just as other articulatory positions/ranges appear to encode other aspects of mastication/deglutition. Apes will chew up a wad of fibrous plant materials and then emplace it between the lips and the front teeth, and suck out the juice, then spit out the remnant wad.

It would be interesting to know if there are people who still do this, or have most transferred this to the oral cavity itself- and, curiously, a labial to palatal articulatory shift is quite common in languages. Maybe there is a connection there as well?

Jess Tauber

Mon, 04 Jun 2012 11:25:03 UTC | #945451

EvN's Avatar Comment 2 by EvN

As a child I often played with monkeys and, occasionally, baboons. I wonder what my face pulling and kissy-kissy noises translated to in Monkey?

Is Helga around? It would be interesting to hear her opinion on the similarities (if any) with the San language.

Mon, 04 Jun 2012 17:29:48 UTC | #945516

TetrahedralPT's Avatar Comment 3 by TetrahedralPT

Click languages are fully human languages. Unfortunately racism in southern Africa made it easy for whites to denigrate the unfamiliar speech of native peoples (thus Hottentot from hot-und-tot, a bad imitation of clicking). The clicks are built into most roots words in the languages of the Kalahari area, and from a phonosemantic perspective encode notions of hidden water resources quite commonly, which makes sense given the ecology of the region.

Labial clicks are extremely uncommon- and their 'hidden water' reference is usually to milk. Also there seem to be several different labial clicks.

The click part of the click, by the way, comes from articulations in the BACK of the mouth, not the lips. Thus a 'kissy-kissy' noise will have little to do with labials in click languages, except for the articulation of the lips themselves.

Jess Tauber

Mon, 04 Jun 2012 19:00:49 UTC | #945527

EvN's Avatar Comment 4 by EvN

Ah, I understand better now.

I know the click comes from the back of the mouth, particularly in the languages of the Kalahari and isiXosa and is particularly difficult to master. IsiZulu is a bit easier as the click is more forward in the mouth. All of us in Southern Africa do the click on the front part of the tongue and often in the middle of the mouth (in order to show disapproval or disdain). We spell it "nxa!"

But no matter, that is a conversation for another day.

What I am interested in, is how the language of our cousins differ from the language of the old people - like the San and the Koi peoples. The sounds are often the same (to my ear) even if the mechanisms are different.

Sorry, I am well out of my area of speciality here and do not have the technical vocabulary to explain myself clearly.

Mon, 04 Jun 2012 19:52:38 UTC | #945547

TetrahedralPT's Avatar Comment 5 by TetrahedralPT

Genetic evidence suggests that the click-speaking groups (not including speakers of Bantu-family languages, which adopted clicks by intermarriage much more recently) split off from the rest of humanity reproductively, earlier than all other groups. We don't know whether the clicks were part of the original language systems- there are those who believe the rest of us lost them (and in fact they were slowly being lost even in the languages under discussion, with full complexity being retained only by a few of the languages til today), or whether they were developed independently (and by borrowing) after the genetic split. Could be a combination as well.

Africa has undergone tremendous cyclic upheavals of climate in the past couple of hundred thousand years, with wet areas drying to desert, desert becoming wet, and so on. Clicks might have been a response to this, and if so, they are an adaptation that can come and go.

Structurally, verbs in some of these languages (can't speak for all, just the ones whose dictionaries I've examined closely) look like mini-sentences all by themselves. The click and surrounding materials seems to act as a kind of material classifier, either literally, or figuratively. Internally within the verb root are parts that deal with basic kinds of action, directions and positions of structure or action, etc. Each of these are dealt with by a single phoneme feature- which is highly unusual, and when considering the usual way languages evolve over time, would require a very long time, since each feature would have previously represented a full phoneme or even full word at one point, via reduction.

Just as a caveat, though- the above comes from my personal, and unpublished research. So take it with a grain (or a sackful) of salt.

Jess Tauber

Tue, 05 Jun 2012 03:46:02 UTC | #945634

EvN's Avatar Comment 6 by EvN

I did not know that the Bantu family of languages adopted clicks. I thought they invented clicks.

Thanks for correcting me, Tess. My question thus falls away as it was based on the wrong idea.

To the others: If you see a monkey again, note how the jaw and mouth opens in the "fake chewing" motion the article mentions. Fascinating stuff!

Tue, 05 Jun 2012 06:11:10 UTC | #945645

TetrahedralPT's Avatar Comment 7 by TetrahedralPT

Only the Southern Bantu groups adopted clicks, after coming into contact and intermarriage with peoples who already had click languages. But in many cases the particular WORDS containing clicks are in fact inventions. Similar things have happened in other parts of the world, with other speech sounds. For example in the Andes, speakers of dialects of Quechua adopted some of the sounds of the Aymara language, as well as many words from them. Yet the Aymara sounds also appear on Quechua words that don't have Aymara origins.

As for the fake chewing that is likely to be heavily involved in language origins. In many languages and language families if you look deeply at the phonemes in the language and the words those phonemes appear in, at particular places in the root words, a pattern emerges that associates with oral materials processing- that is, chewing, swallowing, drinking, breathing, etc.

There is a worldwide bias for k-types sounds to associate, in initial root position, with relative hardness and toughness, and the articulatory position of k-type sounds, the velars, is adjacent to the molars, whose job it it to process hard, tough materials. Labials, p/b/m, etc. instead seem to associate with the actions of the lips, incisors, etc. Each articulatory type, if underived from something else, appears to associate with some range of oral functions in that zone of the mouth, etc.

Since the quality of foods is often reflected in its material properties, this would be a good way to communicate with your group while foraging without having to physically carry the food back to others- or mothers to their babies to prompt them to try some. In fact, common chimps in the wild produce a variety of involuntary food calls- if they find a tree with ripe fruit they have no choice but to call the others- some have been observed trying to cover their mouths to stop the others from hearing, if they want to keep their find to themselves. Studies of captive chimps show that the different variants of food calls associate with gross differences in food quality such as texture, at the very least. The apes know the difference between different types/textures of food- they may come quickly and in numbers if it is good, ripe/sweet, fresh, etc., but not so many, or so quickly, if it is just the usual leafy trash. Perhaps similar in spirit to what honeybees do with their waggle dances and associated other signs. It wouldn't surprise me if lots of other pieces of information are also present- easy for the chimps to hear and comprehend, but not for humans, whose expectations of what constitutes a phoneme, syllable, root, word, or phrase/clause may be completely different.

Even for linguists studying human languages, one's experiences and expectations alter perceptions- when click languages were first studied, many of the contrasts that native speakers could hear were lost on the linguists- only later with the advent of machine recordings and acoustic spectral analysis did the contrasts start to be more apparent. Who knows what they are STILL missing- add a couple of million years of evolutionary distance, as between apes and humans, differences in anatomy (both productive and perceptive, as well as neurological), etc., and we could be missing huge chunks of the actual communications.

Jess Tauber

Wed, 06 Jun 2012 05:39:45 UTC | #945808