My Photo
Location: United States

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Sign language is the "mother" of spoken language

CLICK HERE to read a May 1995 article in Discover Magazine about the exciting research of Stokoe, Armstrong and Wilcox which shows that sign language was the original form of communication used by our first human ancestors, not spoken language.

This is a very important observation, because it shows that signing is completely natural and that it was actually signing that gave birth to speaking, not the other way around.

Spoken language owes its existence to signing! Why? because the evidence shows that humans probably learned concepts of grammar (syntax) by developing and using sign language first, and then used these grammatical skills to develop spoken language later.

Visual communication is the original source of all human communication, therefore visual communication is not a "second choice."

This is more evidence to show why deaf people are not disabled. Deaf people are simply using the original form of communication that was already used a million years before spoken language existed. Sign language is the "mother" of all forms of human communication.

Humans have ears because we inherited them from our pre-human ancestors. Our animal ancestors needed to find other animals to eat and also to avoid being eaten by others.

Therefore, the sense of hearing was something that was important to animals and to primitive man. However, now that we humans have developed civilization and now that we no longer have to worry about the dangers of the animal world, the sense of hearing is no longer crucial to survival. It is an "extra."

It can be a wonderful extra for hearing people that cherish the sense of sound, but an extra is still an extra. It's not a sense that is required to be fully human.

CLICK HERE to download the PDF version of the article.

Here is the text version of the Discover article:

Discover Magazine
May 1, 1995, pp. 38-39
by Carl Zimmer

Early Signifiers

Sunset on the African savanna, a long, long time ago, and a clan of human ancestors are engaged in a little after-dinner chat. They’re celebrating their good fortune; how often do you stumble across a fresh antelope carcass right next to a patch of ripe berries? A child asks how the adults got the meat off the antelope, so they demonstrate the use of stone blades, explaining how it’s all in the wrist. The conversation is animated, but if you could eavesdrop on it, all you’d hear would be occasional grunts and squeals. The hominids aren’t talking; they’re communicating by means of swift, complex hand gestures--that is, in sign language.

To many paleoanthropologists, that scenario would sound far-fetched. Ever since researchers began to wonder how our ancestors evolved language, they have assumed that language equals speech. But in a recently published book, an anthropologist and two linguists whose specialty is the modern sign language of the deaf challenge this assumption. Language, they claim, did not emerge suddenly in modern humans, as many researchers believe, within the past 50,000 years or so. Instead it evolved gradually, beginning with our earliest hominid and even our primate ancestors. And at first it was a language of gestures rather than words.

There is no direct evidence, of course, that early hominids had any language at all. But anthropologist David Armstrong of Gallaudet University--a Washington, D.C., school for the deaf--and his colleagues have one piece of indirect evidence for their speculation. The size of hominid brains increased dramatically long before Homo sapiens emerged, from 24 cubic inches or so 4 million years ago to an average of 60 cubic inches among Homo erectus, the people on that African savanna. (Human brains range in size from around 60 to 100 cubic inches.) The bigger brain was not simply running a bigger body; the brain-to-body ratio exploded as well, in a way that has not been seen in any other animal lineage. "The question is, what were the early hominids doing with those brains?" says Armstrong.

Figuring out how to use tools is one possibility. But chimpanzees today, with brains a third the size of ours, use sticks as tools, and the chipped stones of early hominids weren’t much more complicated. Language is a more sensible explanation for swelling brains, says Armstrong; it would have required far more mental capacity, and it would have offered clear advantages to a troop of hunter-gatherers. Yet early hominid language, if it existed, probably couldn’t have been spoken language--because early hominids probably couldn’t speak. Fossils suggest that their throats were like those of chimps: the pharynx, the chamber just above the vocal cords where sounds can be modulated, was too small to make the complex noises necessary for speech.

The notion that hominids didn’t need speech for language--that they used sign language instead--has come up before, but it has never been taken very seriously, in part because sign language itself hasn’t been. Linguists traditionally considered sign language a crude aping of spoken English. That attitude began to change in the 1960s, though, thanks to the efforts of people like linguist William Stokoe, also of Gallaudet, who showed that signing is as linguistically complex as speech. More-recent research has demonstrated that signing draws on many of the same parts of the brain that speech does, and that deaf children learn sign language much as children who can hear learn speech, sign-babbling away. "When I first proposed that signing was a language itself and not just a way of representing spoken English, the idea didn’t go down well," says Stokoe. "But the changes since then have been just astounding."

The time is thus ripe for a new book, Gesture and the Nature of Language, in which Stokoe, Armstrong, and Sherman Wilcox of the University of New Mexico [sic] argue that signing is not only a fully equivalent language but may have been the first language of all. In their scenario, the seeds of sign language were planted in our chimplike ancestors. Primates in general have highly developed vision, and they have specialized bundles of neurons that respond strongly to the sight of moving arms. The primate nervous system may have already been tuned to this sort of stimulus, says Armstrong. In addition, chimpanzees can be taught a crude sort of sign language, suggesting that the brain of our common ancestors was beginning to be capable of language.

But chimps are held back from a full-blown sign language by two limitations: their small brains and their hands. Chimpanzees are knuckle walkers and have relatively long fingers and short thumbs, so the thumb isn’t readily opposable as it is in humans, explains Armstrong. One of the things you notice when you watch films of chimps signing, if you know much about sign language, is that they simply can’t make some of the basic hand shapes. When our ancestors became bipeds, however, their hands quickly took their modern form. That allowed them to wield their primitive tools more skillfully--and it also allowed them to make complex hand gestures. Long before we had a throat fully capable of speech, we had hands fully capable of sign language.

With signing rather than speech as a starting point, one of the central mysteries in the origin of language--the question of how people first came to combine words into sentences--becomes a lot less mysterious. The usual idea is that hominids worked up this tremendous list of words and they finally got so many they had to classify them into categories like nouns and verbs, says Stokoe. Well, who told them how to do that? I don’t know how many vocal signs you’d have to get before the idea would dawn on someone that some of them represented actions and some represented actors and you could put them together.

In sign language, the gap between word and sentence can be bridged naturally in a single sign. The sign for grab in American Sign Language, for example, is one hand closing around an outstretched finger on the other hand. But this gesture can also mean he grabbed it. The moving hand embodies the subject, the movement is the action, and the other hand is the direct object. If an ancient hominid saw a leopard jump on a gazelle, says Stokoe, he might have gone and made a gesture to another hominid that was a motion of the hand like the front paws of the leopard and grabbed his other hand. That doesn’t say leopard, but the leopard jumped on something. You get the relationship of the thing to what it does in one unit. Other aspects of grammar could have emerged in a similarly natural way; facial expressions, for example, are natural adverbs, modifying the actions that are signed.

Once signing had permitted the invention of sentences, though, our ancestors eventually switched to speech. For an animal that uses tools and probably moves around and has to carry things, it’s going to make a lot more sense that the primary communication be vocal, says Armstrong. But perhaps that primordial sign language never really died out. People who have no contact with deaf people use a whole repertoire of manual gestures, and some are identical to the signs in sign language, Armstrong says. We all have some common stock of signs.

While humans may have shifted from signs to speech long ago, Stokoe, Armstrong, and Wilcox (none of whom are deaf) don’t want people to think that they consider modern sign language primitive--just the opposite. One of the motivations of my work, says Stokoe, is to let people know that deaf people are just as bright and able to handle abstract thought as hearing people, given equal education. Prejudice against them because they don’t speak leads to all sorts of bad judgments about deaf people. The fact that we all probably owe a great deal to the era when language began in a gestural state might change some of that.

[End article]


Gesture and the Nature of Language, by David F. Armstrong, William C. Stokoe and Sherman E. Wilcox

Language in Hand, by William C. Stokoe. See also: THIS LINK.

The Gestural Origin of Language, by David F. Armstrong and Sherman E. Wilcox

The Gestural Origin of Language: Evidence from Six "Unrelated" Languages, by Alexander Jóhannesson

Seeing Language in Sign, the Work of William C. Stokoe, by Jane Maher

Original Signs, by David F. Armstrong

From Hand to Mouth, by Michael Corballis

CLICK HERE to read previous posts of the Gallaudet Protest Legal Issues blog.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember Amy Cohen Efron's bestseller vlog about irony? Babies are ready for sign language acquisition because it requires gross motor development. These babies could see their arms and hands to make signs. Speaking requires fine motor development, and these babies couldn't see their mouth and tongue to make words. So sign language does come before speech language, and it is good for babies.

April 8, 2007 at 10:01 PM  
Blogger Gallaudet Protest Legal Issues said...

Yes, Amy's post is now #1 in the 30-day and 90-day categories on

Here is the link:

Really, the world in general is going to embrace the ideals of Deaf culture and support ASL once they understand what the issues are.

Right now there is a kind of social constipation caused by entrenched financial interests of people who make money under the pathological model. That will not last long.

The issues are too obvious and too easy to see. Deaf babies need to learn ASL. Really, it should be considered child abuse to deprive a deaf child of the use of sign language. The use of a signed language should be deemed to be his or hers by natural right.

April 8, 2007 at 10:05 PM  
Blogger Dennis L. Simpson said...

As a former biology instructor who was brave enough to teach evolution, I knew it! I've always believed that sign language is one of the oldest natural instincts in the human brain, just before the emergence of development of spoken language.

April 8, 2007 at 10:36 PM  
Blogger Beaux Arts de Boutjean said...

Not for 30 to 90 days! Au contraïre, Amy Cohen-Efron's vlog, "The Greatest Irony," will have been without equal for another 200 years! She is a genius! Much to the envy of myopic
linguists who have no iota of senso comune!

Jean Boutcher

April 8, 2007 at 10:59 PM  
Blogger Gallaudet Protest Legal Issues said...

We're fortunate that neither Stokoe, Armstrong or Wilcox were inflicted with theoretic myopia!

Actually, 99.9% of linguists have been very supportive of the idea that signed languages are bona fide languages. They accepted that idea not long after Stokoe presented it. However, it's going to take a while to get this issue settled about how sign language pre-dates spoken language.

April 8, 2007 at 11:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read "Language in Hand" as well as Armstrong"s book "Original Signs" as well as "From Hand to Mouth" by New Zealand anthropologist, Michael Corballis.

"Language in Hand" was written by Stokoe on his deathbed and published pusthumously (in 2000). It's far more concise and lacks most of the scientific mumbo jumbo of the other books.

Here are some bullet points:

• Chimpazees lack the vocal tract capablilty to create many speech sounds. In fact, neither did most hominids right up through the most modern version of Homo sapiens a mere 75,000 - 50,000 years ago.

• Most vocal utterances of Chimpanzees are instinctive and not well controlled. (Like laughter, yawning or crying in pain in humans.)

• Chimps do have a series of natural gestures and complicated facial expressions.

• The area of the brain that controls fine movement in human hands is located right by the area that controls fine movement of the mouth and tongue.

April 9, 2007 at 7:31 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home