Apes, babies, Birdsong, Chimpanzees, Corvids, Dice, Frontal Lobe, Grammar, GUASJapan, Hominidae, langage, Lene Lovich, Mimicry, Mozart, Murder of Crows, Prefrontal Cortex, primal screams, Queen of the Night, radio 4, Syntax, The Birman of Brighton, Toshitaka Suzuki, Tree Spirits, Trees
I’ve been considering a collision of sorts in regards to language and what gave voice to the human species.
And listening to The Queen Of The Night from Mozart’s Magic Flute bought it all to a point.
The three pieces that collided in my mind are Mimicry, Trees and Birds.
In regards to mimicry, I was listening to a Radio 4 piece recently where a scientist was discussing her study of Apes and their gestural vocabulary – and exploring whether the linking of multiple gestures could be viewed as proof of how language developed in us as seen through the window of Apes – a clue perhaps to our ancient passage from gestures emphasised and accented by vocal noises to language as a formal technology. The issue seemed to lie for her in the absence of syntax – the absence of a grammar that unified the gestures into threads, or sentences if you will. She was hopeful that continued and rigorous research would eventually answer this question one way or the other.
If the gestures could be linked cohesively and logically elevated by some form of grammatical logic or structure, emphasised by aural accompaniment, it could be possible to extrapolate that human language might have developed in a not dissimilar way.
Where mimicry comes into this for me is in the simple truth that humans learn language through mimicry. As babies we home in on and focus on the ‘voices’ of our parents – initially as a simple identifier – imprinting them as a source code. Then as we listen we begin to learn the sounds and the range of possible inflections, tones and emotional cadences of language long before we know the ‘meaning’ of those words or the structural engineering that brings them all together.
We’ve all heard a small child burbling away and, to all intents and purposes, having a good old chat with themselves, with all the cadences and inflections of sentence structure and frameworks, and with an understanding of the emotions carried within those sounds but without the faintest idea of any formal understanding or definition.
We share a common ancestry with chimpanzees, apes and orangutans – that of the Hominidae – and we are related most closely to chimps in regards to our DNA. When we explore the relationship between our intellect and that of the Chimpanzee we use mimicry as a tool to do this. A kind of Show and Tell and Learn system.
So if mimicry is a trait; an evolutionary ability developed in advanced apes descended from Hominidae, of which we are the most preeminent, then I sense that in mimicry lies an answer to the question of syntax and structural rhythm.
But who were we mimicking? Where? And Why?
The Birdman of Brighton with his small curiosity bird whistles and warblers set my mind in motion. Remembering the wonderment on my daughter’s face at the ability of the small fired-clay bird whistle to light up the air with its sing-song warble gave me the root human desire I was looking for. Its simply wonderful for a human, child or adult, to be able to sing like a bird. Magical. Like a trap door into a mystical place of ‘otherness.’
And this fascination is not only anecdotal and childlike.
In a more rigorous and scientific realm, Toshitaka Suzuki and his colleagues at The Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Japan have revealed that bird song and birdcalls contain complex syntactical structures – ‘sentences’ if you will.
Though the infectious nature and idea of the syntax of birdsong seems enchanting, linguists see the birds as being very limited syntactically. Studied in isolation, I’m sure they must seem limited.
But the curiosity and conundrum for me is this: an ancient creature such as bird has syntax, whereas our Ape cousins, however smart or developed, currently do not. And humans have the most complex and sophisticated language of all earth’s creatures.
Is it our sophistication and evolutionary abilities that drive this reality? Or a simpler and more ‘creature-like’ trait in us?
For my mind, we have to consider the possibility that if we cannot find the direct linguistic link between our Ape cousins and their gestural noises and our own complex, syntactical language , we must look wider and indirectly – and consider some collisions perhaps.
For example; Humans have a very ancient relationship with trees. We have a simple, symbiotic relationship with them at a primal level: we breathe in what they breathe out – and they breathe out what we breathe in. But the root of us and the roots of them are intertwined over millennia. We have evolved around and within them, developing under the cover of their canopy, drawing from the soil beneath them, hollowing them out as hallowed spaces. Taking refuge in their boughs. Living amongst their branches. Feeding on their fruits. Using their seasonal shifts like metronome for our own existence. Trees are imprinted on us. Which means we could accept one thing as broadly likely: our ancestors would have lived beak by jowl with every shade shape, nature and hue of bird for hundreds of thousands of generations.
We mimic most things when given half a chance. We certainly mimic birdsong – using calls and whistles to provoke reaction from or engagement with the creatures around us.
Why could we not consider the idea that there was an tree dwelling-ancestor in our distant past whose speciality was birdsong mimicry – to attract and to interact with them – either to catch and eat them perhaps, or in the use of them as compasses, weather vanes, soothsayers, or doom-bringers. And consider that those ancestors played a pivotal role in our adoption of the syntactical nature of birdsong. Perhaps they were hugely influential at a pivotal point in our evolution.
This makes complete sense to me. People who spend a lot of time around each other begin to align in all manner of ways. They start to adopt aspects of each other- why not each others communication? Mimicry as part of evolutionary survival over generations must imprint itself – descend beneath the surface of us. There is little reason to believe that the improved nature of our communication between each other would not be adopted by our evolving brain as something useful and therefore code for it. If the nature and syntax of birdsong became second nature to us: if our Ape like ancestors began to ‘pass on’ this ability until it became innate, then I would be able to clearly understand how the ‘Singing Ape’ would develop syntax and start to form the more complex format of communication that we have come to understand as language.
Our ancestors would simply have sharpened this ‘tool’ or technology in much the same way they sharpened stones and sticks.
There is also an ancient cautionary tale in this scenario for me. Something old even in the imagining of it.
Imagine at a point some few hundreds of thousands of years ago, on the great plain, under the cover of some acacia trees, we find a murder of exceptionally clever corvids – crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs and nutcrackers – and a scrum of our grunty, crass, Hominidae ancestors. They are at the crossroads of time: and they are playing dice.
And here’s for why. The terribly clever corvids have sensed that the Hominidae have something they want. A Prefrontal cortex. The power source of super evolution. So they have tempted our clumsy ancestors into gambling it all for the chance of gaining the sweet ‘voice’ of the corvids, and, ultimately, their ability to fly.
The greater prize? Whomsoever wins the toss of the die, will get all that’s best of the other and ascend to great heights, reshaping the world in their image. And the loser will be damned to be trapped as they are for all time.
The rest, of course, would be evolutionary history (probably).
Lene Lovich anyone?