I have recently (prompted by Anatoly) begun reading shkrobius’s Livejournal, which is about everything under the sun and constantly thought-provoking (and often deliberately provocative). In a recent post called “Why aren’t we Teletubbies? Part 2″ (the title is explained in Part 1: “Teletubbies were the exact opposite of humans. Our visual cues are as primitive as their infantile babbling… Why are not we Teletubbies? Wouldn’t flashing images be a superior way of communication?”) he quotes, at considerable length, the even more provocative Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight (who, I am interested to see, got an MPhil in Russian literature the same year I got mine in historical linguistics) on the ever-contentious issue of how language developed; I have no idea how seriously to take any of it, but it makes me think, and that’s more valuable than making me nod my head in sleepy agreement. I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs of Knight (in itals) followed by a couple by shkrobius, and you can decide if it’s interesting enough to follow the link in search of more:
…Suppose that whenever I opened my mouth to begin speaking, I found myself instantly challenged, my audience demanding on-the-spot corroboration of the very first sounds, refusing to listen further until satisfied. Denied the chance to express one transparent fiction, modify it by another, modify that in turn and so on, I could hardly display any skills I might have for handling such sequences. Faced with refusal to suspend disbelief even momentarily, I could hardly venture to refer to phenomena beyond the current context of here-and-now perceptible reality. How could I express a fantasy, elaborate a narrative or specify with precision a complex thought, if listeners demanded literal corroboration of each signal as I emitted it, refusing to wait until the end before deciding on a response? Finally, it is difficult to see how my utterance could display duality of patterning if listeners demanded literal veracity on the syllable-by-syllable level, obscuring and resisting the possibilities of meaning or patterning on any higher level.
…My freedom to speak presupposes that you, the listener, are trusting enough to offer me, at least initially, the benefit of any doubt, demanding and expecting more information before checking out what I have signalled so far. I need you to be willing to internalize literal fictions, evaluating meanings not instantaneously, item by item, but only as I construct larger patterns on a higher, ‘combinatorial’ level. By primate standards, such collusion with my deceits would appear disastrously maladaptive.
People erroneously believe that their insistence on literal truth distinguishes them in intelligence. The exact opposite is true, in things small as much as in things large. No intelligence would have existed among those not willing to believe imaginations of the others, and the willingness to contemplate fabrications is the true hallmark of human reason. You can instantly recognize a fool in someone endlessly demanding definitions, proofs and corroborations of every word and/or idea uttered by any one but himself. There is no fundamental difference between such a person and a chimp, and this person restages the same pattern of behavior that kept us in the company of apes long after we had everything needed to depart. If you want truth and only truth, go and live in the zoo with other strivers for intellectual honesty. A human can see truth shining in even the most unlikely fabrication and recognize a lie in the middle of what appears to be rock solid truth. This is what makes us human.
Our language is not designed for speaking truth, it has no built-in features for trustworthiness and reliability, and it does not even aim at them. It aims at imagining and reimagining worlds.
Not particularly related to language, but definitely related to some of the issues raised by Knight: Oliver Sacks on memory (and how we have no way to tell true from false). Riveting reading, as Sacks so often is.