Gestural Origin of Language?

Kensy Cooperrider reports for Aeon on what seems to me a self-evidently absurd theory, but since I am a known fuddy-duddy and since it’s been taken more seriously than I would have guessed and has a surprisingly long history, I thought I’d toss it out there:

Proposals about the origins of language abound. […] Over this long and colourful history, one idea has proven particularly resilient: the notion that language began as gesture. What we now do with tongue, teeth and lips, the proposal goes, we originally did with arms, hands and fingers. For hundreds of thousands of years, maybe longer, our prehistoric forebears commanded a gestural ‘protolanguage’. This idea is evident in some of the earliest writings about language evolution, and is now as popular as ever. […]

Anthropologists of the 19th century widely championed gesture-first theories, citing other intuitive arguments. Garrick Mallery – who saw gesture as a ‘vestige of the prehistoric epoch’ – noted that it is much easier to create new, interpretable signals with one’s hands than with one’s voice. Imagine ‘troglodyte man’, he wrote in 1882. ‘With the voice he could imitate distinctively but the few sounds of nature, while with gesture he could exhibit actions, motions, positions, forms, dimensions, directions, and distances, with their derivatives and analogues.’ In more modern terms, it is easier to create transparent signals with gesture – signals that have a clear relationship to what they mean. This observation has since been borne out in lab experiments, and it remains one of the most compelling arguments for a gestural protolanguage.

In the 20th century, scholars held on to these intuitive arguments for gestural theories, while also introducing new sources of evidence. One thinker in particular, Gordon Hewes, deserves special credit for this advance. An anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Hewes had an encyclopaedic cast of mind and an unusual zeal for questions about language origins. In 1975, he published an 11,000-item bibliography on the topic. But it was his article ‘Primate communication and the gestural origin of language’ (1973) that would initiate a new era of ‘gesture-first’ theorising. […]

The takeaway from observations of primate communication is not that ape gestures have all the hallmarks of human language – far from it. It’s that, compared with the mouth, the hands seem to be better soil for the seeds of language. Central to contemporary discussions of language evolution is the notion of our last common ancestor with chimpanzees – a now-extinct species perhaps 5 to 10 million years old. Given what we know about primates today, we can confidently say that this ancestor had gestural and vocal abilities much like those of modern chimps. Which means its hands were more language-ready than its mouth – as Hewes put it in 1973, the manual medium was the ‘line of least biological resistance’. […]

In the decades since Hewes, the popularity of gestural theories has swelled. Leading figures in the cognitive sciences have now published their own variants in prominent venues. What might once have been called a single gesture-first theory is now best considered a family of related proposals. One branch maintains that early gestures consisted primarily of ‘pantomime’ – that is, those transparent gestures that re-enact or depict and thus resemble what they mean. Another branch posits that pointing is the most likely ur-gesture, citing the fact that it is the first to be acquired by children. […]

Now we come to the problem: today, speech predominates. People gesture, but their gesture is clearly a secondary supplement. People also sign but, outside of deaf communities, they favour speech. So, if language did get its start in the hands, then at some later stage it decamped to the mouth. The vexing question is: why? Already in the 18th century, Condillac appreciated the difficulty of this problem. ‘With the language of action at that stage being so natural, it was a great obstacle to overcome,’ he wrote. ‘How could it be abandoned for another language whose advantages could not yet be foreseen?’ This is now known as the problem of ‘modality transition’. To his credit, Hewes fully acknowledged it, and every gesture-first proponent since has had to address it in some way. Can it possibly be explained? […]

The burden of proof is clear. To remain viable, gesture-first theories need an account of the move from hand to mouth. And this account would need several pieces. I like to imagine modality transition as a kind of epic journey, one that our protagonist – language – might have been on for hundreds of thousands of years. As with any journey, the protagonist would need a reason to go and a means of getting there, a why and a how. Let’s take these two parts in turn.

There’s much more history and argumentation at the link. Thanks, Jack!

Comments

  1. The key assumption here seems to be that the earliest language had to clearly refer in an unambiguous way to what it, um, referred to.

    Except we don’t see that with animal calls, do we? When a prairie dog makes the “snake! snake!” call or the “hawk! hawk!” call, there’s nothing particularly snake-like or hawk-like about those warnings. They just are arbitrary noises that mean “do the thing you do to protect yourself from this predator”. Dolphins use elaborate clicks and whistles to “name” themselves and others, but it’s not as though those names make an echo-image of other dolphins, they’re just arbitrary.

    For that matter, in modern sign languages, while there are some signs that clearly do resemble what they refer to, and others that have an etymology (or at least a folk etymology) that, once explained, makes sense as referring back to whatever-it-is, plenty more are just totally arbitrary because when you get right down to it, lots of very important words that we use every day actually can’t be easily mimed out, no more than we can make a call that sounds like them.

    No, I don’t think these arguments are intuitive at all, not unless the secret sauce of “intuition” turns out to be thinly veiled ableism.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    it is easier to create transparent signals with gesture – signals that have a clear relationship to what they mean

    This, ingenuously presented as an argument in favour, is of course in reality an argument against: the single most distinctive thing about actual language is the arbitrariness of the sign. The reference (in passing) to sign languages shows a – related – basic misconception about what they actually are.

    [largely ninja’d by Uly. No matter … We were talking about such issues not long ago: IIRC, ə made some very good points regarding the time dislocation of signs from the signified, quite apart from arbitrariness in general]

  3. This kind of thing makes me cranky. It’s the argument of, “if we deaden our imagination enough, there’s no way our ancestors could have done such and such…”

    We have had another way of gestural communication for the last couple of thousand years (widespread for about a hundred), and yet another getting widespread for the last decade or two, and I don’t see anyone arguing about energy expenditures to explain them.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, it reminds me rather of all those Man the Hunter, Woman the Gatherer sociobiology stories. It must have been so, Best Beloved …

  5. Stu Clayton says

    So, if language did get its start in the hands, then at some later stage it decamped to the mouth. The vexing question is: why?

    Speculation about “why” is irresponsibly telic. We can take note of one result: the hands become free to seize the day and engage in mischief. At the same time, you can now mess around with people’s heads by saying weird things to them. What’s not to like ?

    We all know this from cellphone earpods. The idea was knocked around in the writings of certain German “philosophers” (Gehlen et al.) a hundred years ago.

    What we now do with tongue, teeth and lips, the proposal goes, we originally did with arms, hands and fingers.

    Just the other day I saw someone chopping wood with their tongue.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    Hello. The sun goes down. Speech works, gestures not so much. What a surprise. You try calling the kids in for dinner with gestures….

  7. jack morava says

    I am impressed by the work of T Deacon and others, suggesting that human language facility and human languages themselves are the result of some kind of symbiotic co-evolution.

    Gestures smeshtures, a wink is as good as a nod: it may be wrong-headed to think that vocal versus deictic acts are necessarily exclusive or opposed categories of communication, and it may be that this process has been part of the primate experiment for a while. But then I am also quite fond of the

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquatic_ape_hypothesis

    [regards, BTW, to my fellow Jack]

  8. January First-of-May says

    AFAIK one strong argument towards the gestural origin is that chimps have been recorded to have a (primitive, but less so than most animal calls) gesture-based language. I’m not sure if that’s still considered authentic science. From what I’ve heard, it was hard to discover because captive chimps don’t do that and getting enough video of wild chimps was tricky.

    I imagine that if there was an ancient mainly-gestural language (in a non-deaf population) it could have also been combined with auditory cues, at least to the effect of “I’m speaking right now, pay attention” – which would have helped with PlasticPaddy’s second argument, and for that matter might well have provided a pathway for the modality transition.
    (Indeed even modern speech-based communication often appears to have significant gestural components!)

    The anti-gestural argument I’ve heard in my linguistic classes was essentially Stu Clayton’s first, i.e. that a gestural language used up the hands, which could have been used for work instead; I don’t recall PlasticPaddy’s first argument (about the sun) being mentioned, but to me it seems to be the best one so far. Nights were (and are) long and dark down in Africa.

    [EDIT: I see now that all of the above, except maybe the supposed chimp sign language, was mentioned in the article.]

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Nights were (and are) long and dark down in Africa.

    On average, of course, just the same as in Norway.
    All good apes are asleep by then anyway.

  10. I’m with @Hat: a self-evidently absurd theory

    Can the fossil record help? Did proto-humans always have vocal chords and a vocal tract? Would there be any use for those other than (proto-)speech?

    And theoretical parsimony: why explain a perfectly well-adapted artefact in terms of something communicatively dysfunctional? With speaking/hearing you can communicate and at the same time use your hands to good purpose and your eyes.

  11. David Marjanović says

    But then I am also quite fond of the

    It’s wrong-headed, too. Not a single fossil can be squeezed into its narrative, and every single one of our supposed adaptations to living in or near water has a better explanation elsewhere.

    chimps have been recorded to have a (primitive, but less so than most animal calls) gesture-based language

    If you find a source for this, please do post it. You’d think Jane Goodall would have discovered it long ago…

  12. David Marjanović says

    Did proto-humans always have vocal chords and a vocal tract?

    Those are standard issue for mammals, which is why more or less all mammals can scream even though some (e.g. hares, rabbits) almost never do. But the bone(s) in that apparatus are lost very easily after death, and most of the cartilage remains cartilage and is never replaced by bone in the first place. Vocal chords are soft tissue altogether.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m vaguely aware that there has been quite a lot of debate about whether our Neanderthal cousins* could speak, which seems to rely pretty heavily on fairly minimal bits of fossil evidence relating to hyoid bones and assumptions about the “function” of certain genes. It seems to me to be an exercise in the higher guesswork, with a garnish of “well, surely they must have been able to …”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal#Language

    Others will know much more about this …

    * And great-grandfathers, for those of us descended from the groups that got thrown out of Africa.

  14. Stu Clayton says

    Others will know much more about this …

    That is earnestly to be doubted.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    I can hope …
    (Don’t take that away from me, Stu.)

  16. Here’s a recent popular article on the subject:
    https://www.sapiens.org/column/field-trips/did-neanderthals-speak/

    More technically, Barney et al.,
    https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2011.0259

    More recently, Fitch et al.,
    https://www.science.org/doi/full/10.1126/sciadv.1600723
    conclude: “Our findings imply that the evolution of human speech capabilities required neural changes rather than modifications of vocal anatomy. Macaques have a speech-ready vocal tract but lack a speech-ready brain to control it.”

    And Boë et al.’s review,
    https://www.science.org/doi/full/10.1126/sciadv.aaw3916
    sums it: “Thus, evidence now overwhelmingly refutes the long-standing laryngeal descent theory, which pushes back ‘the dawn of speech’ beyond ~200 ka ago to over ~20 Ma ago, a difference of two orders of magnitude.”

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Looks like the anatomical stuff (hyoid bones etc) is essentially irrelevant to the question of whether Neanderthals could speak.

    More broadly, this means that one of the key assumptions of the Aeon article

    we can confidently say that this ancestor had gestural and vocal abilities much like those of modern chimps. Which means its hands were more language-ready than its mouth

    is, in fact, wrong.

    [You see, Stu? I told you others would know much more about it … I was right not to give way to despair.]

  18. being from a cultural group that famously has trouble talking with our mouths when we can’t also use our hands to communicate, i find the idea that human language wouldn’t always have had parallel gestural and sonic elements a bit bizarre.*

    i tend to think that the study of language generally suffers from not taking gesture seriously – perversely, at least partly a byproduct of the visual basis of most studies of even spoken language, since transcriptions include such a limited slice of the communicative field. even when some limited space is found for pitch, melody, and rhythm, timbre is almost always ignored, even though it’s arguably a primary aspect of semantics.

    but the idea of a shift from All Gesture to All Sound seems especially silly.

    (and as Uly, DE, and others have said or implied, it sure does smell of classic sociobiologic sewage)

    .
    * it’s my impression that multi-sensory communication (with sound, gesture/motion, scent, &c, depending) is also the usual pattern in other species – there’s no reason to expect humans to be different.

  19. You try calling the kids in for dinner with gestures….

    I recall a hilarious episode with a herd of cows at sunset. A bull, a couple of cows, and some calves were grazing at the edge of a forest. No herders were to be seen. The bull was in mind to move along somewhere so it walked slowly, not forgetting to browse. The cows trudged along. But the youngsters prefered just munching and not moving. Every minute or so, the bull, who moved couple of meters down the path already, turned its head toward the calves and produced the moo sound. The calves reluctantly walked a couple of paces toward the bull. And so it went for about 15 minutes during which I stared at this family scene in total amazement.

  20. rozele: totally! And here is an earlier paper on the study of so-called “co-speech gesture”. There’s now at least one journal, Gesture (natch) dedicated to the subject. All the same, it’s not something that I’ve ever seen covered in a descriptive grammar, or in a text about linguistic description, or mentioned as something that linguists ever learn anything about.

  21. It is interesting that many (most?) people use gestures even when speaking to people who cannot see the gestures, namely, when speaking on the telephone and using similar devices.

    I have tried to repress the gestures myself when using such devices but constantly forget to do so.

    Does the combination of gesture and language even when the addressee cannot see the speaker not support the antiquity of both?

  22. A study of gestures in Italian

    I wonder — is there any evidence the Romans used a lot of gestures along with their Latin? If not, the modern Italians presumably came up with their various signals and indications after they’d invented spoken Italian.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Ideophones in African languages may come with particular gestures, and I have seen some accounts of such things in descriptive grammars. Unfortunately descriptions of ideophones tend in general not to be very expansive, even on the purely spoken side of things. (They don’t fit neatly into our familiar word categories, so they tend to get sidelined, and they also tend to turn up a lot less in the sort of texts that descriptions are based on than in Real Life™.)

    Somewhere (unfortunately I can’t track it down just now) I saw a very full account of counting gestures in an Australian language; the moral of the story was that just because there aren’t spoken words for most numbers, it doesn’t at all follow that people can’t understand or express the concepts.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piero_Sraffa#Personal_connections

    Wittgenstein was insisting that a proposition and what it describes must have the same ‘logical form’, the same ‘logical multiplicity’. Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger-tips of one hand. And he asked: ‘What is the logical form of that?’

    And Wittgenstein was Enlightened.

  25. @DE: a very full account of counting gestures in an Australian language

    This?

  26. Thanks @Y. From that paper’s Intro

    Adult speakers of Pirahã, an Amazonian language that contains words for just “one,” “two,” “few,” and “many,” have difficulty putting small sets of objects in one-to-one correspondence, …

    Hmm? They can’t see that they have as many toes on each foot as fingers on each hand? They can’t even see they have the same number of fingers on each hand? Are there animals in the environment with fewer digits?

    @rozele i find the idea that human language wouldn’t always have had parallel gestural and sonic elements a bit bizarre.

    Indeed. The sort of bizarre fostered by sitting in a study communicating only in writing. I wonder which facet of [Merge] explains how languages get to have number words beyond “one”, “two”, “few”, “many”?

  27. Early humans are distinguished from apes by constructing and using tools, an activity which occupies the hands.

    Neanderthals obtained much of their food by group attacks on large dangerous animals using thrusting weapons. It is difficult to see how this would be coordinated without speech, as half the group would be on the opposite side of the animal and not able to see gestures, and of course the participants’ hands would be wielding weapons.

    There was a discussion I remember from a while back, I believe it may have been on this very forum, as to whether homo erectus had language. The consensus was that it was highly likely, because homo erectus built boats, and it is hard to imagine building a complex group project like a boat without language. (We know that homo erectus built boats or something similar because they lived on islands that would be near impossible to get to any other way.) It might have been a gestural language, possibly, but again the hands would have been occupied with the task.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    @Y:

    No, it was an actual printed book. I remember the pictures. (Interesting, though.)

    I saw an account which disputed the supposed Pirahā inability to count. Unfortunately, I don’t think Everett’s statements on such matters can necessarily be taken as definitive. It is remarkably difficult for ethnologists to avoid discovering that their preconceptions about the people they are studying are true. Tony Naden talks about the pitfalls in talking about “traditional religion” here, in particular how easy it is to end up shoehorning the actual data into your preset (basically Western) concepts of “religion”, “magic” etc, regardless of whether they are actually appropriate or illuminating:

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314891276_Ancestor_Non-worship_in_Mampruli

    (I don’t agree with everything in this, particularly some of the technical linguistic stuff, but he’s spot on about the pitfalls; for example, the uselessness of asking people directly why they are doing something: and as he says, local etiquette means in fact that the investigator’s would-be neutral “Why are you doing that?” actually has the pragmatic force of “Why the hell are you doing that?” It also leads to people either telling you whatever they reckon you want to hear, or tactfully sidestepping your question altogether if it’s really off the wall. This used to bite me regularly until I realised that it was not deviousness but everyday expected courtesy.)

    I wonder which facet of [Merge] explains how languages get to have number words beyond “one”, “two”, “few”, “many”?

    Well, the industry-standard set-theoretical way of setting up the integers does it all just with set membership and the empty set, so I guess it’s not logically impossible. Just …

  29. Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger-tips of one hand.

    See this 2006 post.

  30. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    With speaking/hearing you can communicate and at the same time use your hands to good purpose and your eyes.

    My twin grandchildren are now 7, but a few years ago when they were learning to get around on the floor their progress was very different. My grandson learned quite quickly to crawl in the standard fashion — two hands, two knees, but his sister didn’t. Her problem was not that she was stupid (she isn’t) but because she always had something in at least one hand, usually a toy she didn’t want her brother to get. This meant that she never had two hands available for crawling, and had to drag herself around in a clumsy way. MORAL: if you’re using your hands for some essential task you can’t use them simultaneously for something else.

  31. jack morava says

    @ AntC,

    I believe there’s evidence that people without numbers can use something like a mass (ie vs count) noun system: `an eye’s measure’, a handful, a heap or an oodle, basically logarthmic (like brightness or the we perceive weights, cf

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weber%E2%80%93Fechner_law ).

  32. David Marjanović says

    Hmm? They can’t see that they have as many toes on each foot as fingers on each hand? They can’t even see they have the same number of fingers on each hand?

    I’m honestly not sure. That’s the famous language where the words first interpreted as “one” and “two” really just mean “very few” and “a bit more than that” and speakers really do have non-linguistic trouble with concepts like “four”.

    Are there animals in the environment with fewer digits?

    Birds and sloths come to mind.

    Early humans are distinguished from apes by constructing and using tools

    That’s about 40 years out of date. Chimps do make tools on occasion (and so do New Caledonian crows and a list of others).

    BTW, Homo is a genus name, so it’s always in uppercase.

  33. Lars Mathiesen says

    @DE in re Merge: At one of the last N (or ω-1) occasions where this came up, somebody quoted someone Chomsky-adjacent to the effect that it was possible to define an ordered pair in ZF so clearly that must be what Merge is inside the language facility. It would then seem redundant to detour through Merge to get the ordinals innit. They must be universal built-ins in and of themselves.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    People have an innate ZF organ. It’s what sets us apart from the animals.

  35. i just spotted some linguist wondering how base-12 systems could arise [in Africa]. It is unrelated to the discussion here, but: base-12 can very well be conveniet for counting gestures, given that some base-15 systems include gestrues like “touch your forehead” I have no idea what’s convenient. Yet we are active users of 12 and 60 (minutes), it is a good idea to remember that 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 are divisors of 60. 12 and 60 are really convenient when you need to divide.

  36. Maybe, like Indians, they count phalanges with their thumbs?

  37. Crawdad Tom says

    (Indeed even modern speech-based communication often appears to have significant gestural components!)

    –i find the idea that human language wouldn’t always have had parallel gestural and sonic elements a bit bizarre.–i tend to think that the study of language generally suffers from not taking gesture seriously–

    David McNeill did a lot of work on these points (though without, as far as I can recall, ever connecting them to the question of the origins of language), showing how gestures are part of an utterance and help us understand more about the production of the utterance and the mental image underlying the utterance. Observations show that gestures and spoken utterances are synchronized, and that gestures sometimes add to what is expressed in speech. They may help speakers talk by helping to maintain and develop imagistic thinking. See D. McNeill (1987) Psycholinguistics: a new approach, and (1992) Hand and mind: what gestures reveal about language.

    An example I collected myself, in a bilingual English-Mandarin family, where a child at one year and nine months old was not yet producing full negative utterances in either language, but used gesture to communicate negation (he wanted to put his lip balm on his father’s lips):

    Father: No, that’s only yours.
    Child: Baba-de (爸爸的) [plus gesture: open hand, palm facing out, waved back and forth]

    (gloss): Father – genetive [not]

  38. Crawdad Tom says

    Ah–wikipedia informs me that McNeill has a later book: How language began: gesture and speech in human evolution (2012), but obviously, I haven’t read it.

  39. D.O. if you mean base 12 – I saw it in Numeral systems in Mande languages, Vydrin, Perekhvalskaya (link)

    “The question is how could a twelve-digit system ever appear? Examples of this count: the division of the year in 12 months, the count of time (12 hours a day), the division of the hour in 60 minutes, and 3600 seconds, the division of the circle in 360 degrees. This system was accepted in Europe, and then spread all over the world. Its origin is usually associated with Babylon and is determined by observations of the movement of the Moon But how the achievements of the Ancient East could reach the remote mountains in the depths of Africa is unclear Therefore, one should search the origin of this system in the hand count, and not fingers, but 12 phalanges” (Olderogge 1982: 28).

    Yes, maybe phalanges. But I just mean, it is a good number that can even arise in a natural process (whenever this process goes faster if there are more good divisors/more symmetry).

    (Of ocurse one can object that Barbarians do not divide, but no: we multiply, we divide and we conquer)

  40. Vydrin, Perekhvalskaya
    Funnily, I mechanically reordered them in the Russian alphabetical order…

    I was alctually looking for base-15 systems in Asia. Sadly, this article does not have what I was looking for. Instead it has: “The elements of pentadecimal systems in Jogo-Ligbi and Boko, isolated within the Mande family, may also result from borrowing from Gur languages or Senufo (cf. (Carlson 1994) on the presence of the pentadecimal model in some Senufo languages).

  41. jack morava says

    Counting systems, eg calendars, are often based on the Chinese Remainder theorem, which says in particular that if you have two cyclical systems of day names, for example of length 20 and 13 as in Mesoamerica then a date like Six Rabbit specifies an unambiguous date in a 260 day cycle (supposedly useful for keeping track of human pregnancies); lack of seasons in equatorial cultures, cf eg

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balinese_calendar

    may have something to do with this. Very big numbers are nowadays remembered by computers as lists of their residues modulo convenient lists of large primes.

    Mesopotamian base 60 = 5 x 12 = 4 x 3 x 5 arithmetic perhaps goes back to Sumeria: a minute is roughly sixty heartbeats. A counting system based on a product of small primes can be very useful for numbers that aren’t too large, cf Archimedes’ `Sandreckoner’. Gauss’s quadratic reciprocity law expresses a very tricky property of the important prime number two, which is a thorn in the side of algebraic topology…

  42. David Eddyshaw says

    @drasvi:

    A lot of languages in West Africa have 6-9 derived from 5 plus 1-4; Fulfulde, for example, and indeed a lot of “Atlantic”; Vai (which is Mande) too:

    https://www.omniglot.com/images/writing/vai_num.gif

    It’s not particularly a “Gur” thing at all. Western Oti-Volta has distinct numerals from 1-9 and a straightforward decimal system, as does Oti-Volta in general; however, 6-9 are often not cognate across branches.

    Thus

    Kusaal: yinni, ayi, atan’, anaasi, anu, ayuobʋ, ayɔpɔi, anii, awai, piiga
    Mbèlimè: yɛ̄n̄de, yédē, tāātē, nāasi, nūmmu, dúo, dōōdɛ́, nı̄n̄yɛ̄, āwɛ̄, pı́ikɛ̄

    These are all cognate except “seven”; the a– of the Kusaal forms is a fossilised plural class agreement prefix, and the Mbèlimè d ~ Kusaal y correspondence seen in “two”, “six” and “seven” reflects Proto-Oti-Volta *ʎ. The forms for “seven” don’t match; Kusaal “seven” is probably an old compound, where the first element is “six”; in counting, “seven” is just mpɔi (where the m- is a different fossilised agreement prefix, one for “abstract nouns.”)

    Despite the impressive match between two only remotely related Oti-Volta branches, the whole 1-9 set is probably not reconstructable to Proto-Oti-Volta; other Eastern Oti-Volta languages have quite different forms for 6-9, and numbers are, contrary to what Indo-Europeanists and Semiticists might be tempted to think, extremely borrowable.

    More broadly, although “two”, “three” and “four” are reconstructable (-ish) for Proto-Volta-Congo, further numerals are not. “Five” is something like “nu” in a lot of the languages at the more western end, though. It’s tempting to link it with Proto-Oti-Volta *nu- “hand.”

  43. Stu Clayton says

    Very big numbers are nowadays remembered by computers as lists of their residues modulo convenient lists of large primes.

    Cool.

    Gauss’s quadratic reciprocity law expresses a very tricky property of the important prime number two, which is a thorn in the side of algebraic topology…

    When I dabbled in algebraic topology, two was not a thorn. Nor was the quadratic reciprocity law. Doesn’t trickiness make itself apparent only in attempts to generalize the latter ? [according to the WiPe]

    Two is company, more’s a bitch.

  44. jack morava says

    @ Stu,

    It is indeed a puzzlement. IIUC things like handedness and orientation don’t come up in Euclidean geometry… in higher dimensions there are not-well-understood periodicities, for example of order eight… Spaces of dimension divisible by four have extra structures not seen in other dimension – Dirac’s spinors make sense only in such dimensions, and they’re apparently not just conceptual artifacts because such structures have major physical significance. So this trickiness may be relevant to questions like why are there (supposedly) three generations of quarks? I think we should be told…

    [added in proof, cf perhaps

    https://www.quantamagazine.org/mathematicians-transcend-geometric-theory-of-motion-20211209/ ]

  45. @DE, does Gur has counting systems where 15 is marked in some way?

  46. Stu Clayton says

    @jack,

    Spaces of dimension divisible by four have extra structures not seen in other dimension

    But the h-cobordism theorem (the highest summit I reached in my “studies”) shows that you can smoothly discard some of those structures on manifolds of dimension 5 and up (which are not exactly “spaces”, granted). Life is a give and take.

    mathematicians transcend

    Yes, I read that article when it appeared, without understanding it. Oh well.

  47. jack morava says

    Yep, above dimension five things do simplify, but that just encourages ppl who like to classify things; the Kervaire invariant problem (about unsmoothable manifolds) in dimension

    126 = 2 (2^6 – 1)

    is a hot topic these days…

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    In a spirit of fairness, I looked a bit at the other (Grusi) branch of the alleged “Central Gur” to see if it had the supposed quinaritude, but it doesn’t.

    Chakali has

    dɪgɪmaŋa alɪɛ atoro anaasɛ aɲɔ̃ aloro alʊpɛ ŋmɛŋtɛl dɪgɪtuo fi
    (“nine” is literally “one off.”)

    Kabyè has

    kʋɖʋm na-lɛ na-tozo na-nza na-nʋwa loɖo lʋbɛ lutoozo nakʋ hiw
    (where na- is an agreement prefix)

    Kasem has

    kalʋ nle ntɔ nna nnu ndʋ npɛ nana nʋgʋ fugə
    (counting forms, which take the prefix n-, as in Western Oti-Volta.)

    2-5 are the usual suspects, and “ten” is probably cognate to the Oti-Volta words.

    Assuming that l corresponds to Proto-Oti-Volta *ʎ, on the basis of “two”, it’s interesting that it turns up in “six” and “seven” again in Chakali and Kabyè, though the actual forms look as if someone’s switched them round …

    “Eight” and “nine” look like hopeless cases for comparative purposes, though. Kabyè lutoozo “eight” actually does look like it has something to do with “three.” Kasem “seven” looks eerily like the Kusaal counting form mpɔi.

    I think it’s fair to hypothesise that 6-9 didn’t exist as distinct number words in Proto-Volta-Congo (there never was any “Proto-Gur”, comrade) and that various branches have filled the gap either with “five plus” constructions or independent new creations. But I can’t attach any sense to the idea that Mande quinary systems are due to “Gur” influence. (They do seem common in “Atlantic”; if you’re going to blame Mande quinary systems on contact, that actually seems a whole lot more plausible as a place to start. And if “Atlantic” is, in whole or part, related to Volta-Congo, presumably the original Atlantic-Congo area was split in two by the irruption of Mande, so several modern Mande languages might well have had “Atlantic” substrata.)

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    does Gur have counting systems where 15 is marked in some way?

    None that I know of (but there are a lot of “Gur” languages I know nothing about.)

    I don’t (as you may have gathered) actually believe that there is such a thing as “Gur”; the original construct was based really on nothing much more sophisitcated than having noun class suffixes instead of prefixes and being nearby to other supposed “Gur” languages. The doyen of comparative work in this area, Manessy, did extraordinary work for the time, especially given the fact that he was often working with extremely sparse materials, but athough he makes valiant efforts to apply proper comparative methods his methodology is often pretty dreadful. He also did his work on “Gur” before people had really taken on board things like the importance of non-trivial common innovations in defining valid genetic subgroups (he gave up on comparative work in his later years and got into creolistics.) The “standard” account of “Gur” in older reference works is basically Manessy’s to this day, but the more peripheral bits (like Senoufo) have long since been separated off by serious scholars. The consensus still seems to be that “Central Gur” (Oti-Volta plus Grusi) is a real thing, but the relationship between the two is certainly quite distant, and there have been published papers suggesting that certain “Adamawa” languages are more closely related to Grusi than to Oti-Volta, which seems to undermine the notion of Central Gur (even) as a real unity.

    I’m still agnostic about Central Gur; I think it was a premature construction on Manessy’s part, but there are at least some promising possibilities for common innovations. Once I’ve got my stuff on Oti-Volta more coherent …

  50. PlasticPaddy says

    @de
    Looking at your data, could you posit some scheme like
    *lo *le *to *na
    *nu
    *lodu/dulo
    *ledu/dule
    *todu/duto
    *nadu/duna
    Where the higher numbers were subject to replacement, e.g. nana =2×4 =8

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    @PP:

    Yes, it’s very interesting.

    “Two”, “three”, “four” and “five” are actually basically unproblematic, although there are some rough edges, largely to do with not-totally-predictable elements following the roots. Some of these elements at least are probably noun class suffixes, like the si of Kusaal anaasi “four.” Apart from “five”, these roots have cognates all over Volta-Congo (and indeed clearly connected forms turn up even in Mande and Dogon – but see below on borrowing.)

    The Proto-Oti-Volta forms were *ʎɪ *tãʔ *na:(sɪ) *nu, and the Grusi forms are certainly cognate.
    The variety of forms for “one” is not surprising; it’s quasi-pronominal and even within single languages there are often several unrelated roots for it (Kusaal, for example, beside yinni, has also kɔn’, which turns up in counting and also in the adverbial sense “alone, by oneself.”)

    “Ten” was *pi:- in Proto-Oti-Volta; it consistently has the ga/si class suffixes and behaves like a respectable noun, instead of taking agreement prefixes like 2-9. The Grusi forms are probably cognate.

    “Eight” could indeed have originated as 4×2, not only in Kasem but also in Western Oti-Volta and Mbèlimè, if you hypothesise that if had the fu/i class plural suffix, which umlauts aa to ii (cf Kusaal naaf “cow”, plural niigi.)

    “Nine” is all over the place, and I don’t think much can be done with it, but “six” and “seven” are more interesting.

    Adding more data:
    Moba is a Gurma language, and thus fairly distant from WOV within Oti-Volta.
    Moba 1-10 (counting forms, as usual with the “abstract” n/m agreement prefix), with the Kusaal counting forms for comparison:

    Moba: yenl nle ntaa nna nnu nloob nlole nnii nwai piig
    Kusaal: yeoŋ nyi ntan’ nnaas nnu nyuob mpɔi nnii nwai piiga

    In fact, all the Moba forms are clearly cognate to the WOV forms except -lole “seven”; Proto-OV *ʎ always becomes l in Moba, whereas in Proto-Western it became y when root-initial and after short root vowels, and /r/ elsewhere.

    Assuming that the Proto-OV word for “seven” was *ʎoʎ(ɪ)-, the expected outcome of this in Proto-WOV would thus have been *yoy, which in Kusaal would have become *yɔ(ɔ)-, which is not a very distinctive sort of word. On reflexion, it is very likely this which is the first component of the quantifier form of Kusaal “seven”, viz ayɔpɔi, rather than a form of “six”, as I suggested above. [I should explain that ayɔpɔi in fact must be some sort of compound on phonological grounds: it’s not possible for a single root to contain two /ɔ/ vowels.]

    The second element turns up by itself as the counting form of “seven”, as seen above, and that in turn may indeed be related to the Kasem npɛ “seven.” The “seven” words in Chakali and Kabyè, alʊpɛ and lʋbɛ, on the face of it look like the WOV and Gurma “six” words (Moba nloob) rather than “seven”, but I think this is illusory: the Grusi languages seem to have undergone a vast amount of intervocalic lenition of consonants compared with Oti-Volta, and these “seven” words might instead go back to a similar formation to the WOV type seen in Kusaal ayɔpɔi, i.e. they might be composed of both the “seven” roots, compounded together.

    I’ve left out the 6-9 numbers in Eastern Oti-Volta for the most part, as apart from those in Mbèlimè they are clearly not cognate with WOV or Gurma or indeed each other. Still, Gurma is not particularly close to WOV within Oti-Volta, so the fact that the Moba numbers largely match WOV may mean that it is EOV which has innovated there (but why would that happen?)

    I’m a bit dubious about leaping to conclusions about cognates and blithely reconstructing protoforms in this domain, though. Numbers are very much subject to borrowing in this zone (Hausa has borrowed “two”!) and some of these resemblances seem a bit too close (such as the Kasem/Kusaal “seven” forms.) As I mentioned above, the relationship between Oti-Volta and Grusi is actually quite distant (getting on for Germanic/Slavonic, roughly.)

  52. John Cowan says

    the single most distinctive thing about actual language is the arbitrariness of the sign

    All very well, but gesture (as opposed to sign) is not so arbitrary. It is arbitrary that the sign for TWO in ASL is made palm inward (the palm-outward equivalent is LETTER V), whereas the gesture for TWO can go either way, at least in countries where the palm-inward gesture is not obscene.

    a gestural language used up the hands

    If you use both hands, yes; if you use one hand, not so much. (ASL and French SL are one-handed sign languages, though some signs are two-handed, whereas BSL and Auslan are inherently two-handed.)

    being from a cultural group that famously has trouble talking with our mouths when we can’t also use our hands to communicate

    It’s not just cultural, it’s regional too. New Yorkers typically gesture more than their co-ethnics elsewhere (I myself being one of these).

    a very tricky property of the important prime number two

    A very annoying property of the number two is that 2^4 = 4^2, which allows all sorts of proofs of incorrect theorems to exist. By the same token, “one is prime, sort of; three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, nine is an error, eleven is prime, thirteen is prime … good enough, all odd numbers are prime!”

  53. jack morava says

    … 2^4 = 4^2 …

    That’s (arguably) exactly the issue in the 126-dimensional Kervaire invariant problem I cited upthread.

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