In Languages in the World we have defined language as an orienting behavior that orients the orientee within his or her cognitive domain.
When we think about deep time and the co-evolution of the human brain and language, we speculate that the first linguistic orientation was likely that of orientation: the way that one person’s verbalization, no doubt accompanied by a gesture and a touch, turned another person’s attention and bodily movements in a particular direction. Look this way, not that way. Or: Follow me. Or: The good game is over there. We could also call this orientation pointing the way.Linguistic pointing is known by the term deixis, from the Greek adjective deiktikos meaning ‘pointing.’
Deixis indicates the position of people, objects, and events with respect to a particular point of reference. Deictic categories include personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.), demonstrative pronouns (this, that), spatial adverbs (here, there), and temporal adverbs (today, tomorrow, yesterday).
How a language divides up the semantic space of the personal pronouns, for instance, can sometimes place this language in a long lineage of languages making similar distinctions. Whether or not a language has a deictic category, say, that of tense, can be similarly indicative of lineage inclusion or exclusion.
When it comes to the languages of the world, aspect is a more frequently occurring distinction than is tense. It also seems to be the case that children master aspect before tense in languages that have both categories. Possible measures of what counts as basic in language might be categories that most languages have and/or what children around the world are likely to pick up on more readily. The presence or absence of such a basic and widespread category as aspect may or may not be indicative of lineage inclusion or exclusion.
In this chapter, we are interested to get down to the basics, to the bottom of things linguistic. That is, we will do so insofar as we can for such a complex socio-cultural product as language, which has only left traces of itself since recorded history.
We will investigate what psycholinguists, evolutionary biologists, population geneticists, and deep-time historical linguists are able to tell us about linguistic states of affairs in the great blank space stretching from the chimp-human lineage split about six million years ago up until 40 kya when the lineages that eventually split into stocks were taking shape. We will paint what we can of the picture of how homo sapiens sapiens are also homo loquens.
From Chapter Ten The Remote Past: When Languages Becomes Embodied. Languages in the World. How History, Culture, and Politics Shape Language. (affiliate) Julie Tetel Andresen and Phillip Carter. November, 2015. Wiley-Blackwell.
This post was written by Julie Andresen