BEFORE THE BEGINNING OF WORDS
(Continuing the story about the dawn couple who met in very early times and how they set out on the trail to the sea.) The odd partners with their dog were equally amazed at what they saw and sat down together at the brow of the bluff to try to understand it. Far away was flat horizon that seemed somehow to move, heaving as if by taking breaths. A shiny expanse stretched under the sky, both of them gray and nearly metallic. Light came and went behind the top one, sometimes gleaming on the below surface. The closer that expanse got to the shore, the more complex it became with foamy ripples and long patterns of loops, darker than the closer surface up on the beach. (They didn’t know to call it “beach.”)
The game trail they had followed from the interior forest turned and slanted down the face of the bluff, but it took them a long time to try descending. Except for the dog who went up and down easily.
Halfway down, the overcast sky pulled back and all three stopped to stare at the wide sweep of color. That’s when they first smelled smoke. Off to the side was something they had never imagined, a cluster of human-made shelters. Smoke wisped out their tops. Pretty soon a man with a spear came out and stood in front of the shelters.
The odd couple tried to remember all the reassuring things they had taught each other. The woman pretended to rock a baby in her arms. The man picked up a stick, pretended to use it as a spear, then broke it and threw the halves away alongside. It was clear that he did not want to fight.
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Now I want to break the wall between “prose” and invention by using this situation I made up for purposes of elaboration.
- Attempts to explain the evolution of language overlooked that it evolved in verbal and non-verbal stages.
- Non-verbal stages of language include hyper-cooperation, intersubjectivity and joint attention. Verbal stages include words and grammar.
- The best way to make progress in the evolution of language is the focus on the origins of words, not grammar.”
Non-verbally this is the same situation as our modern conundrum of aliens from another planet landing here and us trying to figure out how to prevent one entity from killing the other. This example is meant to be a Neanderthal man and a homo-something woman (with dog) who have been inland hunter-gatherers but now come to a settlement of people who stay SETTLED, so that they are able to evade the constant migration in search of food in two ways: there is plenty of food, enough to stay in one place and build semi-permanent shelter and storage. And the terrain is now moving, bringing and taking. The necessary skill is knowing what it will do next and how to interact with it. The sea is rhythmic and blends with the rhythms of the people, so that sung and performed music is natural.
Competition is less because there is enough to eat, but the reach of the edges of contact are much more distant because travel is enabled by boats, sails, paddles, social coordination. In some circumstances (currents, tides, winds) it is possible to cross oceans. Awareness of the subtle minutia that make skill out of experience, is an enlargement of human culture. The importance of the compass points, especially as made possible by the star patterns, becomes basic to culture.
These are conceptual realities but not words, except as partial concepts and exchanges. Imagine the pressure to exchange emotions between the couple on the bluff, who do have language but not many shared words. Exclamations and gestures would have been eloquent and the dog would have participated by looking into faces, whining and wagging its tail.
Also concepts needing words are arising in the mind of the dweller by the sea. When his wife comes out and joins him, they can talk about it. What experiences keeps them from trying to kill the strangers? An accurate and potent understanding of these basic forces might save a lot of lives today. Surely by now there is a literature.
Back to the story: The woman has an open mouth, gaping and gasping. She covers it with her hand. The man is grinning. He makes a long, sweeping gesture as though tracing the horizon with his hand, a long interval. He begins to sing in the tempo of the sea.