Unfounded Speculation #1 – Language as Neoteny?

I was listening to Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” on audiobook during SDCC when I had a funny idea.

I wonder if the evolutionary development of language could be explained as neoteny, as least in part.

Etymologically, Neoteny means something like “tending toward the young.” It refers to when a species, through natural or artificial selection, creates adults who have characteristics of their young. So, for example, “toy dogs” often aren’t just smaller than their non-Toy equivalents. They often also have characteristics of the juvenile form of their non-Toy equivalents.

Neoteny can also occur in natural selection. For example, it’s been hypothesized that human females might have less body hair than males since males would’ve selected for a more youthful appearance.

It occurred to me that one characteristic many juvenile mammals have is that they are more vocal than their adult counterparts. Anyone who’s had a cat give birth to a litter knows this to be the case.

It’s also the case that wolf pups bark, but they don’t bark when full grown. With domesticated dogs, they often bark into adulthood, but this is probably the result of selection for vocalization.

Now for the idle speculation: Imagine you have an ape baby that tries to communicate with its mother. Expressing several types of sound as having consistent meaning might be very useful. They wouldn’t even have to be clear communication – the baby could teach its mother via classical conditioning. I.e. this pitch and volume means I want food, this pitch and volume means I’m scared, etc. You can imagine a situation in which easier mother-offspring communication helps survival. If improved communication developed by this means, it could then have been used for other things that we associate more with language – fighting, hunting, trade, et cetera. But it’s conceivable that it might first arise in a neotenic way.

They question then would by why so few animals have it. Well, if language comes via neoteny, perhaps the extent to which language develops depends on what else the animal does in its life. For example, if the animals are loners as adults, in depth communication isn’t necessary. So, you’d expect animals who live and hunt  in packs to be better at language.

Or, it could be that good communication, once developed neotenically has to be able to hook up with some particular pre-existing characteristic (say, foresight or abstract reasoning of some form) before it can advance to the human level.

I suspect this idea has already occurred to someone, and in all probability been rejected. But, I thought it was an interesting thought worth sharing.

Happy geeking!

Zach

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9 Responses to Unfounded Speculation #1 – Language as Neoteny?

  1. Lucas says:

    Your unfounded speculation fails entirely on one point:

    it is spelled “neoteny.” :P

    (otherwise, I got nothing)

  2. Boulet says:

    I love the idea of Neoteny, I drew a comic about it last year, it’s a fascinating subject !

    Another clue that langage and neotony could be related: the Novossibirsk experiment. It’s an experience running for more than 50 years now, whiwh consists in trying to breed a selection of best-tempered foxes in order to create a race of domestic foxes (and by this way understand how first humans had domesticate wolves to create dogs)

    Only “social” foxes have been bred (means the ones which are the most friendly with humans) and the rigorous selection of this social skills provoked the emergence of strange side-effects*: the more sociable the generations become, the more infantile caracteristics are preserved: foxes tend to have shorter snouts, shorter legs, rounder ears, and lose their glorious ginger color to go black & white

    And they bark, like dogs. The barking communication is believed to be a neotenic thing: wolves don’t bark, but their babies do. Maybe we just kept our baby-way to communicate by screaming, just in a more civilized way !

    And for the human neotenic caracteristic, I heard that the development of vocal cords and larynx was allowed by the standing-station: we may also speak as a side-effect of walking ! I also heard that neoteny could explain that women have developped breasts: it would be because we are built with a juvenile body, so we can’t have internal mammal glands: they have to grow outside.

    Neoteny may have induce langage, but it also may have induced boobs. And that’s equally awesome.

    *(these side-effects were predictable: a gene isn’t supposed to be one program supervising one caracteristic. genes are a very complex system of intricated fonctions, it’s hard to pull somewhere without messing something somewhere else. It’s called “Pleiotropy”. Another cool word to know after “Neoteny”)

  3. Theorrhea says:

    One reason why so few animals have it might be because human children need so much more care – we could have gotten stuck in a feedback loop, where longer development times and the need for language reinforced each other.

    One thing I do know about language is that it evolved from the part of the brain that controlled gesturing – vocalizations like screeching and whatnot were controlled in a part of the brain connected more to basic motor skills. This is why people with Tourette’s swear instead of saying random words – cursing is learned more as an automatic response, like screeching, and less as a communicative tool. (although obviously there’s overlap.)
    Babies always learn fairly quickly to manipulate parents with their vocalizations – perhaps this arose out of necessity, as lack of early motor skills led them to co-opt vocalizations to do communicative work.

  4. kitukwfyer says:

    Hmmm……I’m actually majoring in linguistics, but i won’t pretend to be authoritative at all. At this point, I’m just an enthusiast. Still, if you’re curious, I’ve read in several places (which of course I can’t remember) that most linguistic development and evolution comes from teenage girls. They make up whatever slang they like, and then end up imparting it to their children, at which point it ceases to be idiolectal and possibly becomes dialectal. Of course for every new speech pattern/vocabulary that actually gets adopted by the linguistic community, a bazillion more die out…Nowadays, with texting (which I’ve heard was introduced to attract female customers), telephones, email, etc., teenage girls (and teen children in general) are even more powerful. If a word is deemed “cool” by one group, it can quickly spread around. No generational transmission required….

    And yes, I realise that’s not what you were talking about, but it’s sort of related. As far as neoteny itself goes, I would say it’s another active force in linguistic evolution. There are a zillion pieces of anecdotal evidence I can think of to support it, but….Yeah. Anecdotes.

    As for your speculation, it’s interesting. My only immediate argument against would be that any sort of language would have to be imparted, or at least validated, by the mother. If the infant makes a noise consistently when it’s hungry, and the mother consistently doesn’t pick up on it and runs through whatever “ohgodwhatdoyouwant” routine, the kid’s probably going to give up. That’s actually sort of like infant babbling. Babies will just repeat the same sounds over and over again to try and see if they will elicit a specific response from adults. When saying “gaga” doesn’t do much, they might try “dada,” which will probably get a response from Daddy. If baby spontaneously decides “gaga” means “hungry,” and that is not how the mother understands hungry, then although understood it won’t be adopted. Motherese is one of those linguistic phenomena that sort of counters neoteny like what you’re suggesting….I’m not sure if it exists in animals, but I wouldn’t be surprised. If you don’t know motherese is basically what it sounds like. It’s how mommies all talk: exaggerated prosody and facial expressions with a simplified vocabulary, so that kids get the main ideas of accepted language and can communicate on a basic level. Refinement comes with time.

    Bah. I like this stuff too much. Therefore, the end.

    • cait says:

      I am not a student of this so I am even less of an expert here but as far as mother’s learning from their children’s communication I have personal anecdotal evidence. My brother did not begin to learn to speak until he was 2 yo. That is not to say he did not communicate, he did invent his own sign language. He would repeat his signs and grunts until we appropriately interpreted it.

      I believe I have read about children who were unable to participate through typical communication patterns developing their own simple languages. I don’t read much on this subject so I don’t recall who it was specifically, maybe helen keller?

      • kitukwfyer says:

        I’ve heard the same thing. Twins that sleep close together (or interact independently with each other a lot) will actually begin to develop their own language to communicate to each other in…sometimes separately from the one they use with their parents. Again, I don’t know specific case-studies or anything because I’m an amateur. I didn’t say children couldn’t develop their own language, I just said it doesn’t tend to survive much. I have personal experience with my baby cousin. Currently, his grammar and vocabulary are extremely creative. He has hand-gestures and body language, which, while pretty understandable, are completely non-standard. It’s adorable, but won’t survive ’til adulthood. For better or worse, we have an existing linguistic framework, which demands a certain degree of conformity from all its members. Adorable does not necessarily mean functional, and so when hanging out with a kid who’s learning to speak, you’re simultaneously witnessing linguistic creation and extinction….which is kind of a long way of saying evolution. :) Sure, it’s only an idiolect, but it’s still pretty awesome.

        And while it’s cool that your brother created his own language, he did require you to understand him, or to validate that language, and I would guess that once he did learn to speak a standard language that sign language disappeared.

        I love linguistics, so I was definitely rambling towards the end. I wasn’t thinking in complete arguments.

        Basically, my only point was that language cannot develop with only one person or participant. If a child engages in some sort of language, and everyone ignores its attempts, there will be no language development….at least in that direction. As I said, I was rambling. I’m not sure how that’s relevant, but it’s certainly interesting. :)

        Then again, as far as language goes, I’m a Chomskian. :)

        • Another amateur.

          I just thought I’d point out that if it is neoteny, it’s possible that it evolved as women were able to support larger families with food.

          If a woman has one child, the language won’t pass. But let’s say:

          Woman has a child and learns to respond to certain noises. Before that child is grown, she has another child.

          That child learns from THE OTHER CHILD what noises mom ALREADY responds to and tries to mimic them.

          Add in a tribal structure, where children aren’t strictly generational but are happening every year or two and you could rather quickly put together a very basic “language” for simple infantile needs.

          How it evolves after that is a question for MUCH more educated heads than mine, though…

  5. Nick says:

    I recall from Zoology courses that humans are unique in how we retain out Neotony. We essentially retain this incomplete state for our entire lives, which is why we can all stay in touch with our inner child and mutate after adolescence.

    Other animals conform to their evolved state so fast, they don’t really identify with their kids in the same way that we do as adults. Essentially we are all a bunch of big babies.

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