Developing a vocal language. Standing three miles apart.

Tonight I was walking along a country road near my house, almost in the
dark. Despite the highway that runs at less than 500 meters from there,
there was an unusual moment of silence (probably everyone else in Italy
was staring at the TV), and I suddenly realized that with that silence
it would be possible for me to hear someone crying out loud from the
Torre del Mangia — literally three miles away from there. Or viceversa,
if you like.

It’s not that different from how the muezzin is spreading his voice
and prayers. In a pre-industrial society, there is generally speaking
much more silence than now. As a consequence, you can hear voices and
sounds from far distances.

Now translate this concept in … 40,000 BP and imagine how you would
use your voice to communicate with someone else. The usual theory about
the development of human language deals with social practices like
sitting around the fire, etc. that happen while being in the same place.
That is fine, but to me it doesn’t explain everything: the same people
had to communicate also during the day, and if they were developing a
language that would fit their needs, we may suppose they used it during
hunting and catching as well. My idea is that in this way the language
that comes out is restricted by the use they made of it: if it was for
communicating from three miles away, it had to be made of distinct and
recognizable sounds. Thus, in a sense, a simpler language than what can
be used when sitting around the fire.

Following this line of reasoning, only with new habits and the
abandonment of nomadic life a more complex language would have been
developed. And, of course, this might as well imply that shepherds would
have continued to use such a language, or at least such

I’m perfectly aware that what I have written hasn’t a single link to
reality (and I don’t know anything about language), but it was certainly
more interesting than watching soccer and I had a nice walk in the dark.

Pubblicato da

Stefano Costa

Archaeologist, I study the Late Antique and Early Medieval/Byzantine period on the northern side of the Mediterranean, focusing on pottery usage patterns. I'm also involved in open source and open knowledge communities, like OSGeo, the IOSA project and the Open Knowledge Foundation.