The role of pantomime in gestural language evolution, its cognitive bases and an alternative


This article examines a popular trend of postulating that gestures have played a crucial role in the emergence of human language. Language evolution is frequently understood as a transition from a system, in which signals (whether vocal or manual) have fixed meanings and are used asymmetrically by senders and receivers, through specific cognitive and neurological changes, to a system, in which signals are (1) flexibly referential, i.e., can stand for a variety of ideas and (2) intersubjective, i.e., can be used equally in production and comprehension with any member of the community. The function assigned to gestures in gesture-first theories is to provide a first version of the more advanced open-ended communication in the form of spontaneous pantomimes that initiates a subsequent expansion of this system, its conventionalization and eventually a switch to the vocal modality. In the present article, I examine a particular theory that claims that pantomime was enabled by changes within the system of complex action recognition, and imitation. I argue that while the theory is promising, the notion of a pantomime it employs, presupposes two sophisticated abilities that themselves are left unexplained: symbolization and intentional communication. I point out two ways to remedy the situation, namely, constructing a leaner understanding of pantomime or supplementing the theory with an explanation for the emergence of these abilities. In this article I pursue a third option: identifying an alternative mechanism that can lead to a suitably complex language precursor while avoiding pantomime and its problematic cognitive bases altogether. This mechanism is ontogenetic ritualization, a well-known process responsible for the development of gestures in non-human primates. I outline the possibility that when placed in appropriate sociocultural circumstances, in which complementary actions around objects are required, this process can lead to signals that are modestly referential and intersubjective.

Journal of Language Evolution