Putting Language Back in the Body: Speech and Gesture on Three Time Frames

Spencer D. Kelly, Jana M. Iverson, Joseph Terranova, Julia Niego, Michael Hopkins, Leslie Goldsmith
2002 Developmental Neuropsychology  
This article investigates the role that nonverbal actions play in language processing over 3 different time frames. First, we speculate that nonverbal actions played a role in how formal language systems emerged from our primate ancestors over evolutionary time. Next, we hypothesize that if nonverbal behaviors played a foundational role in the emergence of language over evolution, these actions should influence how children learn language in the present. Finally, we argue that nonverbal actions
more » ... continue to play a role for adults in the moment-to-moment processing of language. Throughout, we take an embodied view of language and argue that the neural, cognitive, and social components of language processing are firmly grounded in bodily action. Human language is special because it is at the pinnacle of the mind's capabilities and is most notably what separates our minds from the minds of other thinking animals. Language is so special, in fact, that many people have argued that there is a designated language device built into the human brain at birth. These views, made Requests for reprints should be sent to Function It is always difficult to make arguments about the evolution of mental functions. For example, no geologist to date has ever found a fossil for language (Povinelli, 1993) . However, accounts of the evolution of mental functions, such as language, can rely on basic knowledge of evolutionary principles to piece together realistic and plausible accounts of how language came to be. One of the fundamental tenets of evolution is that outcomes that are the most functional at a particular time in a particular situation win out over outcomes that are not as functional (Darwin, 1867) . One way to think about the evolutionary emergence of language is to consider the basic functions of language or, more generally, communication in the present day; that is, which functions of human communication have "won out" and are still with us today? Clark (1996) argued that there are three basic functions of communicationdescribing, indicating, and demonstrating. Traditionally, language researchers have focused on the describing function of communication. Indeed, all of the world's current language systems are exquisitely suited for describing. All languages have abstract, conventionalized symbols that can be combined in structured ways to describe almost anything-objects, actions, feelings, thoughts, events, and so on. However, descriptions are not the only form of communication. Indication and demonstration are also powerful ways to communicate. Communicators indicate things using their eyes, hands, or demonstrative terms like this or that (as in saying, "Don't touch that plant," while looking at and pointing to some poison ivy). They also demonstrate actions to addressees (e.g., saying, "This is how you tie a slip knot," while physically demonstrating the action). These forms of communication rely on nonverbal behaviors to large degree (Clark, 1996) . Although these three modes of communication are utilized in present-day communication, they may not have emerged at the same time in the evolution of language systems. Description is abstract and relies on a formal and conventional system of rules. It is unlikely that this system sprung from the brain of our Australopithecus ancestors, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, abstract and conventionalized description was most likely late in coming and a slowly developing aspect of communication. On the other hand, the methods of indication and demonstration probably developed much earlier and more quickly. For example, indication was probably one of the first functions of communication. Indexes function to direct attention, to such external things as objects, events, and locations, or to such internal things as emotions and thoughts. It is not difficult to imagine situations in which our ancestors used indication to communicate. For example, the actions of holding up and looking at an object or pointing to a location or event may have been some of the earliest ways in which our ancestors communicated. From there, nonverbal PUTTING LANGUAGE BACK IN THE BODY
doi:10.1207/s15326942dn2201_1 pmid:12405508 fatcat:kx7i2i3swnaq5m6nfgaq3y2nge