Somewhere and somehow, in the 5 to 7 million years since the last common
ancestors of humans and the great apes, our ancestors “got” language. The
authors of this volume all agree that there was no single mutation or
cultural innovation that took our ancestors directly from a limited system
of a few vocalizations (primarily innate) and gestures (some learned) to
language. They further agree to use the term “protolanguage” for the
beginnings of an open system of symbolic communication that provided the
bridge to the use of fully expressive languages, rich in both lexicon and
grammar. But here consensus ends, and the theories presented here range
from the compositional view that protolanguage was based primarily
on words akin to the nouns and verbs, etc., we know today with only syntax
lacking to the holophrastic view that protolanguage used protowords
which had no meaningful subunits which might nonetheless refer to complex
but significantly recurrent events.
The present volume does not decide the matter but it does advance our
understanding. The lack of any direct archaeological record of
protolanguage might seem to raise insuperable difficulties. However, this
volume exhibits the diversity of
methodologies that can be brought to bear in developing datasets that can
be used to advance the debate.
These articles were originally published as Interaction Studies 9:1 (2008).