Sunday, December 28, 2008

Towards a Reconstruction of Proto-Mammal 2

In case anyone is confused, or hasn’t read part 1, I’m not actually going to rebuild Thrinaxodon liorhinus or the sabre-toothed tiger, and I’m not sitting here surrounded by the results of failed Frankensteinian experiments, watching them variously writhe, rot, crumble into dust or, occasionally, eat each other. It is an interesting idea, and I’m sure that someone, somewhere is doing just that, but not me. I’m not a biologist, and my interest is in the mammalian ur-sprach.

It is only possible here to offer a few tentative conclusions, but I state them with a degree of confidence, and ask for an open mind. It is first necessary to explain what it means.

Clearly, other mammals do not speak in the way that we do, but they do communicate, and they almost invariably use sound to some extent (exceptions being the mute swan and the Haitian long-eared false wombat, which, despite possessing a fully-developed hyoid and tuneable muscles in the glottal opening, has evolved an inability to emit sound which appears to be psychological in origin. Work is continuing on the subject, which does not, in any case, affect the general argument.

Both the cognitive and physiological origins of speech go back far beyond the evolution of the primates to the origins of the mammalian order, and the following general conclusions can be stated as examples of where the work is leading:

- The single simplest sound is that made by opening the mouth with the soft palate relaxed and simultaneously voicing with the throat. Mammalian soft palates vary in tenseness, therefore this sound is sometimes closer to /b/ than an /m/, which is unimportant here. It is a bilabial. And the nature of voicing, whether by direct vibration of vocal cords, or a less controlled trembling of the pharynx, does not matter either. This basic sound was originally the same. And, being the simplest of all sounds to make, it is the first that mammalian young tend to produce, usually associated with a colourless, lax, open vowel, the tongue lying flat and floppy in or partly out of the mouth, something like /ae/. For this reason the sounds /ma:/ and /pa:/ are assigned meanings descriptive of the relations between cubs and there parents, stll detectable in the communication of many mammals today, and clearly reconstructable using the comparative method.

- Since mammary glands do not fossilize, the distinguishing characteristic of mammals in the fossil record is a small bone in the inner ear, which in other orders is, where it exists, part of the jaw. The absence of this bone in the mammalian mandible leads to a distribution of velar sounds to indicate fear, threat or warning, and of alveolar-palatal sounds to create and maintain social relations. From this, all mammalian sounds, including the words of all human languages, have their origin.

You will note that this does not presuppose or prove the existence of a proto-sapiens; the proto-language from which all human languages descend, the last common ancestor, as it were, may have existed before anatomically modern man came to be, before the hominid-chimp split, or even before the existence of primates as such.

I have a marvellous proof of this theory, but the post is not large enough to contain it. I hope to publish the full paper around the beginning of April.

Note: There is no tradition of historical linguistics at the University here; nevertherless I have been very fortunate in enjoying the help and encouragement of Dr. Milongo Patrañez in the work I am doing. Many thanks.

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