It is January and therefore we see the answers to the Edge Question. This year the question is “What do you consider the most interesting recent (scientific) news? What makes it important?” I have to say that I did not find this year’s crop of short essays as interesting as in previous years – but there were some gems.
For example N.J. Enfield’s ‘Pointing is a Prerequisite for Language’ fits so well with what I think and is expressed so well (here). I have a problem with the idea that language is not primarily about communication but rather is about a way of thinking. I cannot believe that language arose over a short space of time rather than a long evolution (both biological and cultural evolution). And it began as communication not as a proper-ish language. “Infants begin to communicate by pointing at about nine months of age, a year before they can produce even the simplest sentences. Careful experimentation has established that prelinguistic infants can use pointing gestures to ask for things, to help others by pointing things out to them, and to share experiences with others by drawing attention to things that they find interesting and exciting. … With pointing, we do not just look at the same thing, we look at it together. This is a particularly human trick, and it is arguably the thing that ultimately makes social and cultural institutions possible. Being able to point and to comprehend the pointing gestures of others is crucial for the achievement of “shared intentionality,” the ability to build relationships through the sharing of perceptions, beliefs, desires, and goals.”
So this is where to start to understand language – with communication and with gestures, and especially joint attention with another person as in pointing. EB Bolles has a lot of information on this, collected over quite a few years in his blog (here).