= Language and Social Organization



Language and Social Organization

Social Implications of Language

We do not know how the later pre-sapiens hominids communicated with one another. Could they speak? Discussion of whether or not they had language normally takes place in terms of physical anatomy. But it is important also to consider the social implications of language.

Animals communicate with one another in surprisingly complex ways. In the words of Dmitri Bayanov, "By the communication means at their disposal, animals can greet, warn, threaten, frighten, order, tease, invite, entice, deceive, ask for, beg, give consent and show indifference, surprise, bewilderment, respect, contempt, contentment. A bee through her dances can indicate to her sisters the direction and distance to nectar-laden flowers, which the instructed bees don't fail to find." (see link). Nevertheless all known forms of animal communication are of very limited scope compared with human speech.

But apart from that, there is one important difference between their "languages" and ours. Human languages (unlike any animal communication, as far as we know) rely on arbitrarily chosen vocal symbols. These symbols differ from one human language to another. There is no special reason why "child" should be conveyed by "child" in English, but by "rebyonok" in Russian; but so it is. The concept is much the same but the word is different.

A human language is a kind of code. It functions on the basis of words - unique verbal symbols which correspond to all the objects or ideas which the speakers of that language need to communicate to one another. It also has rules, followed habitually by its speakers, for linking the words of the language together.

Languages in the sense in which we understand them have developed as the common means of communication of large groups of people who habitually communicate with one another and communicate less often with outsiders. A language draws together the people who speak it, and excludes others. The rules for using a language are followed by all members of the linguistic community, for all wish to be understood. Those rules are typically paralleled by other rules - or laws, conventions, customs - which all also have to follow if they wish to be socially accepted in that particular social and political community. To be able to speak a language is a badge of membership of a community. It ensures acceptance by other members, provided the other rules of the group are also followed.

Language networks minds together. The possession of a common spoken language (and even more, the later possession of a common written language) enables each member of a community to benefit from the communicated experience of others, so that the mental capacity of each separate individual becomes less important. It enables fellow-members of contemporaneous groups to share information and experience.

It also facilitates transmission of information and experience over the generations. All advanced animals learn skills from their parents which they pass on their young; the young instinctively copy their elders. But in the course of an adult life, an animal gains much experience which is of personal use to him or her but cannot be easily passed on, simply because the situation in which the learning experience occurred does not repeat itself in the presence of the learner. The burned cat fears the fire: but she cannot explain the danger of fire except by example; a kitten brought up in the absence of fire will never be taught this lesson and will have to learn all over again. For human children, this painful learning experience, repeated in each generation, is less necessary. Language enables us to relate our experiences to our children in order that effectively, our experience becomes theirs.

Given written language, we can even pass on the benefit of our experience to others whom we have never met, living perhaps in the distant future. But even before the invention of writing, people developed techniques for passing on common human experience from generation to generation; this is the origin of literature and poetry, because stories and patterns of rhyme or metre make words and ideas easier to remember. Simple easily memorised word patterns like "Red sky at night - shepherd's delight" - which some people still use in attempting to predict tomorrow's weather - were memorised and passed on long before they were written down. Even great epic poems like those of Homer, which instilled moral values and patriotism and set examples of behaviour, were also memorised and (no doubt with errors and improvements) passed on from one poet to another. Each people speaking a common language developed a collective memory - a common store of cultural experience on which all could draw. Language enabled a community to build up long-term traditions, beliefs and values which differentiated it from other communities.

Genetic Fragmentation

Communities speaking a single language are typically endogamous breeding populations. Matings outside the language group do happen, but they are occasional exceptions, rather than the general rule. Thus an individual typically grows up speaking a particular language and all his or her life is spent amongst others who also speak that language. Those who speak other languages may be regarded as outsiders, even enemies. The endogamous continuity of each group is maintained by difficulties of communication and differences of social custom (and often overt hostility) between one group and another, so that "peoples" become partially separated gene pools (see link), drift apart a little genetically and start to seem different from one another even in their appearance.

Animal social groups (among animals which are social at all) are much less distinct and separate from one another. They may be temporary accumulations, like flocks of birds. If they are more permanent, they are often simply large families, male-centred (deer, walruses) or female-centred (bees, elephants). Larger groups are typically bands, seldom containing more than a hundred individuals, all of whom know one another (chimpanzees). These bands re-form over time as individuals leave them to form relationships with individuals outside the group or as quarrels or limited territorial resources cause groups to split up. They are not big enough to be long-term breeding populations; to avoid in-breeding, either males or females (it varies from species to species) typically leave the band after puberty and find mates in other groups; so that neighbouring groups, although they are often hostile to each other, are constantly exchanging members. The whole species, even if it covers a wide geographical area, forms a single integrated gene pool.

Before 100-50,000 years ago, we probably have to imagine a widespread biped species - or perhaps sometimes a number of different biped species - divided into a very large number of families or small groups but with groups and families constantly dissolving and new ones being formed. Thus a biped species probably consisted of a single very large gene pool; as with all other animals, there were territorial barriers but no sharp genetic or cultural barriers at any point between neighbours.

There is a complete contrast between this probable uniformity within a species and the incredible diversity which we find in the languages and customs of even the earliest groups of true humans that we know about - those hunter-gatherer peoples who survived long enough to be described by recent explorers and anthropologists. The aboriginal people of Australia, numbering perhaps a million, spoke about 300 different languages (see link) . Each language group had its own customs and endogamous life; each was a partially separated gene pool. The populations of pre-European North America (now USA and Canada) were similarly fragmented. This fragmentation - linguistic, political and genetic - is typical of all humans and sharply differentiates us from all other animals.

It is coming to be realised that the distinguishing characteristic of humanity - which makes us different from all other animals and probably explains our dominance over all other forms of life - is not our bipedalism, or even our brain size, but our possession of language and our co-operative social organisation. The advent around 50,000 years ago 0f what is often now called "fully modern behaviour" appears to have been a turning point in the process of change from a unified species to the linguistic, political and genetic fragmentation which is typical of Homo sapiens.

Fully Modern Behaviour

Around 50,000 years ago, newcomers spread from Africa (see link) into Eurasia. Physically, they differed little from the hominids which they replaced, but their culture was entirely different. Richard Klein summarises some of the archaeological evidence:

Table 8.1 Some Attributes of Fully Modern Human Behaviour Detectable in the Archaeological Record Beginning 50-40 kya ago

Substantial growth in the diversity and standardisation of artifact types

Rapid increase in the rate of artifactual change through time and in the degree of artifact diversity through space

First shaping of bone, ivory, shell and related materials into formal artifacts ("points", "awls", "needles", "pins" etc.)

Earliest appearance of incontrovertible art.

Oldest undeniable evidence for spatial organization of camp floors, including elaborate hearths and the oldest indisputable structural "ruins".

Oldest evidence for the transport of large quantities of highly desirable stone raw material over scores or even hundreds of kilometres.

Earliest secure evidence for ceremony and ritual, expressed both in art and in relatively elaborate graves.

First evidence for human ability to live in the coldest, most continental parts of Eurasia (northeastern Europe and northern Asia).

First evidence for human population densities approaching those of historic hunter-gatherers in similar environments.

First evidence for fishing and other significant advances in human ability to acquire energy.

(R G Klein, The Human Career)

More may be added to this. Not only could they fish. They had boats - and quite soon (by about 40,000 years ago and maybe earlier) they had crossed the sea between Asia and Australia, where there was never a land bridge. They were extremely proficient hunters of animals of all sizes. Unlike their predecessors, they learned to haft stone points on to wooden shafts, and later they developed the spear-thrower - a device which gave greater leverage, effectively lengthening the thrower's arm. It would not be long before they invented the bow.

Klein's book is essential background for understanding these changes. He focuses very interestingly on cultural variability. Before the newcomers appeared, the bipedal culture was uniform over wide areas and changed very slowly. By contrast the newcomers continually developed new weapons and tools; and the weapons and tools they used varied from one region to another:

Previous chapters have emphasised that before 40 kya ago - that is, before the Upper Palaeolothic and comparable cultural manifestations had completely supplanted earlier ones - vast areas were characterised by remarkably uniform artifact assemblages that differed from one another mainly in the relative abundance of the same artifact types. In addition, artifactual change through time was painfully slow: basic assemblage types lasted tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. After 40 kya, however, the general pattern changed radically. Like-aged artifact assemblages from neighbouring regions often differed qualitatively and within single regions the pace of artifactual change accelerated dramatically.


Why did these people leave behind archaeological evidence so different from that left by their predecessors? Some of the elaborate graves (see pictures)which Klein mentions are worth examining more closely:

The Sungir grave was dug into permanently frozen subsoil (permafrost) more than 22 thousand years ago and contained the extended skeletons of two children, one arguably male and the other female, placed head-to-head. The putative male was covered with 4903 beads whose arrangement suggests they were fitted to closely fitting clothing. In addition, there were 250 perforated fox canines placed as if they had been attached to a belt at the waist....The putative female was covered and surrounded by 5374 beads or bead fragments that were also probably attached to clothing.....Experimentation suggests that the beads alone required thousands of hours to manufacture


The beads were of ivory: this was the age of the mammoth-hunters. They must have been produced by a large number of people over a considerable time. The buried children either had a high inherited social status within a hierarchical society or (perhaps more likely) they were chosen to be sacrificed as part of an important communal rite. Either way, we are now looking at a human society much more like those of historical time - a group including many individuals (perhaps thousands) who were not all closely related to one another, yet who participated in common rituals and felt they belonged to a single community .

The larger social unit must have made possible a developed division of labour. It also made possible the rapid development of technology within individual endogamous tribal groups; technology which would not necessarily spread to other tribes immediately, because of cultural and language barriers and inter-group hostility. The wider communities - or tribes - in which people lived must each have been bound together by a common language and have formed a partially separated gene pool. This is enough to explain the cultural diversity which Klein describes; and the absence of this cultural diversity before fifty thousand years ago suggests that in the earlier period, no such barriers existed.

We do not know for certain that the people who emerged 50,000 years ago spoke, from the beginning, languages similar to our own, whereas their hominid predecessors did not. But there are two reasons for suggesting that this was so. Firstly, there must have been some reason why these people were able to progress so much faster than their predecessors; and secondly, the archaeological record shows not only that progress became much faster, but that there was much more cultural diversity, with significant differences in artifacts between one area and another. These differences suggest local cultures which may well have corresponded to different communities speaking different languages.

To sum up: the people who became widespread 50,000 years ago appear to have possessed two very great competitive advantages over (as far as we know) all previous forms of animal life. They spoke languages; and they probably lived in organized political and economic communities, each separated from the next by linguistic, political and cultural barriers and forming a cooperative entity and a partially separated gene pool. The larger economic communities meant greater division of labour, more specialised skills and the emergence of many new techniques and weapons. With these new techniques and weapons, the political communities of mankind quite quickly achieved complete domination over their environment.

From Hunting to Agriculture (Next section)

Homo, Fire and Flint (Previous section)


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