Re: language acquisition and tool use

From: Esther Goody (
Date: Thu Apr 08 2004 - 05:25:51 PDT

Dear David,

Re language acquisition and tool use:

One of my long-term obsessions has been: 'What has been the dynamic between
the emergence of spoken language and the emergence of hominid sociocultural

This is an awkward interest for an empiricist! So I keep trying to find ways
to study bits of the puzzle*.

During a year at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (1989-90) it was possible
to read up on related topics like ethology, 'language origins' and
sociolinguistics. In the spring the Kolleg let me organise a workshop around
the topic of the emergence of social intelligence. As a result of the
workshop and reading, I have played around with conceptualising cognition as
essentially social, in
two senses: (i) social in that we communicate with others through
(spoken/heard) language; and (ii) social in that
ala Vygotski we think through internalised speech. Following through on
(ii), it seems that much internal speech models others'
possible responses to our alternative actions. In this sense cognition is
literally social. My edited book based on the Wissenschaft workshop tries to
work out some of the implications of this view ("Social intelligence and

Where does this leave Greenfield's elegant paper on 'right handedness'?
This is clearly part of the overall picture. The 'nesting' of boxes in
children's play and the 'nesting' of grammatical structures in apparently
every language are too analogous to be accidental. The puzzle is How do
emergent cognitive propensities for hierarchical ordering fit in with the
emergence of spoken language - and specifically to cognition which is

The evolutionary ethologists have looked at feeding patterns,
right-handedness, and particularly what they term 'Machiavellian
Intelligence'. This last is the thesis that apes got progressively smarter
as they learned to outwit other apes by anticipating their responses to
goal-oriented actions. Each ape is trying to outwit other apes, to reach his
own goals. Hence this is 'Machiavellian' intelligence. In their book
"Machiavellian Intelligence" Bryne and Whiten argue that this competetive
cognitive modelling of other apes responses eventually led to homind
intelligence (?Blackwell, 1988). This book scarcely mentions spoken

I had not heard of the Mach Intelligence book in Berlin, but a linguist
friend suggested that Whiten would be an interesting participant for the
workshop. He couldn't come, but Richard Bryne did (his paper is in the
Workshop volume). Probably because of this meeting, I was asked to
contribute a paper addressing the role of spoken language to the follow up
volume, "Machiavellian Intelligence II" (eds Whiten and Bryne, ?1997).
Again, apart from my paper there is no discussion of language in relation to
emergent hominid

Must admit that I haven't kept up with the ethologists since then.

However I do read what I can around the emergence of language in relation to
human cognition. NOT the Chomski lot - since their premiss of one-off
mutations and hard wiring is directly opposite to a socially emergent view.
The best book I have found recently is Terrence Deacon's "The symbolic
species" (Allen Lane: Penguin, 1997). In fact I bought it and then did not
read it until last year - put off by
the title I think. (In anthropology symbolism has largely been taken over by
post-modern angst.) But I did take it to Ghana, where starved for reading I
noticed the sub-title: The co-evolution of language and the human brian.
Although it is highly technical, I found it riviting. And very convincing.
You might enjoy it.

*Various papers have analysed ethnographic material in relation to how
interpersonal communication in specific role relationships are routinised,
and how this makes them usful to do 'interpersonal work'. As an example,
'Greeting, begging and the presentation of respect' looked at the way
greetings are highly elaborated in the Gonja kingdom, and how people use
them to establish and assert claims on others. Another looks at 'questions';
another at 'prayer', another at joking relations.
    Published work on learning (apart from paper on 'questions') has not so
far looked at use of language. This is what I am doing now.

    Am leaving for Ghana again in two days - and off e-mail there. I have
asked Mike eto take me off the XCMA list for now.
But I would value any thoughts about language origins and social
intelligence. or activity theory. - or 'practice'. Should you feel like
responding, my personal e-mail is: eg100 who-is-at I am going to
try to set up e-mail again in Ghana this time (gave up after burning out two
modems a couple of years ago). If I succeed will try to pick up my Cambridge
e-mails in Ghana........

                Best wishes, Esther Goody

----- Original Message -----
From: <>
To: <>
Sent: Thursday, April 01, 2004 4:49 AM
Subject: language acquisition and tool use


In 1991 Patricia Greenfield published a wonderful paper in Behavioral
and Brain Sciences on language acquisition and tool use. The paper
suggested that language acquisition and tool use followed similar
developmental paths and engaged similar cortical areas. I was
wondering whether any of you know of recent research that has followed
up that paper.


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