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THE MOTOR THEORY OF LANGUAGE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION (Wadham College, Oxford August 1987)

INTRODUCTION Sir Andrew Huxley in his Sherrington Lecture 'Reflections on Muscle'(1980) after speaking about the uncertainty and incompleteness of our knowledge of muscle said: "There is of course a special temptation to think well of one's own ideas, but provided that no one else is misled, the damage done by one person convincing himself of a wrong notion is not great - it may even do good by stimulating others to make fresh experiments in the hope of proving him wrong". It is with this same caution that the theory of the motor origin of language is presented. There have been other motor theories of human function. Most notoriously, there was J.B. Watson's motor theory of thought and there was also the important Haskins Laboratories motor theory of speech perception. The theory presented here is a more general one than either of these and is based on recent progress in research into the organisation of action at the neural level. The theory is that language originated as a transfer from or translation of the elements and system of combination of elements of the neural motor system, with the expression of motor programs which originally developed for the co-ordination of vertebrate movement being redirected from the skeletal muscles to the muscles of the mouth, throat, chest etc. with the side-product that this expression of the motor programs was accompanied by the sound produced by modulated streams of air which we recognise as speech-sound. The theory is thus one of a change in the connectability of the neural system, the opening up of new channels for the external expression of motor programs. "In the brain, new functions, phylogenetically and ontogenetically, had to be grafted on to old ones in whatever manner proved to be feasible and consistent with the normal processes of evolution. At every stage, evolution had to improvise with the anatomical structures and inherent plasticities that happened to be available"(Sommerhoff 1974: 13). In so far as it is assumed that the redirection of the motor programs, the opening up of new channels, took place many hundreds of thousands of years ago (and could in any case never have been directly examined) the evidence for the motor theory cannot be direct but must be probabilistic or circumstantial. The attempt is to establish the plausibility of this account of the origin of language in much the same way as the effort has been to establish the plausibility of the theory of evolution itself. The questions one might ask are: What sort of elements and processes must the motor system have to be able to carry out its functions? What features are there of the motor system that might be appropriate for take over by language? What aspects of language are there that could have been derived from the features of the motor system reflected in the semantic, syntactic and phonetic systems and structures of present-day language? Two preliminary comments: first, we have many familiar examples of the expressive function of the motor system, quite apart from its involvement in language. Most obviously, the functioning of the motor system is displayed in facial expression. We do not need to be taught to understand the facial expressions of others. The smile and the frown are an immediate expression, concomitant, of a brain-state, an internal state of organisation which produces, as a by-product, not a deliberate smile but a natural smile, which must be the transfer of internal neural patterning to the motoneurons of the musculature of the face and mouth, a translation of one pattern of nervous activity into another neuronal system. Our understanding of the motor pattern of another, expressed in a smile, must follow a very similar pattern to our understanding of the motor pattern of another, expressed in a varied stream of sound, in speech. The vital question is how perception in one modality, seeing a smiling face or hearing a speaking voice, is reconverted into an internal neural patterning, in us the receiving organism, which is the same as or closely similar to that in the other person who smiles or speaks. Facial expression has its elementary units, its phonemes, the minimal elements of facial muscle change, its semantics, the meaningfulness of particular combinations of muscle movements, and its syntax, the way semantic elements can be combined simultaneously or sequentially, to convey more elaborated indications of the internal state of the individual. Darwin of course analysed in considerable detail the systematic patterns of facial expression in man and animals. That we can interpret facial expression or language, convert them into internal neural patterning structurally resembling the neuronal patterning in the person originating the smile or the spoken words, points to an intimate and reliable relation between visual perception, motor action and internal neuronal organisation. This power to interpret bodily action in another goes far beyond facial expression. Watching tennis, we often find ourselves translating the swing of the player's racket into incipient movements or tensions in our own arms; we feel the tension of the high jumper or the runner; we find our limbs moving with music or dance; feel directly with someone climbing or trying to hold on. Most obviously, we often yawn with someone yawning, smile with someone smiling, weep with someone weeping, laugh with someone laughing. Similarly, language could only have been effective from the start if the sounds made by human beings, breathing and at the same time moving their mouth, tongue and jaws, had been tied closely in some way to the practical life of human beings, and been immediately interpretable by other human beings. The second preliminary observation, which follows quite directly from what has just been said, is that language cannot in origin have been arbitrary, either in the muscle-patternings used to produce the elementary speechsounds, in the structures of the words formed from these elements or in the syntactic ordering of the available words. I agree with the view of Soviet linguists on this: "The common features of the world's languages are

primarily attributable to the physiological homogeneity of all people and conditioned by the uniform structure of the human brain and the organs of perception., rendering them capable of reflecting the world around them in a basically identical manner. Similarities in sound reproduction can be put down to the similar construction of people's vocal organs ... The content of the external world which surrounds man is composed of objects and the connections between them. The reflection of the outer world in the human head consists in the cognition of these objects and of regular connections.For all the variety of the world's languages, they have an identical substratum in the reality which surrounds us and an identical goal or practical orientation to provide a means of communication". (Serebrennikov 1980: 3) There is no compelling evidence that word-forms are arbitrary and much suggestive evidence that the words that emerge and survive are expressive or appropriate in one way or another to their meaning. The dogma that wordforms are arbitrary is a remnant of Creationism, very similar to the pre-Darwinian view that species were as they were for no reason other than that God had created them so. The only difference in the case of the origin of words is that Man, in his unfettered free will, is said to be the Creator. The slack argument, used to support the assertion that words are arbitrary, that words for the same objects or actions differ between languages, applies equally effectively or ineffectively to many other differences between human groups, not only syntax and phonemecomplements but also prevailing hair and eye colours, skin colour, food preferences etc. etc. There is no more reason to believe that there is only one uniquely appropriate word for a particular object or action than that there should be one uniquely appropriate way of performing any action, cooking food, playing the piano or one uniquely appropriate way of constructing a motorcar engine. There is considerable experimental evidence, and considerable theoretical coherence, for the view that there is a fundamental relation between the syntax of language and physiological syntax, the syntaxes of action and perception, that the syntax of language is biologically based. There is also considerable positive experimental evidence that the array of phonemes is ultimately biologically, physiologically, determined. One might reasonably ask, if syntax and phonemic systems are arbitrary, what is the meaning of the search for universals in syntax or phonology? But if they are not arbitrary, given the interchangeability within and between languages of lexical and syntactic processes, how could an arbitrary lexicon interact with and on occasion substitute for a non-arbitrary syntax? CONCLUSION The motor theory of the origin and development of language presented in this paper is also in substance a motor theory of the current functioning of language. A theory of this kind fits well with the current trend of research into neural motor control and the neural basis of perception. It also has points in common with what Pribram described as his central motor theory of the origins of human language, based on a close relation between the imaging of action, perception and speech (Pribram 1971: 369). It is built fairly directly on Karl Lashley's ideas on the underlying uniformity of the neural organisation of action and language, though it inverts his approach; where he started from the then current analysis of the hierarchical structure of language, the present approach takes motor programming as primary and derives the structure of language, as a motor phenomenon, from the necessary processes in the organisation of action, as demonstrated in research into neural control of behaviour patterns in a range of experimental animals. Curiously, this theory could be presented as a return, at a deeper level, to earlier ideas on the essentially motor basis of brain processes, though Watson of course had an over-simplified and incorrect view of the real complexities involved in motor organisation. Two final reflections: "language is the immediate actuality of thought" (Marx and Engels) becomes true if thought is the interweaving of neural processes underlying perception and the formation of motor programs. "Language is action" if beside the speech-elements (phonemes), the speech-element compounds (words) and speech sequences (syntax) one can set a motor-alphabet (of elementary motor programs for bodily action), motor-words (actions formed from motor-elements) and motorsentences (formed from sequences of motor-words). http://www.percepp.com/motor-i.htm