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Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet

2013-12-18

The ‘Modality Transition’ Problem in the Gestural Theories of Language Origins

Slawomir Wacewicz (University of Torun, Poland)

The so-called gestural theories of language origins have remained a central focus of language evolution research for at least a decade. Despite important differences, their varieties underscore the significance of visual, as opposed to vocal, channel of signal transmission. However, language is predominantly spoken; that is (excluding recent technologies, special ecological conditions, or high rates of congenital hearing impairment) it is the vocal modality that contemporary human societies universally use as default for linguistic communication. This immediately leads to the problem of  how and why language would have transferred from being mostly-visual to mostly-vocal, which is what many influential researchers (e.g.  Burling, 2005; Fitch 2010, Tallerman 2011) raise as a fundamental objection to the gestural variety.

In my paper, I address the following points:

  • the notion of gesture as it is used in the gesturological/linguistic and primatological traditions,
  • the history of the ‘gestural spectrum’ theories of language origins,
  • their present place within the field of language evolution,
  • the problem of modality transition,
  • the standard solutions to it, and their insufficiency,
  • a number of novel candidate solutions, including the idea of orofacial gestures as a possible link between the visual and vocal modalities.