Monday, July 01, 2002

Thought of the day:I've been trying to console myself about the decline of the written and printed word amid the torrent of images in today's multimedia world with some historical perspective: the history of written communication is elitist and exclusivist; print and literacy were the privilege of the tiny educated royal or upper classes and religious scribes for centuries, in many ways right up until the 20th. The history of communication is filled with images--signs, drawings, paintings, portraits. Only in this past century has mass literacy become normal.

As the New York Times reported last week, some professors are taking that a step further. Even spoken words, in the evolutionary view of these researchers, are a recent twist to human communication, while hand gestures are the oldest norm:

Michael C. Corballis, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, is the latest proponent of a controversial idea known among language experts as 'gestural theory.' In essence, gestural theorists contend that long before early humans spoke, they jabbered away with their hands. [In his new book, From Hand to Mouth (Princeton University), he writes:] 'The common ancestor of five or six million years ago would have been utterly incapable of a telephone conversation but would have been able to make voluntary movements of the hands and face that could at least serve as a platform upon which to build a language. Grammatical language may well have begun to emerge around two million years ago but would at first have been primarily gestural . . .'"

The Globe and Mail writes that "Mr. Corballis proposes that our ancestors made the switch from gestures to speech at around 50,000 years ago, a mere yesterday in evolutionary terms."

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