Is human language underpinned by gestures?

In this episode, I talk with Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis, who is based at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Professor Corballis is an internationally acclaimed scholar and one of his most recent accolades is the ward of the Rutherford Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand. In this conversation, we focus particular on Michael’s ideas about how gestures may have been the precursors for spoken language development in humans.

Here is the link to the paper we talk about in this week’s show:

Here is the abstract for some context:

One view of language is that it emerged in a single step in Homo sapiens, and depended on a radical transformation of human thought, involving symbolic representations and computational rules for combining them. I argue instead that language should be viewed as a communication system for the sharing of thoughts, and that thought processes themselves evolved well before the capacity to share them. One property often considered unique to language is generativity—the capacity to generate a potentially infinite variety of sentences. I suggest that generativity is derived from the understanding of space and the capacity to recall or construct spatiotemporal scenarios, and probably goes far back in the evolution of animals that move in spatial habitats. Another property essential to language is theory of mind, the ability to understand what others are thinking, which probably emerged from animal empathy and became more complex in hominin evolution. Language evolved for the sharing of experiences, whether remembered or constructed, perhaps initially through pantomime but gradually conventionalized into standardized forms, including speech. These developments probably took place gradually during the Pleistocene, rather than as a sudden event in the evolution of H. sapiens.

I hope you find our conversation interesting and thought-provoking.

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