Takakkaw...a conversation in moonlight

There was a ribbon of moonlight on the water, rippled evenly as if it were a wide grosgrain ribbon instead of the perfectly shiny satin kind. That's what reminded the two old L.A. friends of a sign they had read at Canada's third highest waterfall: "a ribbon frozen silver until the sun returns and releases it," a description of Takakkaw Falls in winter. As they pronounced it, I imagined Takakkaa, with as many a's as k's. Such a word! Cree, and meaning magnificent, which it was, they said. But the word! It stayed with them so that miles west, in the moonlight, just as they had in their car driving away from Yoho Park where Takakkaw cascades, they tried it with various inflections, different accents on the syllables: Tak-a-kkaw? (beseechingly) Ta- kakkaw. (with finality).

The word riffing got somebody else in the group, a writer, wondering how the first humans to use language decided on the meanings of words. They would have to start by naming things; agreeing on the same sound or combination of sounds for the same object, he speculated. It took a long time, said one of the woman visitors, who is a free-lance cultural anthropologist from New Mexico.

We imagined communication by eyes; desires, needs conveyed by means of facial expression or outright action. Instead of asking for the shell you need to scrape a hide, just take it, which would have led to trouble. Works on the origins of language would make fascinating reading, but where to start? Theories have been controversial, speculatory, based on fossil records and other circumstantial evidence. Maybe 1.8 million years ago homo erectus began the ceaseless talking so common to us now; maybe an earlier version of mankind did. No one knows for sure. 

I cannot doubt that language owes its origin to the imitation and modification, aided by signs and gestures, of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries.

— Charles Darwin, 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.

Another entire field is devoted to language diversification, and is again, necessarily, without direct evidence, theoretical. But Indonesia alone has 500 different languages, and it should be safe to assume that the differentiation arose from some need; some difference in perceiving things. One way in which language is used is to orient oneself to one's surroundings. Interesting that humans like the Guguu Yimithirr, an aboriginal group in north Queensland, Australia, describe their immediate place in relation to the cardinal directions, north, south, east, west, i.e., the bed to the north, the street to the south, or a global perspective, whereas in English our description in ego-centred, i.e., behind me, to my left, to your right.

The moon rose higher and the group dispersed, and I climbed up the hill, northeast, home to continue reading Karen Joy Fowler's novel, We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, about "sisters" who are human and chimpanzee. Near the end of the novel, the narrator quotes the "father" of another human-family raised chimp who lamented that the people who considered his a failed experiment, because his "daughter" Vikki never spoke, ignored that the ability to speak was the only notable difference between the chimp and human children. Hmm.

Later I found the following from a New York Times Science page: “ 'In principle, a chimp could produce all the sounds a human produces, but they don’t do so because there has been no evolutionary pressure in this direction,' Dr. Zuberbühler said. 'There is nothing to talk about for a chimp because he has no interest in talking about it.' At some point in human evolution, on the other hand, people developed the desire to share thoughts, Dr. Zuberbühler notes. Luckily for them, all the underlying systems of perceiving and producing sounds were already in place as part of the primate heritage, and natural selection had only to find a way of connecting these systems with thought."

Elsewhere in the article other scientists disagree, they feel that apes have plenty to say. The debate is already ages old and continues, but what stopped me is that, according to at least some people, human language stemmed from a desire to share thoughts; not just pass the salt, please, but opinions, speculation, i.e., what do you think of this, of the beginning of language, for example?  Takakkaw!