On Language, Evolution and Disability: Is the Smithsonian Ableist?

1) Based on what we now know about human language, the above panel displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit on human evolution is almost certainly incorrect.

2) Specifically, the claim that language was “enabled” by a reconfiguration of the vocal tract misconstrues the locus of evolution of language. This occurred not in the throat, mouth, lips and tongue, the articulatory organs through which spoken language is characteristically realized, but in the brain.

3) We know this because, as linguistics has  demonstrated, whatever portions of our anatomy produce, or more precisely, externalize language, its underlying structure is fundamentally the same, all human languages appealing to the same underlying template in constructing thoughts realized as words, phrases and sentences.

4) That includes, most notably, sign language which is not produced by the vocal tract but mostly different portions of the human anatomy. As linguists have repeatedly demonstrated, sign languages are normal languages in every significant respect differing from others only superficially in the modality through which they are externalized.

5) The underlying structure of human language, however it is externalized, is fundamentally distinct from vocalizations produced by other species. These have been routinely but always wrongly construed as “language”. They are nothing of the kind.

6) Just as non-human vocalizations have been falsely construed as language, so too has sign language been routinely denigrated as lacking core features of language. A good indication of a lingering prejudice along these lines was noted by Lennard Davis who reports that ASL does not meet the foreign language requirement of numerous undergraduate curricula, including that of Harvard College.

7) The Smithsonian’s assumption of language as “enabled” by the evolution of the vocal tract is indicative of a similar ableist bias in that it implies that language is necessarily connected to the physiolgocial modality in which it is produced, other modalities assumed to constitute an inability to produce or at least an impoverished capacity for language.

8) As suggested by 1)- 7), linguists and disability rights activists share common ground in recognizing that our core humanity consists in our innate, mental capacity to form concepts, ideas and derive conclusions while rejecting the ableist conception privileging the physiological form through which our beliefs, desires and concerns are externalized. While they might not recognize it, they are allies in attempting to achieve a fundamental change in awareness as to what constitutes our inherent nature.

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3 thoughts on “On Language, Evolution and Disability: Is the Smithsonian Ableist?”

  1. While I agree (who doesn’t?) that the most important thing about language happens in the brain, the text you are criticizing doesn’t say what you are criticizing. It says that more sounds where enabled by the lowering of the larynx, not that language was enabled. And that language= thought is a hypothesis that runs counter to evidence showing mathematical thinking without lanfuage.

    1. Thanks. While I agree that a possible reading of the panel is what you suggest, namely that the anatomical shift was a) merely correlated with the development of human language and b) not causative of it, I don’t believe that is the interpretation the Smithsonian is implicitly endorsing here. I say that because exhibits of this sort are based on what is taken as the consensus view within the relevant fields and that consensus is much closer to a) than b). Specifically, the consensus position is that the physiological capacity to produce the phonetic inventory associated with most languages was required in order for human language to develop. (As the link indicates, this is the position articulated in numerous books and articles by Phillip Lieberman to take one leading authority.) The alternate view, namely, that of Chomsky that the physical modality through which language is externalized is entirely ancillary to it is very much a minority view at the moment, though it is supported by some researchers, most notably Ian Tattersall. It is up to others to determine for themselves which view is best supported the facts and logic.

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