Telling stories

kabbo“(After walking) I must first sit a little, cooling my arms; that the fatigue may go out of them, because I sit. I merely listen, watching for a story, which I want to hear; while I sit waiting for it; that it may float into my ear. These are those to which I am listening with all my ears. While I feel that, I sit silent. I must wait listening behind me, while I listen along the road; while I feel that my name floats along the road; they (my three names) float along to my place. I will go to sit at it; that I may listening turn backwards (with my ears) to my feet’s heels, on which I went; while I feel that a story is the wind.”


– //Kabbo a /Xam shaman as recorded by Lucy Catherine Lloyd and Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek

In Studying the descent of modern human languages we should not loose sight of the uses of language and communication.  Is there, for instance, things that can only be done with grammatical language and not with more primitive forms of communication?


A good example of such an argument is that of Robin Dunbar that hominid vocalisation evolved to facilitate social grooming. Now we primates can reassure each other from a distance. So what kind of things can we accomplish with language that cannot be done with other means or is significantly enhanced with the use of language?


I propose that the main advantage that language provides above other communication systems is that of re-presentation. Evoking other states than that of deictic immediacy – telling stories.  A monkey ‘telling’ his friends that there is a eagle in the sky is not telling  his friends about eagle flying by, it is warning his friends about the eagle. Even if the monkey is lying about there being an eagle in the sky with the intension of getting his friends away from his food he is not giving false information he is making a false warning. The monkey is not trying to deceive his friends he is trying to get his friends away from his food.


Our ability to tell stories does not seem to be dependent on language nor the other way round. It seems rather to be a relatively independent ability that has more to do with our ability to imagine other states and other minds. It seems to be an independent ability because stories can be told with other means than spoken language. Silent movies being a case in point. Having said this, there do seem to be an intimate relation between language development and the emergence of this imaginative ability but i believe this is not neccessarity a causal or structural relationship. It might be that our ability to imagine other states and minds provided the impetus (the reason) for developing sophisticated languages.

Explore posts in the same categories: Information theory, Linguistics, Philosophy, Pragmatics, Semiotics

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