Metasignaling and Language Origins



Over the past two decades, comparative linguistic anthropological research has disclosed the significance of metadiscourse and metasignaling forthe establishment, maintenance, and transformation of social relations. One type of metasignal-signal relationship has, because of its role in producing sociability, come to seem especially interesting with regard to the evolutionary origins of human language—the type wherein a strategically (and presumably neocortically) induced metasignal is modeled after, but distinct from, an instinctively triggered signal, as in ritualized lamentation. Strategic vocal deceptions in nonhuman primates are possible precursors of true socially constructed, socially shared metasignals, which in turn may be ancestors of modern human language. This article charts an evolutionary path from strategic vocal manipulation, to cultural metasignals, to language, using data from primate studies, discourse-centered research, and early child language acquisition. [Key words: language origins, semiotics, metacommunication, chimpanzees, early language acquisition]