Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 November 2009
Introduction: The Language Gap
Language is the main distinctive feature of our species. Why do we feel the urge to communicate with our fellows, and why is this form of communication characterised by relevance – a feature unique in the animal kingdom? This chapter begins by stressing the specificity of human communication. We then challenge the claim that conversationalists are engaged in reciprocal altruism, arguing instead that the act of speaking must confer a selective advantage on the speaker. This advantage is elucidated by considering speech in its wider social and political context. Given what we know about ‘chimpanzee politics’ (de Waal 1982), it seems reasonable to suppose that ancestral humans were capable of forming large coalitions (cf. Dunbar 1996). We will suggest that relevant speech emerged in this context, as a way for individuals to select one another in forming alliances.
Uniqueness of Relevant Speech
The way we communicate is unique among animal species. Speech differs from nonhuman animal communication not only in its sophisticated syntax and complex semantics. An additional unique feature is that speech must be ‘relevant’.
Relevance is a precise requirement which severely restricts what is acceptable in human conversation (Dessalles 1993, 1998). By human conversational standards, most messages exchanged in animal communication are ‘boring’. Repetitive territorial signalling, individual identification, systematic threat displays – these cannot be considered genuine conversation. We expect human speakers to contribute novelty, to perform sound reasoning or to raise important issues.