While there are rich areas of study in animal communication and interspecies communication, our focus in this book is on human communication. Even though all animals communicate, as human beings we have a special capacity to use symbols to communicate about things outside our immediate temporal and spatial reality.Frank E. X. Dance and Carl E. Larson, Speech Communication: Concepts and Behaviors (New York, NY: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1972),
43. For example, we have the capacity to use abstract symbols, like the
word education, to discuss a concept that encapsulates many aspects of teaching and learning. We can also reflect on the past and imagine our future. The ability to think outside our immediate reality is what allows us to create elaborate belief systems, art, philosophy, and academic theories. It’s true that you can teach a gorilla to sign words like food and baby, but its ability to use symbols doesn’t extend to the same level of abstraction as ours. However, humans haven’t always had the sophisticated communication systems that we do today.
Some scholars speculate that humans’ first words were onomatopoetic. You may remember from your English classes that onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like that to which they refer—words likeboing, drip, gurgle, swoosh,
and whack. Just think about how a prehistoric human could have communicated a lot using these words and hand gestures. He or she could use gurgle to alert others to the presence of water or swoosh and whack to recount what happened on a hunt. In any case, this primitive ability to communicate provided an evolutionary advantage. Those humans who could talk were able to cooperate, share information, make better tools, impress mates, or warn others of danger, which led them to have more offspring who were also more predisposed to communicate.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet(New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 27. This eventually led to the development of a “Talking Culture” during the “Talking Era.” During this 150,000 year period of human existence, ranging from 180,000 BCE to 3500 BCE, talking was the only medium of communication, aside from gestures, that humans had.Marshall T. Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 36.