By: Daniel Samson
World famous linguist Noam Chomsky argues that a single chance mutation 100,000 years ago triggered the language faculty, which paved the way for spoken language in human beings. Human beings have been around for 200,000 years, give or take. How did we communicate prior to this mutation, prior to spoken language? For the 100,000 years prior to spoken language, generation after generation of human beings may have been communicating using Prehistoric Sign Language (PSL). Over the one thousand millennia of using PSL its movements and gestures were implanted into our DNA. Could spoken language replace 100,000 years of PSL?
Not a chance… I think.
In theory, I should be able to go to any place in the world where they don’t speak English and communicate with other human beings using PSL. To test this, I booked a trip to Argentina and Brazil with some friends to determine if PSL was a basic human instinct. As a secondary goal I was hoping to try some amazing food, party ’til the sun came up and meet some pretty ladies.
But mostly I wanted to know about the history of language in human beings.
After arriving in Buenos Aires, Argentina, it was clear that this country had a surplus of beautiful women, great wine and non-English speaking residents. My first chance to test out my theory of prehistoric sign language came at a steak house. After accidentally ordering the steak meant for four people and drinking bottle after bottle of the wettest wine I’ve ever had, I had to use the bathroom. I asked the waiter, “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?” The waiter stared at me blankly. I tried again “Where’s the bathroom?” Still nothing. After several more attempts of repeating the same line over and over my body started to tingle. Did I have to go to the bathroom really badly or was my prehistoric sign language about to kick in. I’m guessing it was the PSL, but I’ll admit I’m not a doctor. I instinctively put my right hand in front of my groin and stuck my pointer finger out. I rotated my hips in small slow clockwise circles. Then, I tilted my head back and half closed my eyes. “Ahhh baño”, the waiter said and pointed me to the bathroom. At that moment a vision of the past came to me. There was a great feast between two hunter gatherer tribes. A visiting tribesman was asking the host tribal leader where the bathroom was. He used the exact same sign I had just used to find the bathroom. Then, he peed under a great oak tree. So far Argentina was a success. From what I could determine, prehistoric sign language was just as Argentinian as their social tea called “mate”, or soccer, or finding dog shit on the sidewalk.
Continuing on, we arrived late at night in Rio. We took a taxi from the airport to our apartment to meet a friend who had arrived earlier that day. The conversation in our taxi consisted of us speaking English to the driver followed by our driver smiling. Then we switched, our driver spoke to us in Portuguese and we smiled. After dropping us off at our apartment our driver stood beside us as we waited for our friend. We buzzed up. Five minutes went by, then ten. Our driver had a look on his face, he was either worried or upset or gassy. I started tingling again. I pointed at the apartment building, then I made a fist with my right hand and starting moving it rapidly towards and away from my groin. I was trying to do the sign for “my friend is taking so long in the apartment because he is jerking off”.The taxi driver burst out laughing, waving his hands above his head yelling “International! International!” It was clear that 200,000 years of jerking off had found a place in human DNA. Our friend finally came down and we all shared in the joy of pointing and laughing at him. Our joy was so loud that an old Brazilian lady came down and started yelling at us. I’m not sure what she was saying but based on my PSL skills I assume she wanted to yell how funny she thought the jerking off joke was.
During our final breakfast of the trip my friend ordered a sandwich, hold the pork. The line “hold the pork” resulted in a waiter with a confused face. I knew I had to do something otherwise the sandwich would have pork in it. I pressed my finger against my nose mimicking the face of a pig. The waiter immediately shouted, “porco!”. I then crossed my forearms in front of my body making an X and shook my head back and forth. I’m sure 200,000 years ago there must have been some vegetarian hunter gatherers. I’m sure those hippy gatherers must have had a sign to show that they didn’t want any meat. When the sandwich came out it had a huge piece of ham in it. My friend opened the sandwich, pointed at the ham and then repeated the prehistoric sign for no pig. The waiter then replied, “ham, ham, no porco”.
Maybe Homer Simpson was right when he questioned Lisa about the origin of pork, bacon and ham. Maybe they did come from different animals. Maybe there were no vegetarian hunter gatherers and the sign never made it into our DNA. Maybe the waiter didn’t like us cause we acted like obnoxious ignorant tourists who would yell in Portuguese to each passing girl that she was a beautiful papaya. It’s hard to say. The trip started with such amazing supporting data but it came to a disappointing end. Sure, the journey was filled with amazing food, crazy parties and pretty ladies but I still didn’t have my answer. Is prehistoric sign language in all of us? I asked myself, “what would Chomsky do?”
He’d go on another vacation, that’s what he’d do.