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29 October, 2006

What’s The Point of Talking?

There is much lofty talk about how the power of speech separates us from the lower animals. Next time you take your seat on a number 47 bus, listen to the chatter around you. I bet you won’t hear a single noble sentiment or even one priceless scientific truth. Our lives are filled with a ceaseless babble of pleasantries and gossip, idle remarks and clichés. We do it face-to-face, by telephone, by letter and by e-mail. We even turn on our radios and TVs to hear others doing it in soaps, chat shows and reality TV. So why do people spend so much of our time in seemingly pointless communication?

In the animal world there is a lot of chatter too. Open your window and listen to the birds singing if you need convincing. Animal studies show that the utterances animals make generally carry very simple messages. Things like: Here I am! Does anyone fancy sex with me? Look out everybody, danger’s coming! I’m OK, I’m one of you! The food’s over there! It’s quite an impressive repertoire when you look at it but the question is: do these animals actually intend their communications, or is each simply an inevitable reflex triggered by circumstances?

It is possible that chimpanzees at least really do know what they’re doing when they communicate. Experiments have been going on for decades to try to teach chimps to speak. Unfortunately they don’t have the vocal chords for it, so researchers teach them to use sign language or to build up sentences using plastic symbol shapes. One chimp called Washoe was taught to use sign language. The researchers claimed that, not only could Washoe ask for things and express its feelings but it could even make jokes! Dolphin studies have produced evidence suggestive of even more sophisticated language use. Yet, even if all this evidence proves to be well founded, chimp and dolphin language would still be far cruder than our own.

Yet people don’t use their gift just for worthy, noble purposes. For every “Origin of Species” or “Principia Mathematica” that is published, there are mountains of women’s magazines and romantic novels. It seems, looking at the numerical evidence, that chit-chat is the primary purpose of human communication. For instance, in a study of electronic mail messages in one large organisation, it was found that about 80% of messages were casual, social interactions and only 20% were work related.

Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some linguists suggest that the reason language evolved in the first place was just so that we could socialize with each other. We are, after all, merely another species of primate. Genetically, we are 98% similar to chimps and gorillas. Like our hairy cousins, we are social animals. What do apes do in their spare time? They groom each other. They pick fleas out of each others’ fur and straighten it and stroke it. It is an activity that strengthens the bonds of trust and friendship within the troop. What do people do? We chat. We engage in a kind of linguistic grooming. And it’s very efficient too. The average size of a primate troop is about 30 individuals. Primitive human societies average just under 150. The belief is that it is through language that we can maintain such large groupings and bigger groups mean better chances of survival. It doesn’t keep our pelts clean but, as with chimpanzee grooming, it serves to keep our societies together. It binds us to each other and it creates the social cohesion that makes human life possible. Idle chat is perhaps the most socially valuable activity that most of us ever engage in.

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