The apparent uniqueness of human language raises what we may call the “origins of meaning” question:

Given that the distinctive characteristics of natural languages appear to have no precedent in the nonhuman animal world, how could they have evolved?

A correlate of this diachronic question is the synchronic question whether our linguistic capacities separate us radically from all other animals. Answering this latter question may prove significant to the ongoing debate over the moral status of non-human animals, as well as that of non-linguistic humans. In their collaborative NSF-project, Bar-On and Green aim to develop conceptual tools for understanding expressive behavior, the capacity for which we share with many non-human animals, and which, they argue, is an important evolutionary precursor of linguistic behavior. The NSF-project has served as the basis for ECOM.

Expressive Communication

Expressive behavior need not be intentionally produced, but it is directly tied to mentality; indeed, that connection to mentality is what makes expressive behavior distinctive. Behaviors like growling, baring teeth in anger, grimacing, yelping, wagging a tail, are different from purely physiological changes – such as an increase in skin conductivity – which merely indicate an animal’s bodily condition, and even from simple forms of signaling behavior – such as sexual swellings in female primates. Our hypothesis is that what distinguishes expressive behavior from other behavioral manifestations, symptoms, and signals, is that it is:

biologically designed to show the expresser’s state of mind – its kind, degree, and object – and thereby show designated recipients how to respond to specific environmental objects or situations.

In other words, it is behavior whose biological purpose is to enable a certain kind of mindreading: the perception of an expresser’s state of mind by, typically, conspecifics (or else co-evolved receivers). But expressive behavior can show an expresser’s state of mind without her intending or trying to communicate it. By the same token, the designated observer of such behavior need not consciously interpret the behavior or consciously infer the expresser’s intentions for the behavior to serve its purpose. At the same time, we aim to establish that even non-intentionally produced expressive behavior of non-human animals exhibits proto-semantic and proto-pragmatic structure. As such, it is a promising precursor of linguistic behavior. We will develop this conception of expressive behavior and explore, in ways accessible to researchers from a wide range of fields, how it can help explain the origins of meaning.

For a development of this conception of expressive behavior and its communicative function, see Dorit Bar-On’s Speaking My Mind (esp. chs. 6-8), Mitchell Green’s Self-Expression, and our publications.