Language Displays and Social Status

This verbal courtship theory fits nicely with some ideas developed by three other language evolution theorists—Robbins Burling, John Locke, and Jean-Louis Dessalles. They are not as well known as Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker, but they share my belief that a good theory of how language evolved must show how selfish genes can derive hidden benefits from the apparently altruistic act of speaking. In an important paper published in 1986, anthropologist Robbins Burling advanced arguments similar to mine. He contrasted the excessiveness of our baroque syntax and enormous vocabulary with the sufficiency of simple pidgin languages for trade, hunting, and tool making, and considered this alongside the problem of language's apparent altruism. He proposed that complex human language evolved through male orators competing for social status by speaking eloquently, since high status would give them reproductive advantages. Burling cited anthropological evidence of the links in tribal societies between verbal skill, social status, and reproductive success. As long as those links held true during human evolution, language could have evolved ever greater complexity. As Burling noted, "All that is needed for the mechanism I suggest to be effective is that the average leader in the average society have slightly more verbal facility and slightly more children than other men." Although he emphasized verbal leadership more than verbal courtship, he did acknowledge that "We need our very best language for winning a lover." I think Burling's sexual selection model of language evolution deserves much more attention than it has received, and complements my ideas about verbal courtship.

Cambridge linguist John Locke has extended Burling's social-status model with more linguistic evidence, paying more attention to the role of "verbal plumage" in human sexual mate choice. He quoted from a study in which a young African-American man from Los Angeles patiently explained the sexual-competitive functions of language to a visiting linguist: "Yo' rap is your thing . . . like your personality Like you kin style on some dude by rappin' better 'n he do. Show 'im up. Outdo him conversation-

wise. Or you can rap to a young lady, you tryin' to impress her, catch her action—you know—get wid her sex-wise." In a few concise phrases, this teenager alluded to both classic processes of sexual selection: male competition for status, and female choice for male displays.

Along similar lines, language researcher Jean-Louis Dessalles has pointed out that listeners award higher social status to speakers who make relevant, interesting points in conversation. Language may have evolved through social selection to permit these "relevance" displays. This is why people compete to offer good ideas and insights when talking in groups. While Burling and Locke focused on dramatic public displays of oratorical prowess, Dessalles focused on social competition to say interesting things in ordinary small-group conversation.

Burling, Locke, and Dessalles have all identified important selection pressures that have been neglected in previous theorizing about language evolution. They have shown how language's hidden status and sexual benefits could have driven its evolution. In their theories, sexual attractiveness depends on social status, which in turn depends on verbal ability displayed in large or small groups. In my verbal courtship theory, sexual choice favored verbal ability more directly through one-to-one conversation. Sexual selection probably shaped human language in both ways: directly, through mate choice, and indirectly, through social status. Here I focus on verbal courtship only because it has received less attention so far.

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