Snakes and Language

by Translation Guy on October 16, 2010

I’d like to point out that the whole point of speaking is pointing. SOV, baby. Subject Object Verb, at least in English, makes syntax, and syntax makes language. And language started with the pointed finger.

The relationship between declarative pointing and the evolution of language is so strong that neurological and cognitive studies find the two are practically interchangeable. Makes sense, right? As a species, we are distinctive by our ability to speak and point, and it’s pretty much the first communicative gesture that babies use to―pardon the expression―make a point.

I should also point out that this most primatial of gestures depends on binocular vision. By that I don’t mean the binoculars you are wearing around your neck right now (I never go anywhere without mine), but the two eyeballs in the front of our face. With the benefits of the primate stereoscopic 3-D vision, pointing is a particularly effective behavior.

Curiously, we are much better at following the pointing of others out of the corner of our eyes than straight on, and while looking down rather than up.

Anthropologist Lynne Isbell, looking at all these points, thinks she knows the reason why. “What was it outside central vision and in the lower visual field that was so urgent for our ancestors to see that it causes neurological changes to enable us to turn automatically in the direction of a gaze and pointing finger?”


She argues that our primate ancestors perched farther down the evolutionary tree developed their exception visibilities to point at and see what was being pointed at front and center, from what was likely the most constricting and poisonous arboreal neighbor.

“I cannot think of any other object in the lower visual field that would have been more difficult to see and more unforgiving if missed,” she writes.

Still not convinced? Well, if you don’t buy all that evolutionary hooey, it says so right in the Bible! I’ll give it to you chapter and verse: Genesis 3:1 to be exact.

“And the serpent said unto the woman….For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened….”

The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well, by Lynne Isbell.


  1. I have never seen a venomous snake in the wild. Does that make me a rotten linguist? Do my native habitat (central England) and my current habitat (Berlin, Germany) put me at a disadvantage for the use of language?
    (I suppose I’d better hide from a few imminent sarcastic remarks!)

  2. Clint says:

    Interesting take on speaking and pointing and its origins. I’m definitely going to have to check out the book. Thanks.

  3. Betsy Chang says:

    My son is turning two tomorrow and he doesn’t really speak. He can say mommy and daddy, he loves to say go go go to cheer for some sport, hi and bye, nigh nigh, but other then that he just points and grunts. I am starting to get concerned. He understands me when I speak as he will do what I ask as long as it doesn’t interupt his play (typical male characteristic hey, he he). Is this normal for a boy?

  4. Molly Cox says:

    That’s a tad vulgar don’t you think Ken?

    • Ken says:

      Vulgar as in Vulgate? Not sure what you are refering to, but if you found something a tad vulgar, its only because my editor is watering down my hard-hitting prose.

      • Molly Cox says:

        I was referring to the picture…

        • Ken says:

          Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll keep your views in mind for the future.

  5. The Bible as a source for your arguement??? Eek…

    • Ken says:

      “Eek” over a quote from the Bible? Do you stand on a chair at the sight of holy water, Carlos?

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