The History of Communication: It’s Nothing New

If you’re hoping to understand the history of communication, perhaps it’s best to start with the obvious. Communication technology is nothing new, because technology is not just the shiny iPhone in your pocket.

There’s an old joke about a young German boy who has been totally mute since birth. His parents are worried sick, and have sought expert medical advice, but the doctors scratch their heads in befuddlement for there are no scientific answers. Broken-hearted, the parents do their best to continue their lives as normal. But, one night, during a roast chicken dinner, a miracle happens – the boy suddenly speaks: “Mother, could you please pass the salt?” Stunned, the parents break down, with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks, and they race to hug their son: “we didn’t know you could talk! All this time, you didn’t say a word?! Why didn’t you say anything?” The boy, unable to comprehend the fuss, shrugs: “until now, everything had been sufficiently adequate.”

This is typically xenophobic gag aimed at the Germans, a people apparently so obsessed with efficiency that their children will only communicate when absolutely necessary. Sadly there are children, perhaps those on the Autism spectrum, who are not as socially expressive as their peers, or may even be mute, and so it’s really not a joke I’d be comfortable telling for laughs. But I quote it here as a reminder that most human communication is more than just an exchange of functional correspondence; it is a vast arsenal of smiles, winks, nods, air kisses, the telling of jokes, the sharing of thoughts, the dissemination of ideas, the expression of emotions, the serious debates, the time-wasting small-talk, and even the intense eye-contact with the person you fancy. Unlike the German boy, we spend most of our lives communicating totally unimportant stuff – pointless blather about what’s on the telly, our favourite kinds of sandwich, or why Steve from Accounts is deceptively tall. We are all foghorns of filler.

Even the talismanic greats of world history – the globe-straddling titans of intellectualism – probably spent most of their lives wondering what was for dinner, or whinging about minor aches and pains. In fact, after reading an infuriating blog about the “relentless wisdom of Thomas Jefferson” in August 2013, I created a Twitter hashtag game to celebrate illustrious banality. It was called #LessFamousQuotesFromHistoricalCelebs and the concept was things possibly said by famous people which were far too boring to have been written down. Other Twitter users responded with hilariously dull quotes from Churchill speculating that “it looks like rain”, and Julius Caesar wondering “is it Tuesday? It feels like a Tuesday.” My favourite response was nothing more than Isaac Newton saying “Owww!” It is an astute observation that even the founding father of universal mechanics probably banged his head on a low beam…

Communication – whether soul-crushingly mundane, or crucially vital – is something humans do all the time, perhaps even without realising it, and it makes me roll my eyes with head-smacking despair when I see magazine articles with absurd headlines such as “How to make your business thrive in the Communication Age…”, as if the human race only discovered how to interact when someone sat them down at an Apple Mac in the 1990s. Yes, we are undoubtedly living through an era of astonishing complexity when it comes to digital communication, and my book provides a brief history of telephony and all that shiny gubbins, but we’ve been using communications technology for thousands of years. If there is such a thing as the Communication Age, it began a long, long time ago with the evolution of human speech.

Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, cannot speak unless they’re starring in a Charlton Heston movie, but they can communicate using a range of sounds, including the grunt, the shriek and the splendidly-named ‘pant-hoot’. What’s more, they can also use body language and facial expressions to illustrate their mood or intention, meaning a peeved chimp is pretty easy to spot, and not just because it’s flinging warm faeces at your head. We can confidently assume, then, that our prehistoric ancestors – the evolutionary descendants of such primates – shared similar, if not superior, talents. But the million dollar question is when did a member of the homo clan first open their gob to speak, and what on Earth did they say?

There’s a pretty feisty debate amongst scholars as to what constitutes full speech and whether a sort of half-way house between chimp hoots and modern human eloquence might have existed for a couple of million years. This mid-point, or proto-language, would likely have involved minimal syntax or tenses and might simply have been a menu of set phrases, like the pre-recorded catchphrases of a Buzz Lightyear action figure. But, even that might be going too far – this is, after all, a fairly speculative area of research. Even the Neanderthals, who only died out around 30,000 years ago, remain deeply mysterious. One theory is that proto-language had an innate musicality. Our bodies are naturally rhythmic; just watch the way people swing their limbs in metronymic counter-balance when they sashay down the street; and there’s also that strange high-pitched coo we emit whenever someone thrusts a puppy or a baby in our direction, the one that stretches syllables across a melodic scale, “whooooo’s a clever boooooy? Yes you aaaare!”

Why do we do this, when it clearly makes us sound like total prats? Well, it’s because babies and pets respond better to this tonal variety than the staccato mutterings we direct at fellow adults. Could it be, then, that baby brains run a primitive form of software, more in common with the archaic, musical brains of our Neanderthal ancestors? It’s an intriguing idea. Of course, most adults aren’t quite so limited. At some point in the last 100,000 years, homo sapiens developed linguistic compositionality. That’s a posh way of saying syntax, which is the assignment of symbolic meaning to each word so that sentences can be endlessly rewritten by rearranging the order of nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. We don’t just parrot stock phrases, like a lazily-sketched sitcom character, we can make puns and create new meanings with the subtlest of switches: “Don’t wanna be an American Idiot” is a Green Day lyric, but “Don’t wanna be – an American Idiot” is a suicide note.

Why can homo sapiens speak so eloquently, yet Neanderthals possibly couldn’t? One factor is perhaps genetics. In 1990, scientists were introduced to the KE family (a label applied to protect their identity), who were three generations of Londoners struggling with an unusual medical condition. About half of them lacked fine motor control over their facial muscles, lips and tongues – making their speech unintelligibly slurred – and they also found grammar highly problematic. We now know that this family carried a faulty version of a gene called FOXP2 that regulates the expression of other genes, and seems to be crucial to speech. In fact, when given the human-version in a recent experiment, the squeaks of mice dropped to a strange baritone sound. Admittedly, it’s not as if the rodents suddenly stood up on their hind legs and quoted the romantic poetry of William Wordsworth, but it’s still remarkable.

Whether a Planet of the Apes scenario of articulate chimps might be theoretically possible seems unlikely, as humans have also evolved descended larynxes and the crucially-positioned hyoid bone, both of which are vital components in producing our array of vocal sounds. But the fact remains that our ability to deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy is, in large part, the by-product of a lovely evolutionary accident. Had another gene mutated instead, you and I might possess glow-in-the-dark skin, or blue nipples as long as our index fingers. But, then again, maybe not. We have to be careful with our desires to apply a simplistic determinism to genetics, no matter how tempting it is to say “this is a gene for *insert thing*…”.

But the complexities of the science aside, given that speech is possibly over 100,000 years old, it’s annoying how pop culture often depicts cave people grunting at each other with all the vocal elegance of a dog choking on a slipper. In fact, a recent statistical analysis of ancient linguistics has suggested that some words such as “I”, “We”, “Two”, and “Three” have etymological roots probably dating back tens of thousands of years. For all we know, our cavemen ancestors could have boasted a vocabulary worthy of a Scrabble champion. They were, after all, just like us.