What better place to start than the beginning? That is, the ~~Beginning of Language~~
Consider this your crash course on this mysterious genesis.
You and I probably imagine a bunch of shaggy cavemen huddled around a fire, grunting like gorillas (or me early in the morning). We envisage that, gradually, these gorgling snurts morphed into “Would you pass the peas, please, love?”
As it turns out, the emergence of language didn’t really happen like that.
In fact, pinning down this prickly issue is like pinning down the identity of Banksy – it’s a persistent mystery. At one point, linguists were even banned from discussing this question ’cause it’s so damn difficult.
Let’s try to unravel some of this spaghetti-complexity and dig down into the roots of language.
The origin of language is a messy topic. Perhaps the single biggest factor contributing to this intellectual shitfest is the lack of direct evidence. It’s not like we can dig up the fossilised hollering of hunter-gatherer hominids.
How can we figure it out then?
Investigating this puzzle is multidisciplinary, drawing on fields like linguistics, biology and archaeology. Here are a few methods scientists use:
- examining the anatomy of fossils – which early Homo species had a larynx of the right shape for vocalising?
- comparison to modern apes – how do differences in our brain structures give us different language capabilities?
- finding and dating cultural artefacts – evidence of symbolism and rituals are often used to infer that their makers used language too
- analysing language diversity using statistics and computer simulations
Although we are nowhere near a comprehensive answer, these sneaky strategies have unearthed a few clues.
When did language make an entrance?
By careful analysis of ancient hominid fossils, researchers have suggested that vocal speech may have arisen one million years ago. But it’s unlikely Homo erectus would have communicated via anything that resembles today’s languages.
Taking a different approach, a linguist analysed the structure of languages around the world. He found that African languages contained more distinct “sounds.” This suggests that older languages have a greater number of different sounds.
We can estimate how quickly new sounds develop, and based on this, some researchers say that language evolved roughly 350,000-150,000 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa. Incidentally, this coincides with the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens.
Language: a sudden sensation?
Some peeps think that a single genetic mutation suddenly produced the power of language. The seed of speech was virgin-birthed into the human brain – and voilà! Thanks to a single mutant generation, we could talk.
Clearly this hypothesis is a bit wacky – how could your everyday Joe Bloggs caveman converse with a speaking genetic freak, if they themselves didn’t possess the capacity for language? Logic, man.
So it’s no surprise that the consensus lies more with a gradual approach. First, our ancestors could utter discrete speech sounds. “FOOD.” Over time, they began to string words into messages. “ME TARZAN, YOU JANE.” Then grammar developed. “I AM TARZAN AND YOU ARE JANE AND I NEED FOOD.” Seems pretty common sense.
But some other scientists think it’s not really gradual or sudden. It’s kinda a bit of both. They suggest that some revolutionary social transformation occurred, which liberated our (pre-existing but dormant) cognitive potential for language. They argue that “words are cheap” (i.e. they’re easy to fake), so there had to be some structure of mutual public trust for language to develop as our primary mode of communication.
Finally, there’s some people who think this is just a dumb question. They say, you can’t separate language from the wider development of human symbolic culture. It’s like trying to explain Instagram without first explaining smartphones and apps and all that shizz.
A change in our brain’s wiring
Language requires us to do some pretty funky cognitive tricks – like refer to things that are not in our immediate vicinity. So what happened to our brains? Other animals can vocalise, so it’s tempting to conclude that our language ability stems from a souped-up vocalising part of the brain. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
The region of the brain that allows apes to ooh-ooh-aah-aah is only used in humans for involuntary vocalisations, like screaming in pain. We humans use a different brain-bit for language, containing software that is responsible for both gestures and speech. This has led some to suggest that we pointed at stuff before we could talk about it. It might also explain why sign languages are equally as complex as spoken ones.
One last word
Clearly there’s no definitive, satisfying answer to the question of when and how and why language began, and there probably won’t ever be one.
But it’s one of those curly questions that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human – so scientists and scholars will continue to argue and hypothesise and experiment. And language will keep on evolving. And that’s pretty frickin’ cool.