Mother Tongues

a journey through language


4 Comments

Lonely languages

Just like chimpanzees are related to humans, and lions are related to tigers, languages can also be related to each other.

Think of French and Spanish – they’re part of a language family called the Romance Languages.

post8-2-01

Just as lions and tigers are related to one another, languages are also related to one another – like French and Spanish.

 

But there are some mysterious languages that aren’t related to any other known languages. They’re linguistic islands, cut off from the language-mainland. We call them language isolates.

Orphan Languages?

Language isolates are like orphans and only children – linguists have been unable to identify their parent lingos, and they don’t appear to have any sister languages. Each language isolate forms its own special language family with population=1.

Considering each language isolate to be its own little family, then there are around 350 language families in total. Of these, 37% or 129 are language isolates – that’s quite a few!

It is still possible that most languages on Earth evolved from a single common ancestor. Maybe these isolates did have relatives that have since disappeared or died out.

It’s important to note that language isolates are different to unclassified languages. Isolates remain, well, isolated – despite linguists’ extensive efforts to connect them with other languages. On the other hand, unclassified languages haven’t been studied well enough, or there isn’t enough data, for linguists to classify them. Some unclassified languages may well be isolates – but we don’t know yet.

Unsurprisingly, lots of language isolates are endangered. But there are a few that have absolutely boomed.

Let’s explore a few of these fascinating languages. Here’s a selection from around the world.

Korean

Spoken by 80 million people worldwide, Korean is by far the most successful language isolate. Or at least, most historical linguists consider Korean to be a language isolate – but the writing on the wall isn’t fixed.

Just like Proto-Indo-European is the ancestor of the Indo-European languages, linguists can trace the ancestry of Modern Korean back through Middle Korean and Old Korean to Proto-Korean. Along this path back through history, there are some hypothetical related lingos – like the Buyeo languages. These ancient relatives are now extinct, so ya know, for all intents and purposes, today’s Korean is all on its lonesome.

Or is it? Off the coast of the Korean mainland is an island called Jeju. Here, the locals speak the Jeju dialect of Korean, which is almost unintelligible to mainlanders. Some peeps reckon it’s different enough to qualify as its own language. In this case, Jeju and Korean could team up to form a Koreanic Language Fam.

The distinctive Korean alphabet hasn’t always been fixed either. For over 1,000 years, Korean was written with modified Chinese characters called hanja. These were tricky to get yo head around, so only the wealthy elite were literate.

post8-1-01

Sejong the Great

Enter Sejong the Great: a Korean king in the 15th century, who wanted to establish a distinct Korean national identity. He oversaw the creation of the hangul alphabet, designed so that anyone could learn to read and write. It took several hundred years for hangul to take the throne, but by 1894 it was decreed ~the official~ alphabet.

Hanja.png

Hanja (red) and hangul (blue) via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Basque

Tucked away in the western Pyrenees, in a region straddling Spain and France, the Basque culture and language blossoms. Unlike Spanish and French, Basque is not an Indo-European language. In fact,  it probably existed before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans – perhaps as far back as the Stone Age. Basque is one of the few surviving pre-Indo-European languages. So cool hey!

Linguistic_map_Southwestern_Europe.gif

The changing geographic distributions of languages in Southwestern Europe. Image via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are more than 700,000 Basque speakers today, but there are a tonne of different forms. There’s five dialects, and these are further broken up into 11 subdialects and 24 other minor varieties. In the 1960s, a standard Basque – called Euskara – was created too.

Some linguists have suggested that the Basque dialects are becoming sufficiently different to classify them as separate languages. So, maybe Basque won’t be a language isolate in the future, as it splits off into different tongues in a Basque mini-family. Just goes to show how language is ever-evolving – and the line between “language” and “dialect” is kinda blurry.

post8-3-01

The Basque country flag

Hadza

The Hadza don’t farm and they don’t grow crops. They are the last hunter-gatherers in Africa. The Hazda oral history doesn’t describe originating anywhere except where they currently live – so perhaps they have been inhabiting north-central Tanzania since the dawn of humankind. Their way of life offers anthropologists a fascinating insight into how all of us humans once lived.

post8-4-01

The Hadza are the last full-time hunter-gatherers in Africa.

The Hadza language features the click consonant that characterises many African languages. Despite this common element, Hazda is a language isolate. What’s more, this ancient language is positively thriving. Although it’s only spoken by around 1,000 people, it’s known by most Hadza children.

The Hadza live a timeless existence, and their language reflects this. They have words for “one” and “two,” but they have to borrow words from other languages (like Swahili) to count any higher.

The importance of hunting is also reflected in the Hadza language: there are different words for dead and living animals. When an animal is killed, it is referred to by a special “triumphal name.” For example, a lion is usually called “séseme” but if it has been successfully hunted, its triumphal name is “hubúhee.” (Wikipedia has a bunch more examples, if you’re interested.)

post8-6-01

A living lion has a different name to a hunted lion in Hadza

Leko

Also known as Leco, this unwritten language isolate was once widely spoken along the slopes of the Andes, east of Lake Titicaca, in Bolivia.

For many years, Leko was considered to be extinct. But one linguist searched all the nooks and crannies in Bolivia, and came across a handful of people who could speak Leko.

These people, the final bastions of Leko, are now all aged over 60. Sadly, the language has not been taught to younger generations and it’s likely it will die out as the last speakers pass away.

Linguists are doing their best to learn as much as they can about the Leko language and culture, but gathering data is a tricky task. The Leko-situation is made more difficult because many hadn’t spoken this tongue in more than 40 years, and did not feel comfortable entering into spontaneous conversation with one another.

Leko is not alone – many hundreds of endangered languages face this same sorrowful fate.

Tiwi

The Tiwi Islands are found just off the Northern Coast of Australia, and are home to around 2.500 Tiwi Indigenous people. The Tiwi language is pretty different to mainland Aussie lingos, so much so it’s considered an isolate. Here’s a word (and its English translation) from the Traditional Tiwi language:

jinuatəməniŋilipaŋəmat̪at̪umaŋələpiaŋkin̪a

He came and stole my wild honey this morning while I was asleep

post4-5-01

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That one single word translates into that entire sentence in English. To get our heads around this tongue-(and-brain)-twister, we’ve gotta tackle morphemes.

Morphemes ain’t that character from The Matrix, nor is it that addictive painkilling drug. A morpheme is a “word-part” that carries a distinct meaning. It may be able to standalone (in which case, it is also a word) but some need to be combined with another morpheme.

Here’s an example: walk is both a morpheme and a word. -ed is a morpheme but it cannot stand on its own. But we can combine these two morphemes to make walked.

Tiwi is a polysynthetic language which means that its words are made up of lots of morphemes lumped together – just like the example above.

Since European contact, Tiwi has undergone a marked transformation. Modern Tiwi is a lot more isolating compared to the Traditional form – this basically means its structure is becoming more like English and less like the polysynthetic example above.

Traditional Tiwi is now generally confined to the elders, but Modern Tiwi is surviving fairly well amongst the younger generations.

Japanese

Japanese used to be a language isolate. Buuuuut… now it’s not. I’ve included it here as an interesting example of the fluid nature of language classification.

The southernmost islands of the Japanese archipelago are called the Ryukyu Islands, and they’re home to ten distinct languages called the Ryukyuan languages. Historically, these have been considered dialects of Japanese, but in fact, they are mutually unintelligible with Standard Japanese and with each other. Together, the Ryukyuan languages and Japanese form the Japonic family.

I find it interesting to think about what “mutually unintelligible” means. For example, I can barely understand Scottish people, and yet they supposedly speak the same mother tongue (English) as me…

Video via Canal de JUSTVIRALVIDEOS4 on Youtube

Anyway, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many speakers of the Ryukyuan languages remain – but they are generally confined to the older generation. Several are listed as endangered on UNESCO’s Atlas of Languages in Danger.

That concludes our tour…

…around the world through language isolates. Of course there are many more – do you know a particularly interesting one? Let me know in the comments.

Language isolates add a lil somethin’ special and spicy to the Earth’s language soup. But just like scientists are constantly refining the tree of life, so too, our interconnected web of languages is reworked and rebuilt as we uncover more about our mother tongues.

 

 

 

Advertisements


21 Comments

How many languages can a person learn?

If you’re reading this, you can speak English. Wicked.

Maybe you can speak another language too – perhaps your original mother tongue, or one that you learnt at school. Even better.

Maybe, just maybe, you have mastered a third or even fourth language – if yes, I am in awe of you.

Bu there are some scary-special souls out there whose minds soak up languages like a brain-sponge. They have an insatiable appetite for more, plus, lebih!

If a person can speak six or more languages, we call them a polyglot (meaning “many-tongued”).

If they’ve got 12 or more languages under their linguistic belt, we call them a hyperpolyglot.

polyglot-01.png

A polyglot can speak at least six languages, while a hyperpolyglot can speak at least 12.

This post, we’re gonna meet a few of these mad-awesome mofos, explore the science of polyglotism and answer the question: who is the greatest polyglot of them all?

The polyglot-est of the polyglots

To answer this question, I consulted the trusty Guinness Book of World Records, home of all feats weird and wacky. I typed “language” into the search bar on their website, returning 106 results.

I scrolled through record after record, past the longest alphabet (Khmer/Cambodian) and the loudest click of the tongue, all the way to the end. And there was no record listed for “the most languages known.”

Wat. Why?

Turns out, this whole kerfuffle is pretty controversial.

First we’ve got the problem of what the heck defines a language? That is, what’s the difference between a language and a dialect? Sometimes the distinction between the two can be blurry…

But even more difficult to pin down is what it means to know a language. Obviously, rattling off a few bonjours and je m’appelles doesn’t mean you can really speak French. So at what point do you become fluent?

Perhaps we could get a native speaker to judge how well you can hold a conversation – but this is subjective. Maybe we could define fluency by comparing vocabulary size to native speakers – but it turns out you can converse at a high level of perceived fluency with a much smaller vocab than native speakers.

And what about reading vs. writing vs. speaking? How do we compare someone who can read and write in 20 languages, to someone who can converse simply in 40?

So. The lack of objectivity in defining polyglotism means we can’t really crown the polyglot-est person on the planet. Still, anyone who can speak multiple languages is frickin’ amazing in my book.

Meet the polyglots

Guiseppe Caspar Mezzofanti

This Italian Cardinal was legendary for his language prowess. It’s reported he could speak 39 languages “with rare excellence” but some sources claim he could understand a whopping 72. Either stat is impressive considering he never even left Italy…

Mezzofanti had a super-charged memory when it came to words, but he complemented his natural aptitude with long hours studying. Lesson learnt: you gotta work yo ass off if you wanna become a language expert! Read more.

post6-1-01

Mezzofanti is reported to have known Algonquin – a language spoken by First Nations people in Ontario and Quebec. “Kwey” means “hello.” 

Emil Krebs

This German chap was passionate about languages. By the time he left high school, he could speak 12 of them. Throughout his life, he accumulated an astounding total of 65 languages – and he could tell you to “kiss my ass” in 40 of them.

After his death, Krebs’ “elite brain” was preserved and resides to this day at the C. & O. Vogt Institute for Brain Research in Germany. In 2003, neuroscientists examined his brain, and found it was wired very differently to monolingual people. But it’s unclear whether he was born with this set-up, or whether constant language learning changed the neural connections in his brain. Read more.

post6-2-01

Emil Krebs could say “kiss my ass” in 40 languages. Go here if you’d like to emulate Mr Krebs.

Alexander Argüelles

During his childhood, Argüelles had an innate interest in language. But apart from high school French, he didn’t explore this interest to any depth. At university, however, the ability to read his favourite German novelists in their native tongue led him down the rabbit-hole of language learning. He spent 16 hours a day filling his brain with words and grammar, and now he can speak around 36 different tongues but has studied many more. Read more.

“I’m increasingly drawn to dead and endangered languages… I do think the loss of so many quirks and colours would leave the world a less intriguing place. It would be like visiting a botanic garden where there was only one type of plant – that thought horrifies me.”

-Alexander Argüelles, linguist

Powell Janulus

This Canadian fellow was in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1985 for “knowing more languages than any other human.” To earn this entry, he passed two-hour long conversational fluency tests with native speakers in 42 different languages. However at his peak, he claims to have known 64 languages. In 2006, Janulus suffered a stroke but has since resumed learning new lingos. Read more.

Dr Carlos do Amaral Freire

This Brazilian boss is considered perhaps the greatest modern linguistic scholar. He systematically studies two new languages every year, and has done so for the past 40 years. Consequently he has mastered 60 of them.

“I became captivated by the fascination of studying and discovering, through languages, so many other worlds, cultures and different ways of thinking.”

-Dr Carlos do Amaral Freire, linguist

Swami Rambhadracharya

Rambhadracharya is the ultimate slashie: a Hindu religious leader, philosopher, poet, educator… as my friend would say, he’s DA MAN. He can speak 22 languages and is considered a scholar in 14 of them. He writes poems and plays in a variety of lingos – but he can’t physically read or write. Rambhadracharya’s been blind since the age of 2 months, so he learns by listening and composes by dictation. Read more.

post6-3-01

Rhambhadracharya is an accomplished polyglot (among many other things).

Sir John Bowring

A former Governor of Hong Kong and a political economist, this high-powered Englishman had a penchant for literature and language. It’s reported that he knew 200 (!) languages and could speak 100 of them. Whether these numbers are accurate, it’s difficult to say. But even if they are exaggerated, he clearly had an extraordinary talent and passion for language. Read more.

I’ve just picked a few polyglots so this is by no means an exhaustive list. Check out good ol’ Wikipedia for more multilingual masterminds.

Where da ladies at?

You’ve probably noticed that the above list is a real sausage fest. It’s true: lady lingo-lovers are relatively hard to come by. Others have noted this gender-skewing in the polyglotism world, but they haven’t found a good reason for it yet.

I had a good dig around and unearthed a couple of female polyglots:

Susanna Zaraysky

Zaraysky has studied 11 languages and can speak 8 of them fluently, and she is a great believer in the power of music to teach language. She’s written a few books and travelled the world, plus she’s passionate about inspiring more women to become multilingual. Read more.

Lomb Kató (or the westernised version, Kató Lomb)

Leaving behind her physics/chemistry background, Lomb took up languages and learned at least 16 (and maybe as many as 28). Lomb’s love of languages took her around the world as an interpreter and she also churned out a few books. She was one of the first simultaneous interpreters. Her drive to learn was characterised by unwavering determination and self-motivation. Read more.

post6-4-01

Lomb Kató dedicated her life to languages and was one of the first simultaneous interpreters.

Savant or simply obsessive?

So what’s the deal with these tongue-twisting individuals? Are they wired differently from the rest of us?

Some have suggested that hyperpolyglotism is in some way linked to autism and/or savant syndrome.

But others believe that it’s simply a matter of hard work. Anyone can become a polyglot. (But certain personality traits and conducive life circumstances can help.)

And then of course, there’s those who reckon it’s a bit of both.

If there’s one thing you can take from these stories of polyglots, I reckon that it’s never too late to start. Wanna learn a language? Just do it!

Here’s an idea…

Here at Mother Tongues you’ll know we’re particularly interested in endangered languages. So ya know what’d be wicked? If polyglots could dedicate some of their burly brainpower to learning these disappearing tongues. What do you reckon?


 

Can you speak multiple languages? Let me know which ones in the comments!

PS – after researching this post, I’ve put Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners on my to-read list. Maybe you’d like to as well 🙂


UPDATE:

Global WordPress Translation Day is coming up on Sunday April 24th. If you’re a language aficionado who’d like to help translate WordPress, check out this blog post and get on board. Woohoo!

 


7 Comments

PIE: The Zombie Language

It’s 6,000 years ago and you’re one hot Neolithic mama, gossiping with your bestie about the latest tribal happenings. Perhaps, you’re discussing which Bronze Age sugar daddy has the most cows (highly desirable) or what kind of troublemaking the warrior-class hotties are up to.

post2-1-01.png

PIE babes love boys with cows

But what language are you speaking? ‘Cause it certainly isn’t English.

Yeah, turns out 10,000 BC wasn’t historically accurate. Who woulda thought?

So it’s not English. And it’s not some prehistoric grunt-speech. It turns out you’d be speaking a weird ol’ language called Proto-Indo-European (or PIE, for short). The thing is, this language existed before humans had invented writing. So how the hell do we know about it?

This week, I put on my detective hat to investigate this lingo-enigma.

How do we know about PIE?

Just like plants and animals, languages evolve. They change over time and diversify. Similarly, just as chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor on the tree of life, modern languages have descended from a common ancestor too. You may be familiar with Latin, the granddaddy of the Romance languages (like French, Spanish and Italian).

nrg2560-f1.jpg

A linguistic evolutionary tree. Reused with permission from this Nature Reviews Genetics paper by M. Pagel.

In the 19th century, linguists noticed similarities between Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit. They wondered, “Could a GREAT-granddaddy ancient language have spawned all these?”

The answer was yes, and the great-granddaddy was Proto-Indo-European. But PIE was dead, so linguists had to do a lil Easter-Jesus-style trick.

Here’s how we raise languages from the dead:

First, compare specific words. If words that have similar meanings also have similar sound structure, then it is possible the languages are related. A good starting place for comparison is numbers – I’ve used Spanish, Italian and French for illustrative purposes.

post2-2-01.png

If it means the same, has similar phonetic structure and sounds the same, the languages might be related.

But you also have to look for sounds that correspond in a regular pattern – if you can find lots of these “correspondence sets”, then it’s pretty certain your languages are related.

post2-3-01.png

Correspondence sets: a “k” sound in Spanish and Italian corresponds to a “sh” sound in French in a regular pattern. The correspondence set is k:sh and we write the ancestral sound as *k. (In this case we know the predecessor – the latin “c-” which has a “k” sound.)

Linguists also discovered that sounds evolve in specific ways. By applying these rules in reverse, they can reconstruct ancient languages.

This type of linguistic reconstruction is called the comparative method. Nowadays, computer programs can do most of the fiddly work.

So PIE is a zombie language. Of course, we don’t know for sure that we’ve got it 100% correct – but it’s a pretty good guess.

post-2-3-01.png

PIE is a zombie language

It’s PIE time

Most linguists reckon that PIE was spoken around 3,500 BC – that’s roughly one thousand years before the Egyptians starting building pyramids (WOAH). But other hypotheses place the emergence of PIE as far back as 10,000 BC – when woolly mammoths were still kickin’ it.

The most popular theory contends that PIE was the language of people who lived in the Pontic-Caspian Steppe – a region roughly spanning Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

IE_expansion.png

As the Proto-Indo-Europeans migrated, the PIE language spread and diversified into many languages spoken today. Image by Dbachmann (Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikipedia

While PIE is a prehistoric language, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s simpler than modern-day lingos. In fact, PIE was pretty complex: it had tenses and other modifications for verbs and nouns could be modified to indicate number, case and gender. PIE may be a zombie, but it’s an elaborate zombie!

What did PIE sound like?

In 1868, a German linguist by the name of August Schleicher wanted to answer this exact question. So he wrote a little tale about a sheep who meets some disagreeable horses. Here’s a recent version, courtesy of Archaeology magazine:

Sounds pretty trippy, hey.

Here’s the English translation:

The Sheep and the Horses

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

Of course we don’t know what written symbols, if any, speakers of PIE used. So linguists use special symbols and combinations of letters to represent different sounds. Here’s the written text that tells you how to pronounce it in PIE:

H2óu̯is h1éḱu̯ōs-kwe

h2áu̯ei̯ h1i̯osméi̯ h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1ést, só h1éḱu̯oms derḱt. só gwr̥hxúm u̯óǵhom u̯eǵhed; só méǵh2m̥ bhórom; só dhǵhémonm̥ h2ṓḱu bhered. h2óu̯is h1ékwoi̯bhi̯os u̯eu̯ked: “dhǵhémonm̥ spéḱi̯oh2 h1éḱu̯oms-kwe h2áǵeti, ḱḗr moi̯ aghnutor”. h1éḱu̯ōs tu u̯eu̯kond: “ḱludhí, h2ou̯ei̯! tód spéḱi̯omes, n̥sméi̯ aghnutór ḱḗr: dhǵhémō, pótis, sē h2áu̯i̯es h2u̯l̥h1náh2 gwhérmom u̯éstrom u̯ept, h2áu̯ibhi̯os tu h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1esti. tód ḱeḱluu̯ṓs h2óu̯is h2aǵróm bhuged.

Pretty unintelligible, unless you have a background in linguistics. This particular recital isn’t fixed either – it may change over time as linguists and archaeologists discover more about PIE speakers.

Can I learn PIE?

If the above recording hasn’t put you off this tricky language, then you can definitely give learning it a go. The video below can teach you how to say another fable in PIE – but be warned, some of the sounds required are very difficult for English-speakers to enunciate properly.

Video via Xidnaf on Youtube

I reckon I have an okay knack for languages, so I decided to give it a shot. Here’s my attempt:

Wow, PIE is frickin’ hard.

If you’d like a more rigorous PIE learning experience, check out Dnghu, a non-profit organisation dedicated to resurrecting the Indo-European language. These enthusiasts even want to teach Indo-European as a second language for all European citizens, and have the EU adopt it as an official language.

Good luck with that, Dnghu – I think you’re gonna need it.

 

 


6 Comments

And then, there was Language…?

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?”

Caveman Jesus doesn’t want to share his peas.

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.

It’s tricky

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.

If only it were this easy.

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.

Homo erectus is down with the lingo. Image adapted from Flickr user Tim Evanson.

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.

The virgin birth of language?

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.