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Origins of Language 

   When did humans develop language?

Language is a communication system that is unique to humans. In the six million years since apes and humans evolved from a common ancestor, language has emerged only in the human line, along with all the necessary brain and motor structures for encoding thoughts into sounds and transmitting them to other humans. Although humans possess an innate ability to acquire language, they have to learn it through culture. Language has a critical period: failure to learn language during childhood development causes serious cognitive impediments.

Humans are not the only animals that possess a system for receiving and generating sounds that enable them to communicate with each other. Other animals have such systems as well. These systems may well have predated human language. But are the vocalizations of animals the same as human language? According to linguists, such as Chomsky, the most fundamental difference between human language and the vocalization of animals is that the former is creative, free of stimulus control and unlimited in its capacity to express ideas, whereas the latter consists of a fixed number of signals, each associated on a one-to-one basis with an external stimulus. This view is disputed by those who have observed chimps creating novel utterances.

   Theories about origins of language

There are dozens of theories on the origins of human language. Since it is impossible to obtain direct evidence on the emergence of language in the human species, these theories are necessarily speculative. Most of them fall into these categories:

  • Selectionist
    Darwinian natural selection is used to explain evolutionary changes in species, including the development of language.
  • Exaptationist* 
    Parts of language were exapted from cognitive structures that our pre-human ancestors used for food gathering, rule learning, tool making, hunting, etc.

*An exaptation is a biological adaptation where the biological function currently performed by the adaptation was not the function performed while the adaptation evolved under earlier pressures of natural selection.

Dr. Derek Bickerton of the University of Hawai’i argues that humans may have been speaking a precursor of language (words without grammar) some two million years ago. He suggests that language developed some 120,000 year ago when humans left the forest and started to forage and hunt in the savanna. To communicate to others what they found, they needed to develop context-free vocal symbols, for instance, a general word for lion. By context-free is meant that the same word could be used in different contexts, such as “The lion is big”, or “The lion is hiding in the bushes”, or “Beware of the lion“. In this way, early hominids could have taken the first steps toward developing language. Language also provided a means to engage in communal activities, such as hunting, and to transmit knowledge, such as tool-making. Ability to communicate through language created an advantage that spread quickly through the population.

Selected references

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