How did language evolve?
Human language can be divided into two types: natural languages and constructed languages. The former are our ‘native’ languages, the ones we learn to speak from an early age (in fact, a new study has suggested we begin to learn before we are even born – see later notes), and which have evolved over a period of many centuries into their present form. The latter are languages that have not evolved over a long period of time, and have been ‘made up’ by humans. They include computer programming languages, and new languages such as Esperanto. In TOK, we are primarily interested in natural languages, though we must not overlook the second form of communication entirely.
When did humans first start to talk?
Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure when language was first used. Estimates vary wildly from the time of Homo habilis 2,000,000 years ago, to the time of Cro-Magnon man around 30,000 years ago. For obvious reasons, it’s very hard to know for sure when human beings (or earlier forms of our species) first started talking to one another – unlike dating the first time writing was used. There is some sort of consensus, however, that spoken communication was definitely being employed approximately 50,000 years ago at about the point when humans began to disperse from Africa, and move to other regions around the globe.
Since then, different forms of language began to evolve, and today there are around 7000 different languages being spoken by the 6 billion or so of the world’s population. Many of these can be grouped together into a language family, based on similarities in such elements as vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Examples of language families are the Indo European languages, spoken by around 3 billion people (including English, Spanish, Hindi, and Urdu), the Afroasiatic languages, spoken by about 350 million people (including Arabic and Hebrew), and the Sino-Tibetan languages, spoken by around 1.5 billion people (including Cantonese, and Burmese). There is a great deal of debate over the taxonomy of language, and what should be the basis for organizing languages into different families. To give some idea of the complexity of the issue, the following diagram shows the ‘family tree’ of the Indo-European family tracing all the languages back to a common ancestor. Click on the image if you want a clearer view of this complex diagram.
So where does this leave us? Clearly, the origins and evolution of language are an extremely complex issue. But we are not yet addressing the real questions about the history of language, which may give us an insight into the role it performs.
Why did humans start to talk?
The first thing to think about here is that in order to talk, you need, to possess the physiological ability to talk. Critical in human language is the fact that our larynx is situated relatively far down our throat, which means that our vocal tract is much longer than in other animals, allowing us a much winder range when it comes to articulating noises. Think about the string on a musical instrument: if it is very short, there’s not much you can do with it; a longer one, however, is more versatile, according to where you pluck it.
Some linguists have argued that it was the evolution of this descended larynx that led to humans first developing language, though it’s no easy guess to make in saying when that occurred. Critics have also pointed out that the descended larynx also exists in many aquatic mammals and large deer, and although Bambi did speak in the Walt Disney film, you don’t often hear the average muntjac doing the same in the wild.
The British anthropologist Roger Lewin has suggested that new technology used by humans, such as stone tools used to hunt, was one of the ‘driving forces’ in the evolution of the brain. In other words, there was a need to name and label the different tools and the methods used to construct them, and this need occurred at the same time as the brain was enlarging.
Another possible cause – acknowledged by Lewin along with other anthropologists – is that language arose out of a more complex social world, where relationships and interactions were becoming more sophisticated than the proverbial bash over the head with a club, and the future wife dragged into the cave.
Of course, there is no reason why all these reasons together could not be the reason for the appearance of language. As Steven Pinker, the famous cognitive psychologist as Harvard puts it:
this triad – language, social cooperation and technological know-how is what makes humans unusual. And they probably evolved in tandem, each of them multiplying the value of the other two.
Questioning the relationship between us and language: The Edinburgh University Evolution Experiment
The assumption so far is that language was invented by humans, then developed as our need for more complexity has increased. Our brains, in turn, have adapted to be good at learning language. A different approach has been taken by researchers at Edinburgh University, who are examining the theory that it is language that has done the adapting – rather than our brains – to be easily learned by us.
In the words of the research team:
Language, because it is culturally transmitted, is an evolutionary system in its own right. Many of the adaptive features of linguistic structure arise from this process rather than having to be encoded specifically in our genes. Of course, the human brain provides the essential scaffolding for the cultural evolution of language in the first place, but it need not specify all the details innately.