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18.16: Chapter 15- The Origins of Language

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    Learning Objectives
    1. Distinguish between continuity and discontinuity theories of the origins of language; provide examples
    2. Distinguish between innate and cultural theories of the origins of language; provide examples
    3. Define polygenism and monogenism
    4. Define "spandrel" and "exaptation"
    5. Contrast Chomsky's views with Deacon's views on the origins of language
    6. Briefly describe the evidence related to whether Neanderthals had spoken language


    In this section, we review a number of ideas about the origins of human language. Two prominent approaches are continuity and discontinuity theories. Continuity theorists assume that language evolved gradually from earlier forms of communication in non-human animals and hominids from as recently as 40,000 years ago, according to some theorists, to over 2 million years ago in Homo habilis, according to others. Discontinuity theorists believe that human language is so unique that it must have appeared relatively quickly in human evolution without being derived from any form of animal communication. Some theories propose that language is mostly innate, determined primarily by genes, while others hypothesize that human language has cultural origins, resulting from learning in social interaction, with limited and only general contributions from genetics.

    Evolution of Language

    From Primate Origins to a Language Ready Human Brain

    The origin of language (spoken, signed, and written) and its relationship to human evolution are complex subjects requiring inferences from the fossil record, archeological evidence, contemporary language similarities and differences, studies of language acquisition, and comparisons between human language and communication in other animals (particularly other primates).

    Language clearly depends upon the human brain having acquired features that made it capable of the production and understanding of vocal symbols. However, how human language and a language-ready brain evolved is not known. Nevertheless, most theorists assume that language must have evolved from earlier, more primitive forms of communication.

    One integrative approach to the complex issue of the evolutionary origins of human language and a brain capable of human language comes from "comparative neuroprimatology." This is the study of the brains, behaviors and communication systems of monkeys, apes and humans in order to investigate "the biological and cultural evolution of the human language-ready brain" (Arbib et al., 2018, p. 371). The brains of many animals, including non-human primates, show left lateralization of vocalization in the brain, just as the dominant hemisphere for language in most humans is the left. This suggests a long evolutionary history of human language from earlier forms of vocalization.

    Theoretical Approaches to the Origins of Language

    Approaches to the origin of language can be sub-divided according to some underlying assumptions (Ulbaek, 1998):

    • "Continuity theories" work from the assumption that language exhibits so much complexity that it could not have developed from nothing in its final form; therefore it must have evolved from earlier pre-linguistic systems among humans' primate ancestors.
    • "Discontinuity theories" take the opposite approach—that language is such a unique trait that it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans, and that it must have appeared fairly suddenly during the course of human evolution.
    • Innate theories: some theories consider language mostly as an innate faculty—largely genetically encoded.
    • Cultural theories: other theories regard language as a mainly cultural system—learned through social interaction.

    Continuity Approaches

    A majority of linguistic scholars believe continuity-based theories, but they vary in how they hypothesize language development. Among those who consider language as mostly innate, some—notably, Steven Pinker (Pinker & Bloom, 1990)—avoid speculating about specific precursors in nonhuman primates, stressing simply that the language faculty must have evolved in the usual gradual way (Pinker, 1994) as Darwin proposed for most traits. Others in this intellectual camp—notably Ib Ulbæk (1998)—hold that language evolved not from primate communication but from primate cognition, which is significantly more complex.

    Those who consider language as learned socially, such as Michael Tomasello, propose that it developed from the cognitively controlled aspects of primate communication, these being mostly gestural as opposed to vocal (Pika & Mitani, 2006; Tomasello, 1996). Regarding the vocal precursors of human language, many continuity theorists hypothesize that language evolved from early human capacities for song (Dunn, et al., 2011; Vaneechoutte, 2014).

    Discontinuity Approaches

    Noam Chomsky, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a proponent of discontinuity theory, argues that a single chance mutation occurred in one individual in the order of 100,000 years ago, installing the language faculty (a hypothetical component of the mind-brain) in "perfect" or "near-perfect" form (Chomsky, 1996). However, it seems unlikely that this would produce adaptive advantage unless a sufficiently large number of others also had similar capacities for communication at the same time.

    When Did Language Develop?

    Clearly, there are many theories about the origins of language, and the dates cited for its first appearance vary greatly from one author to another. They range from the time of Cro-Magnon man, about 40,000 years ago, to the time of Homo habilis, about 2 million years back.

    The hypothesis that language dates as far back as the time of Homo habilis is supported by the resilience of tool cultures in Homo habilis and later hominid species. Tool making techniques (see module on Material Culture) must be passed from generation to generation to be sustained over long spans of time. This can be accomplished by imitation (younger members of the group learning by watching more skillful and experienced tool makers) or by verbal instruction or by a combination of both. Homo habilis "retained their tool cultures despite many climate change cycles at the timescales of centuries to millennia each, [suggesting that Homo habilis and later] species had sufficiently developed language abilities [including grammar] to verbally describe complete procedures" (Model, 2010, p. 7) for toolmaking. Research with non-human primates shows that toolmaking skills based on imitation alone, without verbal instruction, are lost under environmental changes like the changes in climate referred to above. "Chimpanzees, macaques and capuchin monkeys are all known to lose tool techniques under such circumstances" (Model, 2010, p. 7). Many experts content that the resilience of tool culture in Homo habilis supports the view that language existed in these early human ancestors.

    Monogenism or Polygenism?

    Regardless of how and when language emerged, another question arises immediately: did it do so once, or many times? In other words, do all languages have a common origin, a proto-language that gave rise to all the rest, or did several different dialects emerge, at various places in the world?

    Those who argue for the multiple origins, or polygenism, of language, say that the first modern humans did not share the potential for the faculty of speech, and that only after they dispersed through migration did actual languages develop independently among various groups of Homo sapiens.

    The proponents of polygenism base their arguments on events and behaviors that would have had little chance of occurring without spoken language, such as great migrations that would have required major planning and organizing efforts. From this premise, the polygenists have deduced, for example, that the peoples who left Africa and arrived in Australia about 60,000 years ago must have spoken a complex language before those who migrated to the Middle East.

    The alternative view, the theory of monogenism, proposes that all languages have a common origin, a proto-language at one location that gave rise to language once, and from that original language all the world's languages developed.

    Monogenists were greatly influenced by Meritt Ruhlen’s On the Origin of Languages, which posited the existence of a single proto-language over 50,000 years ago. Ruhlen’s work was based, among other things, on analyses of population genetics that showed a high correlation between the genetic diversification of human populations and the diversification of the languages that they spoke. But other studies have shown the the correspondences between genetic classifications of populations and genealogical classifications of languages are more uncertain than was once believed. The fact remains that even though Ruhlen’s work has been questioned on linguistic grounds, many people still endorse the key idea in his book: that all languages had a common origin. Among these proponents of monogenism, there are two major schools of thought. there are two major schools of thought.

    Two Major Views within Monogenism

    A Chance Mutation and Spandrels

    Following Chomsky (see above), the first major view starts from the premise that the human species as we know it arose from an unlikely genetic mutation that occurred about 100,000 years ago, in which certain of the brain’s circuits were reorganized. This reorganization gave rise to the human “language instinct,” thus paving the way for the explosive growth in all the cognitive abilities that the powerful communication tool of language provides. On this view, language is an innate component of human brain organization, which includes a “universal grammar,” which all humans inherit within their innate brain organization. This universal grammar is therefore a species-specific human trait and is expressed in similarities in the grammars of all languages of the world. This universal grammar organizes and guides language learning regardless of the human language being acquired. This view makes it hard to imagine any intermediate form of language that could function without all the grammatical structures found in languages today.

    This discontinuity view of the origins of language has been criticized by some experts as anti-evolutionist, but several renowned scholars of evolution have ideas consistent with the uniqueness of human language and with discontinuity views of its origins. For example, paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, writes that Homo sapiens sapiens “is not simply an improved version of its ancestors—it’s a new [development], qualitatively distinct from them.” For Tattersall and many other scientists, the mechanism that gave rise to language involved the relatively sudden combination of pre-existing elements that had not been selected specifically to produce this attribute but that, together, made it possible. On this view, characteristics evolved for other purposes make a new capability, like language, possible, so that a trait like language itself was at least initially not selected for by natural selection but rather emerged from other evolved capabilities.

    This type of evolutionary mechanism is thought to have come into play many times in the course of evolution; the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould calls it exaptation. Exaptation means that a trait, feature, or structure that evolved for one function takes on a different function; for example, feathers originally evolved to keep ancestral birds warm, but then in later descendants became essential for flight.

    Steven Jay Gould calls the features that result from exaptation, such as language, “spandrels. ” In evolutionary biology, a spandrel is a phenotypic trait that is a byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection. These ideas were brought into biology by Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin in a 1979 scientific paper in which they sought to temper the influence of adaptationism, the view that sees most organismal traits as adaptive products of natural selection. Gould and Lewontin argued that chance and other non-selection factors played a larger role in evolution than adaptationists claimed. They believed that many traits were evolved for other purposes become "recruited" to perform other unrelated functions during the course of evolution. These recruited "spandrels" are examples of exaptation.

    Like Noam Chomsky, Steven Gould also believed that human language is so different from anything else in the animal kingdom that he did not see how it could have developed from ancestral cries or gestures, but he did imagine its having emerged as a side effect of the explosive growth of human cognitive abilities.

    A More Adaptationist View

    The second major school of monogenism posits a concept of the evolution of Homo sapiens in which language developed from cognitive faculties that were already well established, and that once it was present in some earlier form, it was then naturally selected for. In this view, the birth of language was triggered not by a random mutation (as the first view states), but simply by the availability of an increasingly powerful cognitive tool. Bit by bit, by natural selection, those groups of hominids who developed an articulate language that let them discuss past and imaginary events would thereby have gradually supplanted those groups that as yet had only a proto-language. The emphasis here on natural selection for language ability makes this approach more of an adaptationist view.

    This second school of monogenism is identified with the linguist and psychologist, Steven Pinker, who believes that language may very well have been the target that evolution was "aiming for" (this phrase is not to be taken literally since evolution has no purpose or goal but happens automatically; see Chapter 3; natural selection selected for language ability only in the sense that those who were better at language survived and reproduced more offspring). Pinker argues that the brain has a general capacity for language—a concept often associated with connectionist theory in cognitive science (see module on connectionist networks in the chapter on learning and memory). Pinker invokes the Baldwin effect, for example, as a major evolutionary force that could have led to modern language (see discussion of Baldwin Effect below). The ability to learn language would therefore have become a target of natural selection, thus permitting the selection of language-acquisition devices that were genetically pre-wired into the brain’s circuits.

    painting of the massive Tower of Babel left unfinished and some of it crumbling near the top
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563). According to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, everyone originally spoke the same language, but then God changed things so that everyone spoke different languages. As a result, the tower, which was supposed to reach to the heavens, was never completed, because the people building it could no longer understand one another (Image and caption: public domain via Wikimedia Commons;

    This theory of monogenism favored by Steven Pinker also implies intermediate forms of language that eventually led to our own. For example, Derek Bickerton, a linguist renowned for his work on the evolution of language, suggests that human language abilities evolved in two stages. In the first, humans would have used a proto-language of symbolic representations that took the concrete form of vocal and/or gestural signs. This stage might have lasted nearly 2 million years. Then, about 50 000 years ago, humans would have developed a more formal syntax that let them exchange ideas with significantly more precision and clarity. With syntax, people could not only label things (“leopard paw print”, “danger”, etc.), but also join several labels together to express even more meaning (“When you see a leopard paw print, watch out!”).

    Thus, if symbolic representations, already present in the proto-languages, made the construction of the first mental models of reality possible, it was the emergence of syntax that gave human language the great richness that it has today. To give some idea of how the transition from symbolic representations to syntax may have occurred, Bickerton cites the example of the pidgin languages of the colonial period. These rudimentary languages were developed by people of different cultural origins who needed to communicate. Though the pidgin languages themselves had no grammar at all, when they were learned by a second generation, they became what are known as creoles: new, grammatical languages derived from multiple mother tongues.

    Another important scholar of the origins of language, anthropologist Terrence Deacon, takes exception to the primacy of grammar, believing instead that the essential feature of language is its use of symbols. According to Deacon, the so-called symbols that some authors say animals use are actually only indexes. He says that people who try to teach language to chimpanzees always ensure that the things designated by the words or icons being taught are present in the animal’s environment, which makes these words or icons mere indexes. Deacon associates this inferior level of language, based on signs and icons, with that used by children in their earliest years. By contrast, says Deacon, articulate adult language depends on the specificity of the symbols, which in turn depends on the logical connections that each symbol in a language has with the others. For Deacon, it is this network of relationships, far more than the mere occurrence of arbitrary signs, that characterizes the symbols used by human beings.

    Deacon therefore thinks that we must try to understand the evolution of language not in terms of innate grammatical functions, but rather in terms of the manipulation of symbols and of relationships among symbols. There is certainly a human predisposition for language, but this predisposition would be the result of the co-evolution of the brain and of language. What is innate, according to Deacon, is a set of mental abilities that give us certain natural tendencies, which are expressed in the same universal language structures. Thus Deacon offers a different concept from Chomsky, who associates the origins of universal grammar with a language-specific innovation in the brain.

    Deacon sees this co-evolution of the brain and language as being rooted in the complexity of humans’ social lives, which involved not only a high degree of co-operation between the men and women of a community to acquire resources, but also exclusive monogamous relationships to ensure proper care for very young children who were greatly dependent on adults. This highly explosive mixture is not found in any other species (the great apes, for example, gather their food individually). To ensure the stability of the group, rituals and restrictions were required: in other words, abstractions that could be comprehended only if the individuals involved could understand and use symbols.

    Universal Human Language Circuitry

    The first changes in the neurons of the left hemisphere that accompanied the development of language faculties during hominization may have occurred about 100,000 years ago, or even earlier. But the truly explosive growth in these faculties most likely began with the evolution of the angular gyrus, about 50,000 years ago (see modules 14.10 and 14.11).

    Together, the angular and supramarginal gyri constitute a multimodal associative area that receives auditory, visual, and somatosensory inputs. The neurons in this area are thus very well positioned to process the phonological and semantic aspect of language that enables us to identify and categorize objects.

    The language areas of the brain are distinct from the circuits responsible for auditory perception of the words we hear or visual perception of the words we read. The auditory cortex lets us recognize sounds, an essential prerequisite for understanding language. The visual cortex, which lets us consciously see the outside world, is also crucial for language, because it enables us to read words and to recognize objects as the first step in identifying them by a name.

    Scientists believe that articulate language as we now know it must have already appeared 50,000 or 60,000 years ago, because it was then that the various human ethnic groups became differentiated. But all these groups still retain the ability to learn any language spoken anywhere in the world. Thus a Polish or Chinese immigrant to New York City ends up speaking with a New York accent, and vice versa, which just goes to show that all of us have inherited the same linguistic potential.


    A pidgin is a language created spontaneously from a mixture of several languages, so that the people who speak them can communicate. The people who develop a pidgin language agree on a limited vocabulary and employ only a rudimentary grammar. For example, in Franco-Vietnamese pidgin, this results in sentences such as “Moi faim. Moi tasse. Lui aver permission repos. Demain moi retour campagne.” [Me hunger. Me lie down. He have permission rest. Tomorrow me return country.]

    The first documented pidgin, the Lingua Franca, was used by Mediterranean merchants in the Middle Ages. Another well known pidgin was developed from a mixture of Chinese, English, and Portuguese to facilitate trade in Canton, China during the 18th and 19th centuries. Another classic example is the pidgin developed by slaves in the Caribbean, whose cultural origins were too diverse for their own languages to survive after their forced transplantation.

    Children who grow up together and learn a pidgin tend to spontaneously impose a lexical structure on it to create a creole: a true language whose vocabulary comes from other languages. But this does not happen with all pidgins, and some are lost or become obsolete.

    According to researchers such as Derek Bickerton, people who find themselves in the particular circumstances described above revert to an older form of communication, what Bickerton calls a proto-language, of which pidgin would be the modern manifestation.

    Baldwin Effect

    In 1896, American psychologist James Mark Baldwin proposed an evolutionary mechanism that soon came to be known as the “Baldwin effect”. It is a process whereby a behavior that originally had to be learned can eventually become innate, that is, fixed in the genetic programming of the species concerned (Sznajder, et al., 2012). The effectiveness of the learning plays a key role in the Baldwin effect, which distinguishes it from Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics.

    The idea behind the Baldwin effect is that individuals who are able to learn a given kind of behavior more effectively may over the course of their lives acquire advantages that individuals whose brains are less plastic will not. Natural selection will therefore tend to favor those who always learn faster until, at some point in evolution, the behavior will no longer need to be learned at all: it will have become instinctive.

    It should be noted that the Baldwin effect assumes that the environment remains relatively stable, because if it changed too much, there would be no selection against plasticity, which would become an important adaptive factor. But if the environment remains stable for a long time, natural selection may favor a mutation that makes the behavior innate and hence more robust and efficient.

    The Baldwin effect, as an evolutionary mechanism that targets learning abilities, has been successfully simulated with many computer programs. Many scientists believe that it may have played a decisive role in the evolution of language, nevertheless the existence of the effect is controversial and many evolutionary biologists dismiss the idea (French & Messinger, 1994).

    Neanderthal man

    It was long believed that Neanderthal man could not communicate verbally—that Neanderthals must have had some primitive form of language, but could not produce the complete range of sounds of human language. According to a hypothesis advanced by American linguist Philip Lieberman, Neanderthals’ larynxes had not yet descended so low as those of Homo sapiens, so they would have had a great deal of difficulty in pronouncing the three main vowels present in the majority of the world’s languages (ee as in “beet”, oo as “boot” and a as in “aha!”).

    However, some authors argue that to speak a rudimentary language, one need not master all of the vowels, so long as the language has a sufficient number of consonants.

    Moreover, recent research has raised questions about Lieberman’s hypothesis. Many researchers find it hard to believe that Neanderthals, who produced sophisticated tools, adorned their bodies with bracelets and necklaces, buried their dead, and produced works of art, had little or no ability to communicate verbally.

    Some authors even believe that the skull on which Lieberman based his work was not truly representative of Neanderthal man. Contrary to his findings, reconstructions of other Neanderthal skulls have shown that their base would have allowed the existence of a vocal tract very similar to that of modern humans. For example, the discovery in 1989 of the 60,000-year-old skull of a male Neanderthal with a hyoid bone (the bone that supports the larynx) even led some researchers to say that he had probably been able to speak.

    One thing is certain: Neanderthals disappeared about 28,000 years ago, leaving the Earth to their rivals, Homo sapiens sapiens, who had everything they needed to use an articulate symbolic language with elaborate syntax. We should not discount the possibility that Neanderthals also had developed the ability to speak and that language may have played a significant role in their lives as well.


    It is assumed by most theorists that language must have evolved from earlier, more primitive forms of communication such as pre-linguistic systems used by our primate ancestors. Some theorists such as Steve Pinker consider language to be mostly innate. Explosive growth of language capacities in humans, according to some theorists, began about 50,000 years ago with the evolution of the angular gyrus, a multimodal area of cortex. It is speculated that human language must have evolved at least 50,000 to 60,000 years ago when human ethnic groups differentiated yet all retained the ability to learn any human language with ease that they are exposed to in their early experience.


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    Adapted by Kenneth A. Koenigshofer, PhD., from The origins of language by Bruno Dubuc, The Brain from Top to Bottom, under a Copyleft license. Some text also adapted from: Model, E. P. (2010, 2020). Origin of Language;; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; retrieved 4/2/2022.

    This page titled 18.16: Chapter 15- The Origins of Language is shared under a mixed license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kenneth A. Koenigshofer (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .