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10.3: Evolution of Human Language

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    Evolution of Human Language, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    When it comes to the evolution of human language, we still have quite a few missing pieces, but there is more that we can say with certainty at least up to this point. As far as when the first human language came into existence, let me dispel something really quickly: we don't know. We know that homo sapiens sapiens, our current version of the species, seems to have a language capacity from the start> For reasons that I’ll come to in a minute, we are starting to understand that maybe other hominids also had if not as robust language as we have now, certainly something pretty close. There's so much more we have to know; there's so much that we probably will never know. But let's start off with some basics.

    Based off of data—not just linguistic data, but biology, paleontology, anthropology and archaeology, all of the studies of the human existence, we know the following:

    • The formation of our vocal tract as well as our ear is unique. Even amongst primates, it is unique. That may have something to do with this concept; it could be that we evolved to have these apparatuses so that we could communicate via language. As I said, this is something unique amongst even the primates.
    • We also know that there are a couple of areas of the brain, in particular, that in humans seem to be more developed than any other species. Specifically, that's Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area; in the next couple of sections, you'll learn more about them.
    • We also know that humans have a very specific genetic mutation, which I’m going to talk about that in a minute.

    All of this aside, we still have folks who are deaf from birth, yet they seem to be able to communicate with a language, if not more than one language just fine—so maybe the vocal tract and ear may not be exactly connected to this linguistic faculty; it may, but we're not sure.

    As far as theories about how languages evolved in the first place, a couple of them have come about that should be debunked, but others have a little bit more merit. The first one is that our linguistic faculty comes from gestural origins. I like thinking of the caveman metaphor, as it were, that early hominids or early humans gestured and grunted a lot, and then they decided to become more fluent and more expressive. This pretty much has been thrown out; we are pretty confident in saying that that probably is not the case. While there certainly was an evolution of language, and the first language that was spoken was not as robust as modern English or Sanskrit or Old Chinese or Sumerian, but evolved to that point. The other hypothesis comes out of primatology. The grooming hypothesis is the concept that if you watch other primates, in particular, and some other mammals, we groom each other. Let's face it, folks; what happens when we go get our hair done? What happens when we get our hair cut in a hair salon, whether we go to the same person over a number of years or it's a brand-new person? We talk a lot. Therefore, the thought is perhaps that's part of the grooming experience, that you talk and exchange information. You get to know each other a little bit better, if you don't already, and life goes on. However, linguists by and large don't tend to subscribe to this hypothesis. It's circumspect; there are plenty of people who don't say anything when they are being groomed. There's also plenty of times when we communicate and it has nothing to do with grooming.

    Genetics might hold a key, and this is tied to Universal Grammar, the fact that we have this template or this faculty for language. That was the hypothesis of Noam Chomsky back in the late 50s-early 60s, and we more or less continue with a version of that to this day. Interesting data have come about and, specifically, it has to do with the specific gene called the FoxP2 gene; if you take an anthropology course, you may hear about it. The FoxP2 gene in humans has a very specific mutation that you do not see in any other primates or any other mammal or any other animal. There are people who have a different mutation of the FoxP2 gene, and they do not have as strong or robust a faculty for language; they are not as expressive linguistically. They are more basic in their needs, and their mutation is very similar to what we see in other primates. We don't fully understand the role of the FoxP2 gene; it seems to have something to do with the motor cortex, which is part of the left hemisphere that hits right about where Broca’s area is and has something to do with motor skills, along with muscles in the face. Maybe it has something to do with language. And this is a maybe. We have no proof yet; we're still collecting data and trying to understand the brain and everything about it. But with respect to that one gene, perhaps that is the case.

    The final one to talk about the social cognition, which again tapping into this concept that human beings are social creatures. We crave being in a social environment and, if you think back to the previous chapter when we talked about theories of how children learn a language, a couple of them had social components to them. That's because we can observe how children interact both amongst other children as with adults and how they acquire language. One thing we suspect—I won't go stronger than ‘suspect’—is that if we see this in modern humans now, this might tie into how humans acquired language originally. This is a very questionable idea; we do not know whether this is true, mostly because we're lacking a few things. For example, a time machine would be helpful. 😉 It's a nice idea to think about. What we have been able to show is that many of the same patterns we observe with children and how they acquire a language come up when we talk about creolization and second language acquisition as an adult. Maybe there is something to this concept that as social creatures, we feel the need to express more. But there are other animals, especially other mammals, that are equally social, yet they don't seem to have a language like ours, at least not something we can identify. Therefore, this is a ‘perhaps’.

    Truth be told, what we can say is that there might be a little bit of all those reasons; maybe not so much on the grunting and the gesturing, and maybe less so on the grooming hypothesis. With the latter two, they seem to have some more plausibility. But here's the thing: there could be other aspects, with respect to the development and the evolution of language, that we don't know. What we really need is that time machine. So, get on it, folks; create that time machine, so that we historical linguists can go back in time and we can go find out the answer. 😉

    10.3: Evolution of Human Language is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.