May 15, 2013

Babel and All That: What Is Language, Why We Have Different Languages, and How Did Language Begin

written by Keith Blasing

Part 2: The Origin of Language

This is a continuation of Part 1 in this series on the complicated nature and origins of language, which briefly addressed the question “What is Language?” (link).

The origin of language is a matter of somewhat vague speculation, though those who hold fast to a particular theory often claim to have some firm scientific footing. Noam Chomsky’s nativist theory – that the neural mechanism for language emerged as a distinct mutation in a single human about 100,000 years ago – seems far-fetched to many, but his ideas have been highly influential for a generation of linguists. Other theories that rely on purely cultural origins to explain language, rather than an evolutionary accident, are hardly more convincing or verifiable: there are speculations that language evolved entirely out of the baby-talk that mothers used to calm their children; that it was a “code” developed by tribes to keep other tribes from understanding their intentions; that it evolved to replace grooming as a social tool after humans lost their hair; and so on, and so forth. Linguists, being a playful bunch, have come up with names such as the “ma-ma theory,” the “bow-wow theory,” and the “pooh-pooh theory” to describe these speculations (see a fuller list here). As we hinted in Part 1, many of these theories focus narrowly on the family or tribe (as opposed to commercial interaction or negotiation between groups) as the original locus of language, because of the amount of trust required for us to use a tool that has deceit as an inherent possibility.  

Adding to the confusion is that we do not, and probably cannot, know whether language developed a single time in one population and spread to all humanity from there (monogenesis), or whether, like writing, it developed at different times in different populations (polygenesis). Perhaps Tribe Q was working on language as a replacement for physical grooming while Tribe Z across the river was working on language as a secret code to use while invading Tribe Q and taking their mammoth carcass. Or not. There’s really no way of knowing, because no traces of human language could possibly survive from before the invention of writing about 5000 years ago.

One minor advantage of the Chomsky theory is that the “language acquisition device” or “universal grammar” that it claims evolved spontaneously in our brains would at least explain how we went from whatever initial grunts, coos and shrieks we might once have used to enormously complicated sentences with long strings of arbitrary sounds and symbols that hold agreed-upon meanings. Most of the cultural-origin theories focus on how we get from essentially zero language capability to some very minimal expression and communication among family or tribe members for social purposes. How we get from a mother cooing over her baby, or an early hominid imitating a bird, to a symbolic system that people who have met before can use to communicate an almost infinite amount of information, including completely hypothetical or even false information, is simply not accounted for in most of the cultural-origin theories.

More recent theories have provided somewhat more nuanced and, I believe, more plausible arguments about the origins of language. Scholars such as Roy Rappaport and Terrence Deacon have begun to formulate a theory of the “co-evolution” of human symbolic thought (the cultural part of language) and the human brain (the biological equipment for language). Rather than a single mutation in our brains leading quickly and spontaneously to the ability to form complicated grammar, or, on the other side of the spectrum, language as a purely cultural and learned behavior developing more or less independently of any special biological adaptations, Deacon and others propose that we can use neurological, anthropological, and other types of evidence to reconstruct the process by which human symbolic thought, including language, co-evolved with human biology to enable the massively successful evolutionary adaptation that language has proved to be. In this view, human culture and biology evolve in a symbiotic relationship that has worked to make our thinking and communicating unique among animal species. 

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