- What does the question mean? In asking about the origins of human language, we first have to make clear what the question is. The question is not how languages gradually developed over time into the languages of the world today. Rather, it is how the human species developed over time so that we — and not our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos — became capable of using language.
- And what an amazing development this was! No other natural communication system is like human language. Human language can express thoughts on an unlimited number of topics (the weather, the war, the past, the future, mathematics, gossip, fairy tales, how to fix the sink...). It can be used not just to convey information, but to solicit information (questions) and to give orders. Unlike any other animal communication system, it contains an expression for negation — what is not the case. Every human language has a vocabulary of tens of thousands of words, built up from several dozen speech sounds. Speakers can build an unlimited number of phrases and sentences out of words plus a smallish collection of prefixes and suffixes, and the meanings of sentences are built from the meanings of the individual words. What is still more remarkable is that every normal child learns the whole system from hearing others use it.
- Animal communication systems, in contrast, typically have at most a few dozen distinct calls, and they are used only to communicate immediate issues such as food, danger, threat, or reconciliation. Many of the sorts of meanings conveyed by chimpanzee communication have counterparts in human 'body language'. For animals that use combinations of calls (such as some songbirds and some whales), the meanings of the combinations are not made up of the meanings of the parts (though there are many species that have not been studied yet). And the attempts to teach apes some version of human language, while fascinating, have produced only rudimentary results. So the properties of human language are unique in the natural world.
- How did we get from there to here? All present-day languages, including those of hunter-gatherer cultures, have lots of words, can be used to talk about anything under the sun, and can express negation. As far back as we have written records of human language — 5000 years or so — things look basically the same. Languages change gradually over time, sometimes due to changes in culture and fashion, sometimes in response to contact with other languages. But the basic architecture and expressive power of language stays the same.
- The question, then, is how the properties of human language got their start. Obviously, it couldn't have been a bunch of cavemen sitting around and deciding to make up a language, since in order to do so, they would have had to have a language to start with! Intuitively, one might speculate that hominids (human ancestors) started by grunting or hooting or crying out, and 'gradually' this 'somehow' developed into the sort of language we have today. (Such speculations were so rampant 150 years ago that in 1866 the French Academy banned papers on the origins of language!) The problem is in the 'gradually' and the 'somehow'. Chimps grunt and hoot and cry out, too. What happened to humans in the 6 million years or so since the hominid and chimpanzee lines diverged, and when and how did hominid communication begin to have the properties of modern language?
- Of course, many other properties besides language differentiate humans from chimpanzees: lower extremities suitable for upright walking and running, opposable thumbs, lack of body hair, weaker muscles, smaller teeth — and larger brains. According to current thinking, the changes crucial for language were not just in the size of the brain, but in its character: the kinds of tasks it is suited to do — as it were, the 'software' it comes furnished with. So the question of the origin of language rests on the differences between human and chimpanzee brains, when these differences came into being, and under what evolutionary1 pressures.
- What are we looking for? The basic difficulty with studying the evolution2 of language is that the evidence is so sparse. Spoken languages don't leave fossils, and fossil skulls only tell us the overall shape and size of hominid brains, not what the brains could do.
See Link. Required reading for "van Oostendorp (Marc) - Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics".
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