The origin of language: evolution’s greatest mystery

10/05/2019 | Rebecca Twose

“In the beginning was the Word,” reads the Gospel of John 1:1. But what was this word? And where was it spoken? And how did humans come to speak it? Indeed, the origin of language is one of the greatest mysteries in human science, if not the greatest. 

Scholars and scientists have been arguing for centuries about the origins of language and all the questions that tie into this. The Linguistic Society of Paris – an organisation dedicated to the study of languages – actually banned any debate on the issue in 1886 and did not retract it for several years. But why is it such a topic of debate?

Perhaps it’s because language is such a unique and complex skill. It is something that only humans are able to do. Over the years there have been numerous attempts to teach apes to speak, and in particular chimpanzees – which are human’s closest living relative. However, no other animal has the vocal pathology necessary to speak the way we do. Even attempting to teach chimps sign language has proven fruitless, with no animal demonstrating skill above the level of a two-year-old human. It seems the three things a creature needs to speak like a human is a human’s brain, a human’s vocal cords and a human’s intelligence.

Numerous attempts have been made to teach chimpanzees to speak
Numerous attempts have been made to teach chimpanzees to speak

Continuity or Discontinuity

Prior to the Linguistic Society of Paris’ ban on discussing it, the theories of how human language evolved were humorous to say the least. However, modern theories sit in one of two camps; Continuity or Discontinuity. Continuity theories of language evolution hold that it must have developed gradually, starting among the earliest ancestors of humans, with different features developing at different stages until people’s speech resembled what we have today. Meanwhile, Discontinuity Theory suggests that because there is nothing even remotely similar to compare human language to, and it is likely to have appeared suddenly within human history. This may have been as a result of a genetic mutation within one individual, which was passed on through their ancestors and eventually became a dominant ability.

Before we explore these theories in more detail, let’s look at some of the earliest ideas in the study of language origin.

No other animals on earth can communicate like humans do

From Bow-wow to Ta-ta

The early theories of the origin of language all focus on where the first words came from that developed into the rich vocabularies spoken today. They are certainly imaginative – and all have whimsical names to match. Max Müller, a philologist and linguist, published a list of these theories in the mid-19th century:

  • Bow-wow
  • Ding-Dong
  • Pooh-pooh
  • Yo-he-ho

Bow-wow was the theory that, much like the lyrebird, humans started out mimicking the noises and animal calls around them. From these noises, words developed. The Ding-dong theory is based on the idea of sound symbolism, and that small or sharp objects are named with words with high front vowels, compared to large or circular objects that have a round vowel at the end of the word. Pooh-pooh holds that the first words evolved from the natural verbal interjections humans make, such as exclaiming when surprised or yelping in pain. If Ye-he-ho makes you think of the Seven Dwarfs working in the gem mine, you’re not far off; it’s the theory that language started with the rhythmic noises made when doing manual labour, which allow muscle effort to synchronise.

Another early theory, albeit one not to appear on Müller’s list, was Ta-ta. This was the idea that primitive people used their tongues to mimic hand gestures and the words came from there. So, a person might wave their hand up and down to say good-bye and making the same movement with the tongue results in a “ta-ta” sound.

These are all fun theories, but each of them has been almost entirely discounted by today’s linguists and anthropologists.

In the beginning was the Word - Genesis
“In the beginning was the Word”

In the beginning was the Word

Of course, the other earliest theory of language evolution is that it is a God-given ability. Genesis states that Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, were immediately able to understand what God said to them and could communicate with each other in this same language. According to Christianity, all of mankind spoke this one same language for generations more until the rebellion of Babel.

According to the Book of Genesis, as the waters of the Great Flood receded, humankind came together in Shinar. Here, they took advantage of the fact they all spoke one language by banding together to build a huge tower that would let them reach God in heaven. Seeing this, He confounded their speech by giving them different languages and then scattered them across the Earth. As a result, they were unable to work together to complete the tower.

As a nod to the story of the Tower of Babel, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy includes a creature called the Babel fish. The yellow leech-like animal is able to act as a universal translator to enable creatures to communicate with one another.

No animal can speak, nor will they ever be able to

If we could talk to the animals

What makes human speech even more miraculous is the fact that no other creature in history – that we know of – has evolved the skill. Not only do chimpanzees – our closest relatives – not speak now, but they may never speak as their vocal anatomy is so different to our own it would not facilitate human-like speech.

It’s not only our physical makeup that means we can talk and apes can’t but also our intelligence. In the 1960s, Project Washoe attempted to prove whether a chimpanzee could learn language. Washoe was a female common chimpanzee who was raised in a human family and taught American Sign Language. Not only did she learn 350 words, but she also taught some of it to her adopted son Loulis. A later experiment, Project Nim, attempted to go even further by getting more secure results proving that apes had linguistic abilities. Nim was named Nim Chimpsky in honour of Noam Chomsky, who conversely believes that only humans have the ability to develop speech. Ultimately, Project Nim ended up being less regimented than Project Washoe and the man leading it, Herbert S Terrace, abandoned it. He concluded that chimpanzees’ use of language was pragmatic and that they never developed the ability to use the signs syntactically.

Terrace not only abandoned his own research but also discredited other ape language studies, including Washoe. He said that the apes were using the signs to prompt the outcome they wanted and that a certain degree of mimicking was also occurring. He cited the case of Clever Hans; where large crowds would gather to watch a horse apparently correctly answer mathematical questions. It later transpired the horse was able to pick up and react to facial cues and body language his owner did not even realise he was making. If Terrace is right, it suggests apes and other animals do not have the brain function necessary to learn speech.

Did a genetic mutation allow our ancestors to learn language?
Did a genetic mutation allow our ancestors to learn language?

Is it all in the genes?

Noam Chomsky is among the world’s leading linguists and acknowledges that his field of expertise is home to some seemingly unsolvable mysteries; namely, where language came from and how. His theory is that a possible genetic mutation in one of our human ancestors gave them the ability to speak and understand language, which was passed on to their offspring. Because of the usefulness of this ability, Darwinist evolution meant that it became a dominant feature throughout humanity.

A UCLA/Emory study published in the journal Nature in 2009 seems to back up the theory. It revealed FOXP2, the gene essential to the development of language and speech, differs significantly depending on whether it is human or chimpanzee. Not only might this explain why the mutation of this gene results in language being disrupted, but also how we can talk and animals can’t. Dr Daniel Geschwind of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA said: “Earlier research suggests that the amino-acid composition of human FOXP2 changed rapidly around the same time that language emerged in modern humans.” The scientists discovered that the gene functioned and looked different in humans and chimps, and this difference meant a human brain was wired for language and a chimp’s was not. Could it be that an early mutation of this single gene is what ultimately separates us from all other life on Earth?

Another theory put forward by anthropologist Robin Dunbar is that as the human communities grew larger, people needed to find a more efficient form of grooming in order to keep their peers on their side. As a result, a type of vocal grooming developed – and it is likely these very early conversations would have been similar to the gossip we still indulge in today.

Of course, Chomsky’s theory is not the only possible answer to how language evolved. Many more experts follow the Continuity Theory that it evolved among human ancestors from pre-linguistic sounds. There are so many ideas within this field we don’t have time to list them all, but among them is the ‘putting the baby down’ hypothesis. Anthropologist Dean Falk suggests that as early humans lost their fur, it became more difficult for mothers to carry their babies on their backs as they gathered food and foraged. To reassure the baby she had not abandoned them, the mother would call to it and use facial expressions, body language and tactile communication like tickling. From this, Falk theorises language evolved.

So what’s the answer?

Unfortunately, it seems the answer to the question of where and how human language evolved is that we may never have an answer. However, it remains a problem we will never get tired of trying to resolve.

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