Questions about the origin of human language are so controversial that when the Paris Linguistic Society was founded in 1866, any discussion of the topic was banned.
It was considered impossible to get concrete answers and perhaps there was also a wish to avoid heated arguments between members. It’s an area of thought that ventures into fields as diverse as theology, paleontology and chaos theory.
It’s so hard to get answers in this area that it’s sometimes referred to as ‘the hardest problem in science’ and many academics consider it outside the perimeters of serious study.
Yet despite these difficulties and obstacles, academics continue to create, advance and debate the many strands of the origin question.
It’s a debate that’s led to some of the most delightfully named speculative theories in academia; including the bow-wow theory, the ding-dong theory, and pooh-pooh theory. (These childish titles probably reflect how seriously the study is taken, even by linguists who propose these theories.)
Theories such as these ones speculate why language originated. Was it an elaboration on cries of physical distress or happiness (the pooh-pooh theory), or an offshoot of harmonizing whilst working together in primitive teams (the yo-he-ho theory explores this).
There’s also a theory that language evolved when early humans lost the fur that let babies cling to their mothers – the ‘putting the baby down theory’ speculates that parent and infant would have more need to communicate when perpetual physical contact was abandoned.
But more recent research adds a further layer of misunderstanding to the topic of the origin of language. We’ve also developed the study to an extent that we ask more complex questions, such as whether we can trace all languages back to one source language, or whether language emerged independently in more than one location.
Tracing early language paths
Research into the use of phonemes – those consonants, vowels, and tones that are the base blocks of a language – suggests that the farther that early humans traveled from Africa, the more they dropped phonemes from their language.
Languages in use today in Africa can contain up to 100 phonemes; English has 45 and Hawaii (a long migration from Africa) has only 13.
Everything points to southern Africa as the site of origin of language itself.
The debate about the origin of language strays into tracing the earliest migrations of mankind.
It’s practically impossible to test any of these theories in any meaningful way. Even the most ancient language we know of today is likely to be ‘only’ 10,000 years old whilst language itself may have evolved around 100,000 years ago.
Not only are there no surviving traces to indicate anything about the process through which language evolved, but there are no comparable processes to be observed today.
Much of the more concrete progress in understanding the early nature of human language comes from academic disciplines other than linguistics.
A genetic component
Researchers in the field of evolutionary genetics have linked the FOXP2 gene to our speech and language capabilities: there’s some indication that this gene is slightly different in Homo sapiens compared to our close cousins the Homo neanderthalensis.
Whilst Neanderthals may have had language capability, it’s unlikely they would have been physically capable of producing human-like sounds.
Not all elements of the vocal tract are unique to humans, but the complexity of this part of the body points to a slow evolutionary change and one that started fairly early.
As language is a relatively recent human trait, it remains puzzling that necessary changes in the vocal tract seem to have predated it.
It’s possible that the vocal tract changed to enable a greater complexity of sound before our more advanced language capability unfolded in our brains. This could be a case of pre-adaptation: a feature evolved in our bodies before our brains really required full use of it.
To understand the significance of this it’s important to know that chimps can generally express around 10 phonemes, making them capable of some human-like utterances.
Human vocal tracts can manage at least 50 times this amount. A more complex vocal tract was required to manage more sounds.
So it’s pretty handy the flexible vocal instrument was available to manage the nuances of language as it emerged.
Where it gets really interesting is not understanding how early humans came to use the simple symbolism linking a sound with a specific concept. Other species manage to do this, from cats to chimps.
The more interesting questions relate to how man derived the capability for more complex syntax in language and for more open-ended communication and concepts.
Chimps seem to understand that other chimps show awareness. But they don’t seem to be able to understand that another may have false belief.
For example, the zookeeper usually puts the melon in the feeding bowl. Waking from a nap, Chimp A looks for it there. Chimp B, who was awake, saw the keeper put the melon at the other end of the cage but isn’t able to grasp that Chimp A has a false belief about this.
A small human child would be more able to understand that Chimp A has a false belief about where the melon is.
Greater language ability would not only help Chimp B correct Chimp A’s false assumption but it would also help Chimp B achieve the reasoning necessary to understand the abstract state of another chimp’s mind.
Theory of mind
A recent linguistic theory suggests that humankind needed to have a ‘theory of mind’ before the species could evolve full language capability.
This means an empathetic understanding that other members of the species had their own thoughts, beliefs and worldviews.
This also goes hand in hand with making group plans and goals, persuading others, and fixing errors in communication using language.
Although humans are enormously good at intraspecies conflict, we’re also enormously good at co-operation.
Comparable species such as primates will co-operate and share to a limited extent, often within family groups, but humans co-operate on a much wider level and outside the immediate family group.
To what extent this co-evolved with the developing language capabilities is unclear.
Noam Chomsky, the most influential of all linguists, argued that it was a sudden mutation that swiftly opened up early man’s capability for abstract thought.
He sees this mutation as being the origin of the mental structures that enabled grammar in language and a more ambitious level of reasoning.
Language was, to some extent, a by-product of this. Essentially, the parts of our brain that generate language help with other cognitive functions such as reasoning.
What’s frustrating about the study of the origin of language is understanding how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together on our evolutionary path.