22 January 2013

The Meaning of ‘Language Evolution’ (1): The Misty Origins

When we say ‘language evolution’, we may mean a number of things. First, we may mean the origins of language. As a type of communication based on articulate speech, language has been around for a very long time. It may be as old as our species (ca. 200,000 years), if not older. We are biologically equipped for speaking and for understanding speech. To produce and process spoken messages we need complex anatomical, neural and cognitive prerequisites. They are roughly the same in all healthy humans but set us apart even from our closest cousins – chimps and bonobos. Although at present we cannot tell with any accuracy when those special prerequisites first appeared, they are too complex to have sprung into existence overnight as a result of, say, a yet unidentified genetic mutation that suddenly (and quite miraculously) enlarged and rewired the human brain, affected the configuration of the movable organs of speech (plus their neuromuscular control), dramatically improved the processing of auditory information, etc. – all at once.

Homo ergaster (Africa, 1.5 million years ago)
struggling to speak
It is a safe bet that the biological development of the language faculty proceeded stepwise and required a number of gradual improvements as well as enough time for genetic innovations responsible for those improvements to become fixed in early human populations. Language as a means of communication became fully developed and fine-tuned so long ago that direct evidence for most of its early history is beyond our reach. Writing was invented just a little more than 5,000 years ago (initially in Egypt and Mesopotamia), which means that the tangible ‘fossil’ record of ancient languages spans no more than about 2.5% of the history of anatomically modern Homo sapiens. Sophisticated methods of linguistic reconstruction can take us back slightly farther than that, but even so we can only scratch the surface to expose the shallow layers just underneath it.

So here’s the first meaning of ‘language evolution’: speculation about the prehistoric emergence of language (language in general, as opposed to individual languages) and the study of its biological underpinnings. 

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