Explore how six college students use the language of physical anthropology to study the human origins of language.

15 February 2011

On the Origins of Language: A Brief Introduction to Past and Present Evolution

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. 
                                                                                                                           - Benjamin Lee Whorf

As of this writing, there are 6,900,214,524 people in the world. Is it any wonder why there are anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 different language and dialects spoken today? Language is the most significant form of communication we have, and yet when do we ever stop to think about where it came from? Out of the countless species of animals in the world, humans are the only ones with the ability to communicate through spoken language. The theories for why and how language came about are diverse and endless. This blog we will explore some of the possibilities and take a closer look at how language has grown and changed, evolutionarily speaking, what it has done for people and cultures across the globe and what the future of language holds for humankind.

The following information came from ideas presented in various articles and videos that we read and watched, respectively, to develop an initial grasp on the origins of language:

According to Judy Kegl, a linguistics professor at the University of Southern Maine, "Language needs company...a community....[and] some kind of trigger." The community aspect of language, she argues, has nothing to do with the number of people living in a place, but has everything to do with the opportunity for sharing important cultural information. As such, language depends on rules, and as far as human communication goes, our languages are driven by syntax. The fact that “...we all share the same human brain” (Kegl) places constraints on language. At the same time, it allows us to be our own “Shakespeares,” if you will, by using a novel blend of words to tell stories, make negotiations and solicit information.

Countless scientists view the evolution of language within separate, often abstract contexts. According to Michael Corballis, human language evolved from manual gestures and switched to vocal modes recently in hominid evolution. As previously stated, other animals have limited forms of communication, like manual symbols and gestures, but humans have evolved to encompass a form of communication that has few limits.  We can understand words and signals we have never seen before. One question often raised under this viewpoint is why calls and vocalizations of monkeys and apes did not evolve into language, but that humans have language that allows us to express a vast amount of reflective narratives.

According to anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Richard Dunbar, the conventional view of language is as a “...transmission of technically complex information” (Dunbar). However, this professor's experience with eavesdropping on casual conversations has led him to discover that two-thirds of human communication is gossip. So in terms of language, the PBS video “Evolutionary Origins of Language” suggestions that for us, survival of the fittest has become survival of those with the most acute social skills. Dunbar uses monkeys as a contrast to this notion. He states, “The problem with monkeys is that if they don’t see it, they don’t know about it.” Therein lies much of the advantageous nature of human communication as compared to that of other species.

From Scientific American: “Running Dialog: New Languages Rapidly Spring from Old Ones”
This article emphasizes the fact that new language and vocabulary is just an offspring of old language. The 7+ languages used in this study show how the acquisition of new vocabulary has a direct root to older languages of many different countries. Basically, the old language form is a monumental pedestal for novel languages to which each country or native group adapts.

From Science: “Pushing the Time Barrier in the Quest for Language Roots”
This article supports the argument of the one preceding it. An important quote is as follows: “As Darwin noted, languages evolve in remarkably similar ways to biological species. They split into new languages, mutate, and sometimes go extinct” (Gray). Even though many languages have changed over the years as a result of distinct, emerging cultural groups, they still keep traces of their root language. Some languages evolve at a slower rate than others, but the evolution is still evident.

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      1 comment:

      1. I am pleased to present my theory on the origins of language

        Sujay Rao Mandavilli