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Linguistics and The Evolution of Human Language

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Linguistics
Wordcount: 2589 words Published: 29th Oct 2021

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Humans are the only animals that have a formal vocal language. They instinctively realize that their language is unique among all the forms of biological communication, but what do they mean by that? Since human language has the properties of being compositional, i.e., communicating in sentences consisting of separate words, which have the role of subject, object, and verb, human language is distinctive. This also makes human language a form of digital communication compared to the constantly changing signals of primates, which can consist of grumbling, whistling, hissing, smells, or howling. Animals signal one another to alert that a predator has been detected or send a message warning of an imminent danger. However, without subjects, verbs, and objects, these communication behaviors do not combine and recombine to create a multitude of different messages. Therefore, man’s close relative, the primates, are aware of their own reactions to the world such as fear, sadness, and happiness, but an animal, in the end, is incapable of communicating its life story.

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No one knows exactly when the ability to communicate with language developed, but it can be narrowed in the scope of possibilities. Although human’s closest relatives, modern chimpanzees, cannot speak, humans can, which shows that languages ​​evolved around 6-7 million years between the time the common ancestor and the late arrival of modern humans nearly 160,000-200,000 years ago. Approximately the last 2.5 million years of that time, Homo erectus evolutionary lineage or human species gave a rise to modern humans, or Homo sapiens who developed in Africa. Homo erectus had a relatively large brain, at about 700 to 800 cc, which was still only half the size compared to the modern human brain. Homo erectus skulls reveal the impression of two slightly protruding regions of the brain called the regions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s that neuroscientists identified as being involved in speech, at least in humans (Rilling). This finding has led some researchers to suggest that Homo erectus is capable of speaking, even if perhaps a rudimentary form of speech (Gabbatis). Thus, the areas of Broca’s and Wernicke’s are also enlarged in some apes, so their presence is not a clear indication that a species has a language. There is also no evidence that Homo erectus has anything even close to societies, complex tools, or other artifacts to convince that they are completely human (Shea).

One question that provokes a big difference in opinion is whether the Neanderthals spoke. The Neanderthals had large brains; they could control fire and they captured most of Eurasia around 300,000 years ago. In some recent researches, scientists discovered that the Neanderthals had the same variant of a segment of DNA known as FOXP2, which is involved in speech and language. A scenario was built that “the changes and selective sweep occurred before the divergence between the populations” (“DNA: Genotypes”). Although the presence of the same haplotype in the Neanderthals and modern humans means that the Neanderthals have similarly complex language ability, there is still not enough evidence to conclude (“DNA: Genotypes”). An analogy explains why. Most people's cars have engines and so do Lamborghinis. Nevertheless, this does not make every car a Lamborghini. Closer to this case, the modern human brain is vastly different from the Neanderthals in having a newly developed and more fully connected neocortex. This is the new and expanded evolutionary uppermost layer of the brain involved in symbolic thinking and language. Simply, the human brain’s thick layer of cortex explains why modern humans have foreheads, but the Neanderthals did not. Given these differences, there is no compelling reason to conclude that FOXP2 affects the Neanderthals' brains like humans.

Further evidence against the Neanderthal language comes from archaeological records, suggesting that they did not have technology that early Homo sapiens had, such as sewing needles to make clothing, which is important in the colder periods of Ice Ages. Also, Homo sapiens seem to have a more diverse diet than the Neanderthal due to their innovative pieces such as bowls and arrows (Gibbons). As a result, while modern humans somehow migrated to populate the world and build technologies that allow them to exist in the territories from the Arctic to the burning deserts of the Sahara in Africa, the Neanderthals never left Eurasia. That leads to the conclusion that language evolved along with human evolution. Language skills are almost certainly present in their common ancestors because today all groups of people speak and speak equally well. Neither are there languages that are greater than other languages or groups of people who speak primitive language as opposed to advanced languages. If this hypothesis is correct, then the language should be no more than 160,000 to 200,000 years old. Some anthropologists, however, think the language arose later, indicating a dramatic increase starting from 70,000 to 100,000 years ago in evidence of symbolic thinking and the complexity of human society.

Additionally, for most people, the advantage of having language is obvious; it allows them to communicate. All animals can benefit by being able to communicate like humans, however, this does not explain why humans have language and no other species do. Instead, it should be considered how language is beneficial for human species speakers and not in others. The reason language evolved is to act as a conduit to carry the information needed to establish a social order and control human's selfish instincts. It's a very specialized part of social technology, and the huge benefits of collaborative language made it easy to evolve as an advanced network. Both evolutionary factors are solved because now speakers and listeners benefit from having language. Humans use it to negotiate, plan, memorize lessons from the past and coordinate actions. Those who try to capitalize on this partnership, perhaps by not returning the goodwill of others or failing to contribute their fair share, can be exposed as “cheats” and their reputation tarnished. These are all complex social behaviors that other animals do not do, and they require more than grunts, cries, odors and roars. This explains why humans and only humans have language.

Furthermore, human language represents an unprecedented level of complexity. According to The Gorilla Foundation, gorilla “Koko”, which was well-known for her IQ between 70 and 95 (the average human IQ is 100), knows up to 1000 words (Wayman). Yet a child, whose brain is the same size as a non-human primate, knows at least 5,000 words in first grade (Dahlgren). Human language always includes not only specific concepts of immediate objects and events, but also abstract concepts, for example, past or future. True language also has a grammar framework, which puts concepts in relation to another and into motion. All human language has abstract words and grammar. The production of clear language requires a large brain, especially the large prefrontal cortex, which is unique to the genus Homo. A relatively large brain is needed for intelligence and language. For example, the large brain of cetaceans allows complex communication. Cetacean brain extensions are different from those that have evolved in human evolution, and it's unclear whether their communication, however complex, contains abstract elements of real language.

The production of a range of vowel sounds requires a long larynx, or throat, while the production of a range of consonants is the product of tongue and lips, not the larynx. Some scientists have shown that it is consonant, not vowel, that defines language. For example, written Hebrew consists only of consonants, until small diacritical marks are added below the consonants to denote the vowels. Chimpanzees cannot seem to make the same kind of consonant sounds that humans can. Although scientists know nothing about the tongue and lips of H. ergaster or even the Neandertals, they do know a few things about nerves that control their movement because nerves pass through canals in the bones. H. ergaster obviously has fewer nerves that control facial and throat muscles than modern people, but Neandertals have large openings for nerves that control tongue movement.

All humans seem to be descended from ancestors whose language ability is genetically coded. Linguist Noam Chomsky mentioned the profound structure of language in the human brain in his book “Language and Mind” published in 1969. Children learn their first language, and often more than one, with incredible ease. Adults learning new languages will be much harder. In a notorious case, a girl was imprisoned in a closet in an apartment in Los Angeles until she was nearly an adult. Once she was discovered and rescued, therapy allowed her to learn and use words, but she did not develop her full grammar skills. Besides, people with SLI have to think about each word in each sentence, instead of developing a habit of building languages. Anthropologist Myrna Gopick said that as if these people did not have a native language, they had to learn the first language according to the same rules as ordinary adults who learned a second language. When people who speak different languages come into contact, they can often invent a pidgin language that may be the first language of culture. After a generation of exposure, the pidgin language evolves into a real language, for example, creole, with set grammatical rules. Anthropologist Derek Bickerton, who studies cultures in Hawaii, discovered that it was children who invented the grammatical forms of creole when playing together, suggesting the invention of language is an innate ability (Chomsky).  Language ability is such a complex adaptation that there must be a very strong selection for it once it has been developed in its rudimentary form. Once humans have developed the ability to use language, any individual with less language ability will face significant disadvantages. The origin of language seems to be inextricably linked with the origin of intelligence. Some evolutionary scientists, such as Robin Dunbar, have noted a positive correlation between the size of the new cortex (the most recent part of the brain's evolution) and the size of social groups. Small-brained primates get to know each other by grooming each other, picking off parasites from the fur of others. As social groups become bigger, greater intelligence is needed to remember who is who. This can be important because an individual must remember who a friend is and who is the enemy, and to keep track of which individuals are not the reliable responders of altruism. Complex voice communication, and finally language, replaces grooming as a way of communicating in large groups, and is also a means to share rumors about different individuals.

Not only are humans capable of learning and inventing the innate language, but the diversity of languages is the result of cultural evolution similar to the recent genetic evolution of humans. Linguistic diversity has developed through two identical processes, vicariance and dispersal, which have stimulated the development of geographic models of species. Vicariance occurs when an ancestral language spreads and is then divided into separate groups, and this is the dominant process in the development of languages. Dispersal is the long-distance spread of a people and language to a new place different from its origin.

Another parallel between biological and linguistic species is extinction. Most of the original languages ​​have become extinct, like most species. The widespread use of English and the widespread use of other commercial languages ​​such as Indonesian has led many younger generations to regard their ancestral language more than curiosity rather than identity. Intentional cultural efforts are underway to keep many Native American languages ​​alive, for example, the Tsalagi tribal newspaper is mainly in English but usually has one or two columns in the Cherokee language and writing. Similar efforts keep Wales and Ireland alive. There are very few (or perhaps not) people who speak only Cherokee, Welsh or Irish. Such languages ​​are culturally equivalent of endangered species in nature conservation.

In reviewing the data of language development, as humans continue to evolve, perhaps language also will advance day by day as well. Oxford English Dictionary has recorded that “more than 650 new words, senses, and subentries have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary in our latest update, including fake news, xoxo, and Jedi mind trick” (“Updates to”). The amount of vocabulary that humans invent is increasing incredibly in this century, and it is projected to be infinite in this digital age as humans develop computer language or robotic language. As humans surpass even spoken language and develop computer coding, the span between primate and Homo sapiens will grow. The ability to speak and communicate is what has given human species an unbelievable advantage to evolve into an even more advanced cyber generation.  

Works Cited

Chomsky, Noam. “Linguistic Contributions to the Study of Mind”, February 2005, https://marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/chomsky.htm. Accessed by 29 October 2019.

Dahlgren, Mary. “Oral Language and Vocabulary Development Kindergarten & First Grade”. https://www2.ed.gov/programs/readingfirst/2008conferences/language.pdf. Accessed by 28 October 2019.

“DNA: Genotypes and Phenotypes”. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History – What Dose It Mean to Be Human, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/ancient-dna-and-neanderthals/dna-genotypes-and-phenotypes. Accessed by 24 October 2019.

Dunbar, Robin. “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language”. Harvard University Press Cambridge Mass., 1996. Accessed by 30 October 2019.

Gabbatiss, Josh. “Homo Erectus: Early Humans Were Able to Speak and Crossed Sea on Boats, Expert Claims”. INDEPENDENT, 20 February 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/homo-erectus-speak-sail-boats-early-humans-africa-scientists-discovery-a8219461.html. Accessed by 24 October 2019.

Gibbons, John. “Why Did Neanderthals Go Extinct?”. Smithsonian Insider, 11 August 2015, https://insider.si.edu/2015/08/why-did-neanderthals-go-extinct/. Accessed by 25 October 2019.

Rilling, James. “Broca’s and Wernicke's Areas”. Center for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogen, https://carta.anthropogeny.org/moca/topics/brocas-and-wernickes-areas. Accessed by 24 October 2019.

Shea, John. “Homo Sapiens Emerged Once, Not as Modern-looking People First and as Modern-Behaving People Later”. American Scientist, April 2019, https://www.americanscientist.org/article/refuting-a-myth-about-human-origins. Accessed by 24 October 2019.

“Updates to the OED”. Oxford English Dictionary, October 2019, https://public.oed.com/updates/. Accessed by 12 November 2019.

Wayman, Erin. “Six Talking Apes”. Smithsonian.com, 11 August 2011, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/six-talking-apes-48085302/. Accessed by 28 October 2019.


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