Evolution of Language

Evolution of Language

The study of the origin and evolution of human language is an essential one to characterize what distinguishes humans from other species on earth. Yet this noble and challenging endeavor has been a source of much speculation as well as research as far back as 3,000 years ago. The search for answers to such questions as why language began and how it evolved has provided researchers with a particularly grand puzzle. In spite of recurring fascination about the topic, without sources of direct evidence it has been virtually impossible to verify many theories, to know precisely when lan­guage originated and what the first spoken lan­guage was like. At some points in modern history there has been great frustration about the direc­tions of the search, and this even led to a morato­rium on scientific investigations in 1866 that slowed down research until the late 20th century.

Shortly after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, ideas and speculations about language evolution were so rampant and fre­quently quite strange that the primary authority regarding language study, the Societe de Linguistique de Paris, put a ban on all discussions about the origins of language. It was not until the last decade of the 20th century that renewed vigorous study emerged. Many believe that the presentation in 1990 of a research paper, Natural Language and Natural Selection by Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, inspired the rapid spread of study into the 21st century.

Although one might assume that researchers in subfields aligned with linguistics would have long been in the forefront of the study of language origins and development, this has not necessarily been the case. Many of the most curious have been in fields such as psychology, anthropology, biology, neuroscience, computer science, and archaeology. At the beginning of the 21st cen­tury, a number of researchers, including Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky, Morten Christensen, and Simon Kirby, called for interdisciplinary research to help define the faculty of language and subsequently posit some answers regarding its evolution. The complexity of the subject requires collaborative efforts among specialists from distinct fields who can deal with the impor­tant questions together that otherwise in isola­tion lead these specialists down a narrow tunnel, so to speak, where there appears to be little light at the end.

Defining Language

The term language may refer to one of several constructs (e.g., language of music, language of love, computer language, spoken language, body language). Language is a major compo­nent in the larger category of communication among humans as well as among nonhuman primates, birds, insects, and water mammals. Characterizing human language, Noam Chomsky wrote,

The human faculty of language seems to be a true “species property,” varying little among humans and without significant analogue elsewhere. . . . Furthermore, the faculty of language enters cru­cially into every aspect of human life, thought, and interaction. It is largely responsible for the fact that alone in the biological world, humans have a history, cultural evolution and diversity of any complexity and richness, even biological suc­cess in the technical sense that their numbers are huge. (Chomsky, 2000)

Studies of communication among species other than Homo sapiens have helped to develop a clearer understanding of the unique nature of human language. For example, scientists studying the dance of the bees have identified two character­istics of this signaling system—distance and direc- tion—that help other bees find a source of nectar. In their dance, bees map distance and direction into particular angles and speeds, some greater and smaller, more or less. There is no variation, no modification, of this behavior otherwise.

Joseph Greenberg notes that language systems such as the dance of the bees are iconic. In other words, there is always a one-to-one correspon­dence between the purpose of alerting for nectar and the specific movements in the dance. Human language, by comparison, is a complex symbolic system with infinite possibilities for generating meaning. Grammar and syntax distinguish human language from the languages of other creatures. Thus, trying to identify the steps through which human language evolved is much more challenging than researching the dance of bees. The search for the origins of human language is a search for a generative and growing system of human exchange between minds and external events, as James Hurford puts it.

Origins and Evolution

The question of where and when the earliest lan­guage occurred requires studying the evolution of modern humans from their ancestors, the first hominids (i.e., beings within the taxonomic fam­ily, Hominidae). For explorations of human lan­guage evolution, it is necessary to consider two realizations of language, gestural language and spoken language.


The majority of study regarding the evolution of language focuses upon verbal communication, but a second area of research provides many answers about human language, that is, gestural language. In the latter case, scientists may be concerned with the communicative function of gestures in themselves, or they may be concerned, as is Michael Corballis, with the evolutionary processes of gestural language to speech. He proposes that language emerged from manual gestures rather than from vocalization.

Although there is no documented evidence that early hominids used gestural language, Corballis provides a set of arguments supporting the practi­cality and effectiveness of gestural communication that may have been used as far back as 25 to 30 million years ago. For example, as an essentially spatial mode of communication, gesturing would provide a silent visual means to alert others about predators or to support the hunting of game.

Somewhere around 6 to 7 million years ago (mya), hominids and apes diverged into distinct groups. At that time, archeological findings indicate, both groups were assumed to have used simple ges­tures, and both probably vocalized for emotional needs. Hand signals for purposes other than just emotional release are believed to have been used by hominids designated as the genus Australopithecus, who are identified by two important characteristics: nonprojecting canine teeth and bipeDalí locomotion. Because they lacked dental defenses, they needed to develop some way of surviving. Thus, C. Loring Brace postulates that they must have created primi­tive cultures. This idea is backed up by the discovery of rudimentary stone tools from around 2.5 million years ago. Scientist Ralph Holloway, among others, comments that the early bases for language may have had roots at the time of tool creation and use. Hominids at this time would have had a reason to establish groups for hunting, scavenging, and coop­erative living and thus have had a need to develop forms of communication within these groups. Because the hands were no longer needed for loco­motion, they could be used for gestures and making tools. These activities could have stimulated the evo­lution of the brain and especially those parts of the brain necessary for speech.

It seems logical that the early Homo erectus would use hand signals and body gestures to com­municate. Corballis notes that, given the fossil evidence, by 2 mya the gestures would have been fully syntactic and vocalizations would have been progressively increasing. By 100,000 years ago, early Homo sapiens would have used more speech than gestures, but gestures would still have been a characteristic of communication.

Theories about early communication gestures have been most affirmed by those who study manual languages such as American Sign (ASL) or any of the other modern sign languages used by deaf per­sons in countries other than the United States. Just as research about language evolution and gestures has been slow in developing, it was not until the 1960s that sign language research began to build with studies of the grammar of ASL. The growth of research was due to the work of William C. Stokoe, who provided the foundation for identifying sign languages as true, formally structured languages and not merely cryptic means for communication. Since his time, sign language research has included study within several areas of linguistics, including sociolinguistics and neurolinguistics.

In the field of sociolinguistics, researchers such as James Woodward have established a large body of knowledge of interlanguage communication, studying areas of the world where deaf persons use sign language within their own established com­munities and/or with hearing individuals. This research is similar to that regarding the develop­ment of pidgins and creoles in spoken languages.

What of gestural language among hearing, speaking individuals? Gestures supply visual-spatial support to conversations, enabling a speaker to use emphasis or to demonstrate information that other­wise might take a longer period of time to describe verbally. When there is little or no opportunity to speak, gestures can take on a form of syntax desig­nating meaning. For example, individuals who try to communicate with someone who speaks a lan­guage other than their own use hand gestures accompanied by facial expressions and body lan­guage in an orderly fashion that parallels their spoken language.

Considering neurolinguistics, much has been learned from the last decade of the 20th century into the 21st regarding language function areas in the brain and sign language. For example, just as do hearing listeners of spoken language, deaf per­sons show increased activity in the left side of the brain for receptive communication in sign lan­guage. Both of the language-mediating areas of the brain, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are acti­vated when deaf signers watch sentences presented in ASL. Even so, deaf persons show more activity in the right side of the brain than do hearing per­sons. This has frequently been attributed to the fact that ASL has a distinct spatial component where facial, head, and body movements complement the hand signs.

Philip Lieberman explains that the hominid brain and hand evolved in a precise way that facilitated manual dexterity. He notes that studies in the 20th century comparing the brains of nor­mal individuals to aphasics and those with mental retardation show that there is a link between speech and syntax and motor activity. If that is true, then it makes sense that as the human brain developed, and as the skull and throat developed in the earliest hominids, so too would the use of gestures have developed as well as the growth of spoken language.

Spoken Language

Scientists document that during the Late Pleistocene period that began around 130,000 years ago, brain size in hominids, classified as archaic Homo sapiens, had reached modern levels. The increased expansion of the brain is taken as a sign of brain reorganization for language. At the same time, another major indicator of the evolu­tion of humans, the manufacture of tools, shows multiple traditions of stylistic differences across specific regions of the world to which these hom­inids had migrated. C. Loring Brace explains that these geographic areas are coincidental with the areas of the world that have been mapped for major language families. Thus, he posits that there may be a connection between the development of tools and the development of verbal communica­tion in these geographic areas.

Fossils show that the necessary mouth and throat anatomy for speech were in place even 150,000 years ago. The structure of the human brain and the larynx have evolved so that humans are the only ones who have a low larynx that facilitates speech but that can also interfere with swallowing and be obstructed by food. With this kind of physical structure, it would seem that hom­inids of the middle Paleolithic era would necessar­ily cultivate vocalization. Yet, this is a quandary, because other evidence (e.g., hints from unearthed art, burial and living sites, and jewelry) would sig­nal that verbal language did not appear until about 40,000 years ago. This time of social organization and growth is known as the Upper Paleolithic explosion. Most archaeologists would agree that at that time there must have been liberal use of language.

Some scientists believe that there was a sudden cultural shift; others believe the development of speech use was gradual. Just because the hominid anatomy was available for speech, the evolution of the neural pathways may not yet have been ready earlier in time, that is, before 50,000 to 40,000 years ago. Another missing piece of the puzzle is the fact that it is hard to infer without fossil evidence the ways that soft tissue was connected to the anatomy of the vocal tract.

Lieberman believes that speech should have been possible between 150,000 and 100,000 years ago, because there is evidence that the African hominid living during that time had a cranial structure identical to that of modern humans. The tongue was rooted in the throat and not restricted to the vocal cavity, and the larynx had descended. This kind of structure is necessary for rapid and complex speech, and there would be little reason to think that speech might not exist among these hominids. However, their vocal tracts were not completely formed, nor were their abdominal and thoracic muscles that, among modern humans, receive stimula­tion for speech through the thoracic region of the spinal cord.

Many scientists indicate that there is little evi­dence about the development of human culture that would support the argument for the necessity of speech before 50,000 years ago. Alternatively, some scientists, such as John Yellen and his col­leagues, have discovered signs of a kind of trading network among the Katanda people of Africa, as well as barbed bone, obsidian, and stone used for spear points, and the use of pigments such as red ochre that can be dated between 80,000 and 90,000 years ago. Yellen and his colleagues explain that these archaeological traces may indicate the existence of early societies whose members had modern behavioral potential and hominids with anatomies that resembled those of modern humans. Thus, there may have to be a change regarding the target year estimate of 40,000 years ago for the emergence of speech.

Clues From Written Language

Observations of written language provide clues regarding the existence of grammar and syntax of spoken language as well as changes in these com­ponents that signal the difference between human language and that of other species.

Formal Written Language

There is some agreement among scholars that the oldest known formal written language was in use about 5,000 years ago and was probably Sumerian, an extinct isolate language that shows few characteristics common to any of the other spoken language families. There are over 30,000 preserved cuneiform writings in this language as well as evidence from remnants of Sumerian monuments. These show accounts of commerce and politics, culture, poetry, myths, and epics about the origins of civilization in the Fertile Crescent. As a spoken language, Sumerian must have existed prior to being put down in writing. It was spoken in Mesopotamia, in part of what is now modern Iraq, until 2,000 BCE and was supplanted by Akkadian, a Semitic language that like Sumerian is now extinct. The Akkadians, a nomadic people, lived peacefully among the Sumerians until the conquest by Sargon of Akkad, who insisted upon language assimilation. The geo­graphic region continued to use Semitic languages through the time of the Babylonian empire, whose people spoke a dialect of Akkadian. Subsequently, another Semitic language, Aramaic, predominated in the region.

Informal Written Languages

Writing systems that are characterized as repre­sentations of informal language lack the consistent use of grammar or syntax. Informal written lan­guages existed as far back as 30,000 years ago. Evidence is seen in cave and other drawings and engravings at burial sites and in artifacts such as jewelry. These forms are found in several key archaeological sites around the world. Although explorations have been made predominantly on the African continent and in the Near and Middle East, one land that has been a source of curiosity about language evolution is Australia. The Aborigines, living in Australia for perhaps 40,000 years or longer, are one people whose ancestors have left a pictorial record across the continent in carvings and paintings representing symbols of life around them, some of these over 23,000 years old. Many of the Aboriginal drawings are in geometric shapes, and they appear to be accounts of numbers of people and events within designated time frames.

It has been estimated that at one time there may have been over 500 spoken languages among 200 distinct groups of Aborigines. These languages show no clear connection to any of the other lan­guage families of the world and have been classi­fied by anthropological linguists into 28 of their own families. Currently, in a population of some 400,000, there are fewer than 30,000 who speak one of the remaining 263 original languages. And, it has only been a little over 100 years since outsid­ers have helped the Aborigines establish a formal written language based upon the visual material that has survived and developed over the centuries. However, there is still much to be learned about these people to put one more piece in place in the puzzle of language evolution.

Language and Future Changes

Recent research in anthropological linguistics as well as genetic linguistics has supported our understandings of the origins, evolution, and cur­rent status of languages around the world. Coupled with studies by allied and growing fields such as computer science, biology, and neuroscience, the horizon appears bright, revealing ever more infor­mation about language change over time. Linguist Salikoko Mufwene remarks that there is a need for researchers to be open to a variety of alterna­tive assumptions that might advance and enrich current and future thought about language evolu­tion. He states,

A language is more like a bacterial, Lamarckian species than like an organism. A subset of inno- vations/deviations in the communicative acts of individual speakers cumulate into the “invisible ecological hand” that produces evolution. . . . There are internal and external factors that bear on language evolution, but they apply concur­rently in all cases of language evolution.

Given what is already known about the develop­ment of language in humans, it is highly probable that scientific explorations, especially by researchers of several fields collaborating, will continue to reveal subtle as well as vivid evolutionary processes that enable creative and distinct language use among all persons across the earth.

Patricia N. Chrosniak

See also Anthropology; Evolution, Cultural; Hammurabi, Codex of; Language; Languages, Tree of; Rosetta Stone

Further Readings

Asher, R. E., & Moseley, C. J. (Eds.). (2007). Atlas of the world’s languages (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Brace, C. L. (1995). The stages of human evolution. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Chomsky, N. (2000). New horizons in the study of language and mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Christiansen, M. H., & Waller, S. (2003). Language evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Corballis, M. C. (1999). The gestural origins of language. American Scientist, 87, 138-145.

Corballis, M. C. (2002). From hand to mouth: The origins of language. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Crystal, D. (1997). The Cambridge encyclopedia of language (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Greenberg, J. H. (1968). Anthropological linguistics: An introduction. New York: Random House.

Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, W. T. (2002). The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298, 1569-1579.

Holden, C. (1998). No last word on language origins. Science, 282, 1455-1458.

Lieberman, P. (1998). Eve spoke: Human language and human evolution. New York: W. W. Norton.

Mufwene, S. S. (2001). The ecology of language evolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stokoe, W. C. (2002). Language in hand: Why sign came before speech. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Yellen, J. E., Brooks, A. S., Cornelissen, E., Mehlman, M. J., & Stewart, K. (1997). A Middle Stone Age worked bone industry from Katanda, Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire. Science, 268, 553-556.

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Tree of Language

Tree of Language