Origin of Language

The origin of language, known in linguistics as glottogony refers to the acquisition of the human ability to use language at some point during the Paleolithic.

The main difficulty of the question stems from the fact that it concerns a development in deep prehistory which left no direct fossil traces and for which no comparable processes can be observed today.

The time range under discussion in this context extends from the phylogenetic separation of Homo and Pan some 5 million years ago to the emergence of full behavioral modernity some 50,000 years ago. The evolution of fully modern human language requires the development of the vocal tract used for speech production and the cognitive abilities required to produce linguistic utterances.

The debate surrounds the timeline, sequence and order of developments associated with this. It is mostly undisputed that pre-human australopithecines did not have communication systems significantly different from those found in great apes in general, but scholarly opinions vary as to the developments since the appearance of Homo some 2.5 million years ago. Some scholars assume the development of primitive language-like systems (proto-language) as early as Homo habilis, while others place the development of primitive symbolic communication only with Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago) or Homo heidelbergensis (0.6 million years ago) and the development of language proper with Homo sapiens sapiens less than 100,000 years ago.


In religion and mythology

Main article: Mythical origins of language See also: Divine language and Adamic language The search for the origin of language has a long history rooted in mythology. Most mythologies do not credit humans with the invention of language but speak of a divine language predating human language. Mystical languages used to communicate with animals or spirits, such as the language of the birds, are also common, and were of particular interest during the Renaissance.

Historical experiments

History contains a number of anecdotes about people who attempted to discover the origin of language by experiment. The first such tale was told by Herodotus. He relates that Pharaoh Psammetichus (probably Psammetichus I) had two children raised by deaf-mutes in order to see what language they would speak. When the children were brought before him, one of them said something that sounded to the Pharaoh like bekos, the Phrygian word for bread.

From this Psammetichus concluded that the first language was Phrygian. King James V of Scotland is said to have tried a similar experiment: his children were supposed to have spoken Hebrew. Both the medieval monarch Frederick II and Akbar, a 16th century Mughal emperor of India, are said to have tried similar experiments; the children involved in these experiments did not speak.

History of research

Evolutionary linguistics

Late 18th to early 19th century European scholarship assumed that the languages of the world reflected various stages in the development from primitive to advanced speech, culminating in the Persian language, seen as the most advanced. Modern linguistics does not begin until the late 18th century, and the Romantic or animist theses of Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Christoph Adelung remained influential well into the 19th century. The question of language origins seemed inaccessible to methodical approaches, and in 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris famously banned all discussion of the origin of language, deeming it to be an unanswerable problem.

An increasingly systematic approach to historical linguistics developed in the course of the 19th century, reaching its culmination in the Neogrammarian school of Karl Brugmann and others. However, scholarly interest in the question of the origin of language has only gradually been rekindled from the 1950s on (and then controversially) with ideas such as Universal grammar, mass comparison and glottochronology. The “origin of language” as a subject in its own right emerged out of studies in neurolinguistics, psycholinguistics and human evolution. The Linguistic Bibliography introduced “Origin of language” as a separate heading in 1988, as a sub-topic of psycholinguistics. Dedicated research institutes of evolutionary linguistics are a recent phenomenon, emerging only in the 1990s.

See: Wikipedia

Study in Current Biology reveals that adaptive changes in a human gene involved in speech and language were shared by our closest extinct relatives, the Neandertals. The finding reveals that the human form of the gene arose much earlier than scientists had estimated previously. It also raises the possibility that Neandertals possessed some of the prerequisites for language.

See: ScienceDaily.Com

The team says that the mixture of human and Neandertal features indicates that there was a complicated reproductive scenario as humans and Neandertals mixed, and that the hypothesis that the Neandertals were simply replaced should be abandoned.

See: ScienceDaily.Com

Timeline: Evolution of Human Language Research

For centuries, scholars and thinkers have tried to unravel the nature of human language. Our understanding of language has grown immensely, especially in the past 50 years. But there are still huge gaps in our knowledge. Here, a timeline of how experts from fields as diverse as anthropology, neuroscience, genetics, psychology, evolutionary biology, linguistics and artificial intelligence have shaped our thinking about language.


Philosophers were the first to ponder the roots of human language. The radical philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, left, says that use of words for communication stems from a desire to express our emotions. Also in the 1700s, Johann Gottfried von Herder writes two essays arguing that human rationality is the basis for language.


Pierre Paul Broca, left, a French doctor, identifies Broca’s Area in the brain’s left hemisphere, a region he says controls human grammar and speech. Damage to Broca’s Area impairs the ability to use words and construct grammatically correct sentences. Later, Karl Wernicke, a German doctor, discovers another area related to language in the left hemisphere. Patients with injuries to Wernicke’s Area speak fluently and grammatically, but make little or no sense.


In 1871, Charles Darwin, left, writes about a human “instinct for language” in his book, Descent of Man. He suggests that language evolved from more primal communication abilities in other animals. Scientists strive to understand how and why human language evolved by studying communication in other animals. Researchers note that chimpanzees physically groom each other, while humans “groom with words” when gossiping or making small talk. Both are ways of strengthening social bonds.


Noam Chomsky, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, left, says humans are born with an innate, or hardwired, knowledge of a universal grammar. He observes that all languages share certain rules and that children learn languages with astonishing speed. Researchers continue to ask: Is language a uniquely human skill? And is language capacity a self-contained part of the brain or part of a more complex, integrated system of cognitive skills?


Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist at Georgia State University, begins to publish research on an ape named Kanzi. Tests show that Kanzi understands not only words but basic grammar – the strongest evidence so far that species other than humans can acquire human language skills.


MIT linguist Steven Pinker, left, tries to combine the ideas of Noam Chomsky and Charles Darwin in his book, The Language Instinct. He offers an explanation for how natural selection might have shaped the evolution of human’s “innate grammar.”


Teams led by Oxford University geneticist Anthony Monaco and London neuroscientist Faraneh Vargha-Khadem identify a single gene that governs certain aspects of intelligence and language. People with a mutation in this gene struggle to pronounce certain words – or make fine movements of the lip and the tongue – and have trouble with grammar. Within a year, SvAnte Paabo and Wolfgang Enard, at Leipzig’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, find a gene – foxp2 – that is almost identical in all animals. Three years later, Stephanie White, left, and researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles find that in zebra finches, a kind of songbird, this gene is involved in their learned song.


In a co-authored paper published in the journal Science, Chomsky says that human language might have evolved from other, simpler forms of communication. The authors propose closer collaborations between linguists, biologists, anthropologists and psychologists to study the evolution and neurology of language.

See: NPR

The Evolution of Human Speech

A smaller hypoglossal canal also characterizes fossils of Homo habilis and the australopithecines, leading Kay et al to conclude that the ability to speak must have evolved roughly 400,000 years ago. A similar study of the thoracic vertebral canal, undertaken by McLarnon and Hewitt in 1999, had similar results. From this it can be concluded that speech ability was probably present in the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. This does not necessarily mean that the hominids present at that time actually did speak, but it is likely the structures for speech were in place by that time.

Ape Speech

While captive great apes have shown varying degrees of skill in learning human sign languages, and even appear to understand some human speech, efforts to teach chimpanzees and orangutans to speak as humans do have been largely unsuccessful. This is partly due to a difference in anatomy; the vocal tract of the great apes consists of a single tube, while that of humans comprises two linked tubes, giving humans the ability to produce a larger repertoire of sounds. In addition, humans have better control over their breathing and the articulation of their tongues. Apes, of course, can produce a wide array of calls that communicate information to their brethren, and gibbons in particular have shown a marked complexity in combining their calls in a way resembling a simple language. Humans, however, seem to have taken this ability and run with it, producing a dazzling array of sounds that comprise the thousands of languages that have existed throughout human history.

Other Animal Languages

Some other species can also have quite complicated languages, including dolphins, humpback whales, and various types of songbirds. Because these animals are obviously far more distantly related to humans than apes are, it is almost certain that the languages these species exhibit are cases of convergent evolution; this goes to show that animals besides humans have found the ability to communicate with their fellows helpful to their survival.

See: The Evolution of Human Speech

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