Origins of Language

Spoken communication came about due to the development of the vocal tract and the cognitive abilities in humans required to understand and produce vocalisations. This development has been dated to the Pleistocene period and our ancestors Homo habilis and Homo erectus 2.5 – 1.5 million years ago. Given the estimated length of time that humans (from their earliest identifiable forms) have been walking this planet, this leaves between 1.5 – 2.5 million years that we could not communicate orally. How peaceful this must have been. I try to imagine what it must be like to be unable to speak with another person (and at this stage of human evolution there was no written language either) and I find myself at a loss for what I would do. Would gesture and a poor attempt at mimicry be enough to communicate my thoughts and feeling to another? Could my face really reveal everything about me? Many people feel that our comprehensive communication skills separates us from animals, yet so often animals succeed in conveying their desires and personalities to each other and to us; any time spent watching chimpanzees will quickly reveal much about their society and most pet owners will claim to understand their pets as they would another human being. Would we be able to communicate with another person without those tools of communication: spoken and written language?

Given the prehistoric nature of these early stages of human development, our knowledge is theoretical and often based on assumptions made by studying fossils, assumptions and theories that can easily change with a new discovery. Thus this topic is full of questions and within this post I will likely put forward a number of questions that I just can’t answer, but are interesting to think about.

Communication can be defined in many ways, one of these (particularly in regards to oral communication) is the ability to produce identifiable sounds and control these sounds. The evolution of the vocal tract from one that could produce simple animal calls to an instrument that can create a plethora of sounds, words, vocalisations and hums (to list but a few) is quite astonishing.

Non-human primates (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) produce calls that are interpreted by the receiver based on subtle gradations in the signaller’s emotional and bodily states, or in simple terms: their calls reflect their emotions. If they are not in a particular emotional state, then they will find it extremely difficult to produce the corresponding call. They cannot create false impressions through their calls. This is very interesting and honest when placed in contrast with human interaction in which we so easily lie and put on a performance full of falsities. It also means there is no “crying wolf”; if a primate makes a vocal call that is interpreted as a warning of danger, then the receiver of this “message” will instantly react, never doubting the truth behind the call. Many animals use deception, often as a means of protection, yet humans seem far more malicious when one considers how skilled we are at lying and pretense.

Proto-language can be defined as a stage in the evolution of languages somewhere between great ape language and fully developed modern human language. This leaves a rather large period of development and fossils have shown that human vocal tracts continuously evolved over time, rather than appearing suddenly. So while H. habilis and H.erectus (Lower Pleistocene period) had the required anatomical features for modern human communication (a L-shaped vocal tract) they likely had some form of communication, but was very primitive compared to modern langauge; an intermediate stage between that of modern humans and that of other primates. H. erectus was likely capable of a primitive form of speech as fossils have shown that its brain size and the presence of Broca’s area (region in brain linked to speech production) could have supported articulate language.

Size and shape variations between the skulls of a gorilla, H. eretcus and H. sapien

Size and shape variations between the skulls of a gorilla, H. eretcus and H. sapien

Homo ergaster (often called the “African Homo erectus” who lived in the Pleistocene period 1.8 – 1.3 million years ago and often regarded as a direct ancestor of H.sapien), likely possessed vocal capabilities, due to the development of the vocal tract, that may have allowed them to communicate in a proto-language, lacking the fully developed structure of modern human language, but more developed than the non-verbal communication used by chimpanzees.

Homo heidelbergensis was the first hominid to make controlled vocalisations, likely by mimicking animal calls. However, the development of fully modern behaviour in H.sapiens dates to 70,000 – 50,000 years ago, dated due to their more advanced tools, that would have required a fully developed language, necessary for teaching the manufacturing process to offspring. Scientists have claimed that the greatest step in language evolution was the progression from primitive, pidgin-like communication to a creole language with all the grammar and syntax of modern language. However, as is the trouble with researching events that happened before recorded history, we are unsure of just how this progression came about. One theory is that a biological change to the brain was required (a mutation) to allow us to develop communication to such a degree.

In the delay between the first appearance of humans and our first oral communication, I wonder how we could have communicated with each other. Did we rely on gesture? Mark-making? A visual performance, mimicry? Numerous human species, including H.habilis and H.erectus, had social organisation and lived together, the latter example in a hunter-gatherer society. As our family groups grew larger and we began to live in small societies, did our bodies recognise the need for a more effective method of communication and adapt the capability for speech? Was there a period between being anatomically able to produce speech and understanding and communicating through speech? Was there a “language barrier” between those who could speak and those whose bodies had not adapted for it? At some point there must surely have been a generation difference. How did these early people overcome this? Were the first people within these societies that were capable of controlled, identifiable sound production viewed as different, regarded highly or ostracised? How long was there between being anatomically able to produce these sounds and the development of cognitive abilities that enabled understanding, and thus communication?

Proto-language can also refer to the theory that a single common language used by all early humans evolved, as we spread across the planet and developed our own cultures, into the numerous languages throughout the world today (and the many lost and “dead” languages throughout history). This suggests that there was one source from which all languages today originate. Yet I wonder if the first humans to speak would really have spoken the same language; as they discovered the ability to produce and control sounds that would develop into speech and language, surely they would have experimented, tried out different vocalisations to see what suited, what could be understood by another. And if the development of speech was not restricted to one tribe of early humans in one location, then it is more than likely that a variety of proto-languages arose as each group or society developed their own way of communicating with their own sounds and, more importantly, the meanings associated with these sounds.

“The cognitive capacities that give rise to language are universal. Languages are part of human culture… Although people in different parts of the world speak different languages, they share the morphological adaptations that make spoken language possible and the cognitive capacities that allow them to learn and to use language. The abilities to decode words and to extract meaning from combinations of words are based on highly specialized and derived cognitive mechanisms.”

“Language is based on the ability to attach meaning to arbitrary sounds, and this ability allows us to communicate about things outside our immediate experience.”

Robert Boyd & Joan B. Silk, How Humans Evolved, University of California, Los Angeles, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, (Sixth Edition, 2012), 1997, pp.374-375.

Oral communication is a most impressive thing. The idea that it “allows us to communicate about things outside our immediate experience” is such a huge leap forward in our perception of the world and how we relate it, not only to ourselves, but to each other. Without speech and language we may have never understood the concept of perception; that one person’s experience could differ from another’s. Our grasp of knowledge would be so limited as we would be unable to learn from others to the extent we modern humans can today. We take oral communication for granted, yet without it we would be lost.

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About startlediguana

Miscellaneous art history blog made for a module at uni. The likelihood of future posts is slim at best, like sliced cheese.
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