Language, Origin

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Language is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, and a language is any specific example of such a system. The scientific study of language is called linguistics.


Theories about the origin of language differ in regards to their basic assumptions about what language is. Some theories are based on the idea that language is so complex that one cannot imagine it simply appearing from nothing in its final form, but that it must have evolved from earlier pre-linguistic systems among our pre-human ancestors. These theories can be called continuity-based theories. The opposite viewpoint is that language is such a unique human trait that it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans and that it must therefore have appeared suddenly in the transition from pre-hominids to early man. These theories can be defined as discontinuity-based. Similarly, theories based on Chomsky's Generative view of language see language mostly as an innate faculty that is largely genetically encoded, whereas functionalist theories see it as a system that is largely cultural, learned through social interaction.

Currently, the only prominent proponent of a discontinuity-based theory of human language origins is linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky. Chomsky proposes that "some random mutation took place, maybe after some strange cosmic ray shower, and it reorganized the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain." Though cautioning against taking this story too literally, Chomsky insists that "it may be closer to reality than many other fairy tales that are told about evolutionary processes, including language."

Continuity-based theories are currently held by a majority of scholars, but they vary in how they envision this development. Those who see language as being mostly innate, for example, psychologist Steven Pinker, hold the precedents to be animal cognition, whereas those who see language as a socially le


arned tool of communication, such as psychologist Michael Tomasello, see it as having developed from animal communication, either primate gestural or vocal communication to assist in cooperation. Other continuity-based models see language as having developed from music, a view already espoused by Rousseau, Herder, Humboldt, and Charles Darwin. A prominent proponent of this view today is archaeologist Steven Mithen. Stephen Anderson states that the age of spoken languages is estimated at 60,000 to 100,000 years and that: Researchers on the evolutionary origin of language generally find it plausible to suggest that language was invented only once, and that all modern spoken languages are thus in some way related, even if that relation can no longer be recovered … because of limitations on the methods available for reconstruction.

Because the emergence of language is located in the early prehistory of man, the relevant developments have left no direct historical traces, and no comparable processes can be observed today. Theories that stress continuity often look at animals to see if, for example, primates display any traits that can be seen as analogous to what pre-human language must have been like. Alternatively, early human fossils can be inspected to look for traces of physical adaptation to language use or for traces of pre-linguistic forms of symbolic behaviour.

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 the genus Homo some 2.5 million years ago. Some scholars assume the development of primitive language-like systems (proto-language) as early as Homo habilis (2.3 million years ago), 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 Anatomically Modern Homo sapiens with the Upper Paleolithic revolution less than 100,000 years ago.

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External Links

  • WikipediaWorld Atlas of Language Structures: a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languagesEthnologue: Languages of the WorldThe Linguistic Diversity of the Planet

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