How Did Language Happen?

Let’s talk about the evolutionary origin of language through the amalgamation of theories created by Condillac and Darwin. Rather than exploring the numerous complex notions that attempt to answer the question of how human language originated and the subsequent flaws in those arguments, this article will focus in on one specific theory, the theory that, in my opinion, makes the most logical, tangible and plausible argument.

In answering this question it is important to make a clear definition of the question in order to determine the course of the argument. The interpretation of the question “How did (human) language originate?” will be defined as; what were the motivations, functions and causes for the development of language. We must also define the term language; while there is such a broad notion of the term, it is vital to narrow the definition to a specific; in this article we will define language as a means for acquiring, memorising and discussing clear and distinct ideas.

Language has universally been felt to be a characteristic that sets humans apart from other species. It is part biological heritage and part the product of learning by a social creature that makes this explanation of the origin and evolution of language most valid. If we define language as the framework for expressing the implications of actions and how decisions about such actions are made; then we must take a close look at the pre-Darwinian theories of language because the basis of this definition stems from these theories. Three facts came to be recognised that encouraged eighteenth century speculation on the origin of language.

  1. There are a large number of different languages
  2. All languages seem to be subject to change
  3. Children do not biologically inherit their language[1]

In assessing the evolution of human progress it was natural to believe that the earliest man was inventive, thus thinkers believed man was capable of inventing signs for communication[2]. Locke considered the human mind capable of clear and distinct knowledge prior to the use of knowledge, thereby giving language meaning arbitrarily by deciding which ideas are to be related to which sounds. Condillac then understood the role of language as a means for acquiring, memorising and discussing clear and distinct ideas[3]. Condillac stressed that man’s first efforts at communication must have involved only the use of signs that are self-explanatory (such as threatening postures). In time, men would learn the effects of their movements on their companions and would come to perform deliberate actions that had at first no reference to other persons.

An important point in Condillac’s argument is that actions that were not initially intentional as signals to others, came in time to be deliberately made signals; in other words, the secondary effect of these actions was first noted and then exploited[4]. For Condillac the use of signs led to the improvement of mental powers, which in turn lead to a development in the use of signs. Condillac explains that cries of various kinds were among initial natural reactions and came to be used as signs in the same way gestures did: becoming converted to signs, they gradually lost their natural emphasis and were imitated by controlled or articulate sounds. A groan was originally a spontaneous expression of emotion, but when it was deliberately made in order to call for help, it became a simulated groan, an imitation with motivation. Once a certain number of such sounds had come to be used in this way, others would be added by similarity; because they were convoyed by gestures, they came to be connected with the objects to which the gestures referred. Condillac held that the elements of spoken language must at first have followed the order of acquisition that was natural in sign language.[5]

In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin devoted an entire chapter to “the diversities of instinct and of the other mental qualities of animals within the same class”. He argues the notion that language is a complex phenomenon and there must have been, by necessity, several mechanisms to produce it[6]. If we follow the Darwinian model, in which emergence takes place, it presupposes a preliminary state, a process of generating genetic variants, of selection and a process of reproduction. These approaches emphasis the functional selection process and the emergence of speech and language that is the result of a remarkable conjunction of:

  1. The existence of a highly sophisticated auditory system and organs for respiration, mastication, and swallowing shaped for vital functions
  2.  The Exaptation of these organs as vocal instruments capable of producing complex sound signals, coordinated with respiration.
  3.  The emergence of cognitive capacities that allow humans;
  4.  To learn fine control of the vocal instrument (phonation and articulation)
  5.  To make use of a doubly compositional system, language, that enables them to generate tens of thousands of words from only a few dozen sounds and then combine them in and infinite number of sentence
  6.  The arbitrarily associate meanings with each of the elements produced in this way, a linguistic system, language, shared by a group of speakers and listeners
  7.  The extension, structuring and maintenance of social relationships to increase the chances of survival (cooperation, forming alliances, political organisations, status, bonding etc.) not only for small groups but also for large populations
    – The choice of sexual partners ( enhanced ability to persuade)
  8.  The possibility of transmitting information(memory) and educating children
  9.  Hunting (sign language is not as useful if one has to carry weapons in one’s hands)
  10.  Technology that requires complex learning and planning of a procedure: for manufacturing tools, as well as their diversification and semiotic and sociocultural function; transportation of materials, bone tools, trade,
  11.  Possibly representing peoples’ mental states[7]

Darwin argues that the need for courting a mate, expressing a state of emotion or challenging a rival led to the motivation for language and then ultimately these articulate sounds have gradually turned into words. He continues “it does not appear altogether incredible, that some unusually wise ape-like animal should have thought of imitating the growl of a beast of prey, so as to indicate to his fellow monkeys the nature of the expected danger. And this would have been a first step in the formation of language. [8] He sees the superior development of protohuman cognition as reflecting an increase in intelligence in the hominid lineage under the impact of selection pressures. Thus it is the theory that evolutionary steps leading to spoken language originated by vocal imitation and driven by sexual selection[9]. The main point of sexual selection is that mate choice is a key element in reproductive success. Since the cost of reproduction is higher for females than males, they are more selective with their mate selection; these biological facts provide an excellent understanding of the courtship behaviour and appearance of animal species within the framework of the evolutionary theory. Darwin also noted that:

“… Articulate language is, however, peculiar to man; but he uses in common with the lower animals inarticulate cries to express his meaning, aided by gestures and the movements of the muscle of the face. … It is not the mere power of articulation that distinguishes man from other animals, for as everyone knows, parrots can talk; but it is his large power of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas; and this obviously depends on the development of the mental faculties.[10]”(1871,p54)

This further validates that the advantage of language must have been enormous, to have become encoded in our genotypes and encephalized in our brains. One must however question why this process was specific to our species. It is rational to conclude that our species is social, compliant and collaborative and out of necessity far more kin-dependent – not necessarily because we are smarter – but because we are motivated. Some of our ancestors were motivated to learn to acquire and share categories in this all powerful new way began to profit from the considerable advantages it conferred – the benefits of acquiring new categories without the time, energy, uncertainty and risk of acquiring them through a direct sensorimotor induction[11]. Baldwinian evolution began to favour this nature to learn and to use symbols to name categories and to recombine their names in order to establish and propositonalize about further categories, because of the adaptive profits that category description and sharing conferred. The predisposition to acquire and convey categories by instruction thus grew stronger and stronger in the genomes and brains of the offspring of those who were more motivated and disposed to learns to do so. And that became our species’ “language-based” brain[12].

Ultimately through the research I have undertaken, I find this theory by Condillac and Darwin to be one that provides a logical argument that is the most unfaultable in comparison to the numerous other theories. The trail of ideas and evidence to support this notion, that through a process of the need for courting a mate, expressing a state of emotion or challenging a rival led to the motivation for language and then eventually these articulate sounds have gradually turned into words is the most clear and concise argument. While we can only speculate on the true origins of human language at this point, I believe this argument is one that certainly holds the most value.

Referenced Material
Bartlett, A. 2009, “From First Hesitation to Scenic Imagination: Originary Thinking with Eric Gans”, Contagion, vol. 15/16, pp. 89-172,261.

Boe, L.-j., Granat, J., Heim, J.-l., Badin, P., Barbier, G., Captier, G., et al. (2013). Reconstructed fossil vocal tracts and the production of speech. In New Perspectives on the Origins of Language (pp. 75-125). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Chomsky, N. (1976). On the Nature of Language. Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech , 46-57.

Cohen, H. (2013). Historical, Darwinian and current perspectives on the origin(s) of language. In New Perspectives on the Origins of Language (pp. 3-26). Amsterdam: John Bejamin’s Publishing.

Martel, D. (2011). Three Prehistoric Inventions That Shaped us. New York : Peter Lang.

Masse, A. B., Harnard, S., Picard, O., & St Louis, B. (2013). Symbol grounding and the origin of language. In New Perspectives on the Origins of Language (pp. 279-296). Amsterdam: John Benjamin’s Publishing.

[1] (Cohen, 2013)
[2] (Cohen, 2013)
[3] (Cohen, 2013)
[4] (Cohen, 2013)
[5] (Cohen, 2013)
[6] (Cohen, 2013)
[7] (Boe, et al., 2013)
[8] (Cohen, 2013)
[9] (Masse, Harnard, Picard, & St Louis, 2013)
[10] (Cohen, 2013)
[11] (Masse, Harnard, Picard, & St Louis, 2013)
[12] (Masse, Harnard, Picard, & St Louis, 2013)

Photo Credit Illusion

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