Washington State University

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January 3rd, 2013

Who invented language?

Hubbell, Michigan

 Young chimpanzees from Jane Goodall sanctuary of Tchimpounga (Congo Brazzaville). by Delphine Bruyere, Wikimedia

Young chimpanzees from Jane Goodall sanctuary of Tchimpounga (Congo Brazzaville). by Delphine Bruyere, Wikimedia

Well, I might as well admit right up front – we don’t know. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great arguments about who invented language. I got an earful about all this from Nancy McKee, who is a linguist and anthropologist here at WSU. That means she studies language and people.

It’s hard to say who invented language, says Professor McKee, because words don’t leave fossils. The only absolute evidence of language is writing. But think about this: As recently as the last century, the majority of the world’s population did not write. Of course that doesn’t mean they didn’t have language.

The oldest example of writing that we’ve found is a kind of writing called cuneiform, which was used by the Sumerians, people who lived in western Asia. The oldest examples of cuneiform are about 5,000 years old. Of course, language is much older than that.

But how do you figure out who invented language if there isn’t any written record?

First, says Professor McKee, you can look at the STRUCTURE of the brain. In other words, you can look at the brains of human ancestors to figure out whether they talked or not. The only problem with this is that brains don’t leave fossils either. All that lasts are the skulls, which are often broken, so you have to piece them together. Even so, scientists can tell quite a lot not only about how big the brain of the ancestor was, but how it was organized.

Another way to study when language came about is to study humans’ closest relatives, chimpanzees and the other great apes. First of all, they can’t talk, says Professor McKee. They COMMUNICATE. Slime molds communicate, she says. But slime molds don’t TALK.

When chimpanzees see food, they go UH! HUH! EEEE! HUH! HUH! Or something like that. Of course that lets the other chimps know about the food. But the chimp doesn’t necessarily WANT the others to know. In other words, they don’t MEAN to say UH! HUH! and so on. What controls these sounds is a really old area of the brain called the “limbic area.” You know when you step on a tack and yell? That sound comes from the limbic area. It isn’t something that you SAY or mean to say.

In other words, says Professor McKee, much of what chimps say is involuntary. As Noam Chomsky, another linguist, has said, saying a chimpanzee can talk is like saying a man who jumps off the Empire State Building can fly!

Now, Professor McKee’s opinion isn’t quite so extreme. She thinks that chimps really are pretty smart. It’s just that they’re really dumb compared to humans. For example, they do not talk about the nature of evil. However, when they learn sign language and tell the human studying them that they want some food, they mean they want some food. It’s not just a “conditioned response.”

So what does this have to do with the invention of language? Chimpanzee brains are about one-third the size of modem human brains. If chimps can “say” through sign language simple things like “I want dinner,” then human ancestors with much larger brains probably could do just as well and probably better.

So what ancestors are we talking about here? Professor McKee thinks it was these folks called “Homo erectus,” who had brains twice as large as chimps and who seem to have evolved about 2 million years ago from an earlier earlier ancestor called Australopithecus. (Just sound it out and say it loudly.)

The scientists who think about language are basically divided into two camps. Some think that language just happened all at once. SOMETHING very remarkable happened somewhere along the line. Maybe it was some kind of evolutionary adaptation. For whatever reason, these scientists believe there’s a BIG BREAK between humans and other animals that communicate.

Professor McKee belongs to the second camp. She believes that language is just the endpoint of a gradual evolutionary process-beginning with slime mold-that simply became more and more elaborate.

But still, when did it become “language”?

Somewhere between 2 million and 200,000 years ago, she says. Well, that certainly narrows it down!

Still, she doesn’t think that Homo erectus perfected language. It might have taken until about 40,000 years ago before there was anything like modern language.

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