How did language first evolve?

It is a question that has intrigued us for as long as humanity has been around. Some ancient myths talk about gods bestowing the gift of words upon us. We are fascinated by this very complex thing that we do pretty much effortlessly. It is so effortless for us that we often don’t even realise how amazing it is. I think we, as humans, are always asking questions and trying to understand our world, and language is an essential part of the human experience.

People often wonder what it would be like to have telepathy. Well, no need to wonder. We have it already. We can communicate complex ideas just by making sounds, or as I am doing now, writing them down using a system designed for capturing spoken word on the page. It is no surprise to me that our ancestors must have come up with all sorts of explanations for how it must have come about.

But did it really just pop up out of nowhere? No, that doesn’t seem likely. As much as humanity might have a lofty opinion of its own place in the world, we are just as subject to the forces of nature as any other species. There must be an evolutionary reason for how languages ended up developing. I was watching a video about birds and how they evolved. Every living thing alive evolved from an older form. But looking at modern birds, you realise that if they evolved from older forms then that means that one of those older forms didn’t have wings. They didn’t just pop up out of nowhere already having wings. Evolution is a slow process that takes countless generations to end up at the situation we have today.

What is the point of half a wing, this video asked? Why did wings evolve in the first place? What is the use of a few feathers sticking out of your limbs if you can’t fly? Well, it didn’t start out with flying. Early birds used those little feathers to climb up to places that would have been impossible or very difficult to get to otherwise. They used their clawed legs, and their small feathers together to get to safe spots up trees and away from predators.

This would have been a massive evolutionary advantage. Evolution works through small changes that happen randomly in certain individuals of a species. Those changes that provide an advantage in life are often passed on to future generations. The individuals with bigger feathers and more feathers would have had an advantage and that propelled those feathered individuals forward until their descendants eventually had enough feathers and big enough feathers to allow them to fly.

Now, what does this have to do with language? Well, it shows that evolution can take us, looking back, to unanticipated places, and the development of language is once such occurrence. Those first feathered dinosaurs couldn’t fly, but they could climb trees well, and that would eventually lead to the emergence of such species as eagles, who lead quite different lives to their dinosaur ancestors.

Like flight, language didn’t pop up out of nowhere. And it didn’t emerge fully formed. But then, like in the flight example, what is the use of half a word? Language developed by building on what had come before. Complex language seems to be unique to us, but that doesn’t mean that other species can’t communicate. Dogs bark, yelp and whine. Cats meow, growl and purr. These are all examples of communication.

Our earliest ancestors probably evolved language by taking already existing biological tools like the throat and tongue and using them for another purpose. We know that parrots can mimic language quite well. Humans are not the only ones who can make complex sounds with their own mouths and throats. Birds can make all sorts of sounds and even what could be called music. While parrots may be able to mimic language, their ability with it, even when taught over a number of years is minimal in comparison to even a 3 year old child. So the ability to make sounds was an important part, but it was not the only thing required. The ability to create a wide range of sounds was merely the first step along the long road to language.

We don’t have all the answers yet, but we can make some good guesses. In the beginning it was probably quite rudimentary, but as it became a useful tool, like feathers on a dinosaur, it probably became more complex. Before language could have arisen, there are 3 absolutely essential things that were required.

The ability to create a wide range of sounds (only being able to make a “b” sound would probably not be that useful), a social group so you had other members of your species to talk to, and finally, the cognitive abilities to realise that those sounds that your fellow humans were making actually meant something. Babies pick up language almost effortlessly and it really is a marvel at how good they are at doing it. We all pick up our first language just by sitting around other people and listening.

Our ancestors were probably not as good at picking up language, but they probably were able to work out that when a member of their group made one sound it meant something, and another sound it meant something else. All species seem to communicate in one way or another. Many supplement this communication with sound. Wolves, for instance, might howl and other wolves might pick up the howl and howl in return. They are clearly recognising the sound and responding to it.

Dogs too respond to sounds made by other dogs and by us. They can be taught to recognise certain words, which to them are probably just another sound. If wolves and dogs do this, then certainly our ancient ancestors did too. As human cognitive abilities grew, and as our bodies changed over time, two things probably happened: we were able to make more types of sounds than we could before, and we were also able to recognise those sounds in other humans.

Humans seem to want to make themselves stand out and push themselves away from the brutish and chaotic lives of the animals of this world. “We are special. We are clever. We created language solely through our amazing intellect,” some would say. Language was probably neither a solely intellectual creation, nor was it just random. It probably emerged when all the pieces of the puzzle came together.

Initially language was probably little more than sounds, but the sounds humans could make were used to make the first words. Maybe the first words were something like “ma”, “tu”, “ak” and so on. But when people started using those sounds in specific situations, they would have gained a certain association and meaning with the other people around them. Even if all they could do was say things like “move”, “danger” or “deer”, it still would have been a very useful thing and it would have been very evolutionary advantageous for anyone who had the right genes to continue on the language journey.

Whatever the genes that we need to produce and understand language are, they were obviously evolutionarily speaking extremely useful and they spread throughout the human population. We have yet to find a single languageless society in the world. All humans are able to use language, no matter the location on Earth, culture or education level. It seems to be rooted in our very DNA. It might be the very thing that allowed us to eventually conquer every part of this amazing world we live on.

Where language went to once it had arrived is a story for another day, but its emergence started a whole new chapter in the story of humanity.

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