The following paper was written for a one-semester undergraduate seminar devoted to a thorough reading and discussion of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” It barely skims the surface of all the wacky and not-so-wacky theories out there concerning the evolution of spoken language.
Theories on the Origin and Nature of Language
Darwin on Language
Ever the perfectionist, Charles Darwin spent more than twenty years collecting and sifting through data before he dared to submit The Origin of Species (1859), his lengthy exposition on the theory of natural selection, for publication. It was more than a decade later when he finally addressed the controversial topic of human evolution in The Descent of Man. He encountered several difficult issues from the very start of his discussion, among them spoken language. To many, “articulate language” (1874, 87) seemed to be a uniquely human trait. That no other living species possessed this ability troubled Darwin immensely. Other mammals, including most primates, are capable of communicating by means of gestures and cries, but not much more. Natural selection argued for gradualism, but organized language seemed to have made a sudden appearance in just one species – Homo sapiens. Thus, there seemed to be no way for Darwin to reconcile spoken language with his theory. Nevertheless, he attempted to portray it as an instinct that had been “slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps” (1874, 89). In The Origin of Species, he argues that instinct, in addition to physical structure, evolved by means of natural selection as well. Tackling the delicate subject of language, he proposes a possible origin for it: “I cannot doubt that language owes its origin to the imitation and modification of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man’s own instinctive cries, aided by signs and gestures” (1874, 89-90).
A Question Suppressed and Revived
Many in the generations of scientists that succeeded Darwin have, perhaps understandably, found this outlook on language speculative and inadequate, and even paradoxical. The origin of language remains a rather vexing topic, especially because concrete evidence, so crucial in biology and other scientific fields, is so scanty. Almost any theory on the origin of language is necessarily speculative and will generate a fair share of controversy. In fact, for the better part of this century and a few decades of the last, most linguists clung to a taboo set forth by the Linguistic Society of Paris in 1866, a mere seven years after the publication of The Origin of Species, which forbid its members from presenting papers on the origin and evolution of language at scholarly meetings (Lyons, 1988, 144). This essentially quelled any advancement of understanding. However, in the past few decades, a number of scientists, and more pertinently, linguists, have ventured into this area and opened it up to discussion once again. The result has been an interesting assortment of theories concerning the origin and evolution of language. A number of thinkers in the field of linguistics today, revisiting Darwin’s original explanation of language as a highly evolved instinct, have even found it remarkably visionary.
Pinker: Language as Instinct, but How?
M.I.T. professor Steven Pinker is one of those who believe in the certainty of a Darwinian interpretation of the origin of language, which, among other things, he discusses in his aptly entitled book, The Language Instinct. There are many problems and misunderstandings within this topic, many of which he encounters in his discussion. Most people, the lay public and otherwise, find an evolutionary view of language somewhat paradoxical mainly due to a misunderstanding of evolution. For them, Darwin’s theory presents a linear ladder of evolutionary descent from simple to more complex creatures: “amoebas begat sponges which begat jellyfish … which begat monkeys which begat chimpanzees which begat us” (1995, 343). Since spoken language is unique to humans, rather than a faculty that gradually emerges in succeeding species, they tend to see its appearance as an inexplicable “big bang” (1995, 343). If evolution is true, they reason, one ought to see evidence of language, however rudimentary, in man’s closest living relatives, chimpanzees. This supposed paradox led to a lot of research on language acquisition in chimpanzees in the 1960’s, using sign language. The results were conflicting. Some researchers found that these primates were indeed capable of communicating by hand gestures, whereas many others found them utterly incapable; their signs were random and unstructured. Hence, those in the public who strongly assert themselves as Darwinians eagerly seize the results of the experiments most suitable to their beliefs as proof of evolution and the gradual development of language ability. Creationists, on the other hand, are equally eager in pointing out the experiments which found chimpanzees unqualified for language. Pinker, however, does not see a conflict. Humans did not descend from chimpanzees, though the two are closely related. Modern-day evolutionary theory offers a branched tree rather than a ladder. Chimpanzees may be man’s closest living relatives, but man and his closest relatives, earlier hominids which are now extinct, possibly some species like Homo erectus, are part of a branch separate from chimpanzees. Nevertheless, riddles still plague this field of inquiry, popular misconceptions aside. Pinker admits that “the first steps toward human language are a mystery” (1995, 351). One can assert that language appeared by way of Darwinian natural selection, but it is not quite as easy to indicate how. By what incremental mutations did language appear? Theories on possible intermediate steps in the evolution of language from early hominids to present-day humans are so rich and varied that he launches into a prolonged discussion on a few. The problem of intermediacy is perhaps the most crucial in seeking the origin of language.
Whereas Pinker does not present possible transitional evolutionary links of his own, at least in The Language Instinct, the field of linguistics is rich in them. Derek Bickerton, professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii, is one of a number of theorists with a possible solution to this critical enigma, which he terms “the continuity paradox” (1990, 7). In Language and Species, he says: “language must have evolved out of some prior system, and yet there does not seem to be any such system out of which it could have evolved” (1990, 8). It is hard to picture language as simply an advanced form of instinctive animal communication systems, which Darwin seems to have suggested in The Descent of Man, and which many believe: man needed a means of communication; language developed as a result. Bickerton explains that “animal communication is holistic”, whereas “language … talks mainly about entities… and things predicated of entities”; “units of animal communication convey whole chunks of information” (1990, 11). Animal communication has been quite effective for millions of years and requires little improvement; its evolution would not have made sense. Judging by its characteristics, Bickerton asserts that rather than as a system of communication, language originated as one of internal representation. Simpler creatures like frogs possess a primitive primary representation system (PRS) with which they categorize the world “into ‘frogs’, ‘flying bugs’, ‘ponds’, and perhaps a few other categories like ‘large looming object (potential threat)’” (1990, 87). These narrow categories fit their niche perfectly. They allow quick recognition of important situations, allowing fast, reflexive responses. However, human ancestors encountered circumstances that required increased awareness of reality and a greater ability to assess their situation before acting; knee-jerk reactions were not always advantageous. As natural selection works only when and where needed, more effective, additional systems of representation developed. Language is a secondary representation system (SRS), a mechanism with which humans may categorize virtually everything in the world, be they related to their immediate needs or not. Two “layers of processing” (1990, 87), the PRS and the SRS, allow greater autonomy. Reactions are no longer as spontaneous – beneficial hesitance is allowed. Bickerton has also proposed a possible link between animal representational mechanisms and the advanced SRS of language in humans, a more primitive SRS called protolanguage. A simplistic means of representation and, consequently, of communication, it lacks grammatical structure and is therefore constrained to short, ambiguous utterances. However, it solves the continuity paradox. It is a plausible intermediate step between whatever language originated from – which Bickerton suggests as animal representation systems – and present-day spoken language. Protolanguage is “a mode of linguistic expression that is quite separate from normal human language and is shared by four classes of speakers: trained apes, children under two, adults who have been deprived of language in their early years, and speakers of pidgin” (1990, 122). Because it “forms part of human ontogeny” (1990, 130), those who are not yet capable of true language, e.g. toddlers, those who have never learned language, e.g. wild children raised by wolves, and those who cannot communicate with each other because of linguistic differences, e.g. the mêlée of immigrants in turn-of-the-century Hawaii, will all naturally resort to protolanguage. While other species may be trained to use protolanguage, it only develops spontaneously in man. First appearing in some human forerunner in the recent evolutionary past, it incurred many advantages and rapidly evolved into true language. While Bickerton’s theory of protolanguage is quite a possibility, there are many more in the field of linguistics.
The Glottogonic Theory of Language
Before Bickerton, however, the question of intermediacy, i.e. the steps by which language got to where it is today, seems to have been of less importance. Linguists wondered more exclusively about origin, and more specifically, whether the origin was gestural or vocal. The gestural, or glottogonic, theory of language origin is one that has been popular for a long time. Discussions on it date from long before Darwin’s time. The theory postulates that since the human vocal tract developed rather recently, and hominids have possessed arms and hands for a few million years, it is quite possible human ancestors spontaneously used gesturing to indicate direction and location. This developed into more structured sign language, and subsequently, speech, when humans or their forebears acquired adequate cortical control over the vocal cords. This theory led to some of the research on chimpanzees in the 1960’s. In a paper presented at the “Conference on Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech” sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences in 1975, University of Colorado professor of anthropology Gordon Hewes offers indirect evolutionary evidence for such a theory by citing numerous studies. That “the natural calls or cries of monkeys can be elicited by electric probes, whereas human speech cannot be so stimulated” (1976, 490) seems to indicate that speech is not that deeply ingrained in humans. Hewes also notes that nonhuman primates tend to imitate “by visual observation, various manual manipulations or gestures, both from conspecifics and human mentors” (1976, 490), whereas they tend to ignore other environmental stimuli, e.g. the sounds of birds. The fact that these primates imitate gestures rather than noises may also suggest that gesturing is more ancient and natural. In addition, in hearing people “gesture has not withered away in the face of vocal language” (1976, 494); gesturing, at the least, is instinctive, whereas language needs to be learned. In 1970 in California, a 13-year-old girl under the pseudonym Genie escaped from her father’s imprisonment and was found to be entirely without language, though her physical development was normal (Bickerton, 1990, 115). For Hewes, this proves that speech is not instinctive, whereas people sometimes spontaneously gesture while talking. He also offers an original piece of circumstantial evidence for the glottogonic origin of language. The skin of the palms and hands and the fingernails in all human races is pinkish, as opposed to that of other primates. “This uniquely human feature … arose through natural selection, through a long era of gestural communication, to maximize the efficiency of visual language” (1976, 498). Another supporter of the glottogonic theory, John Lyons, Master of Trinity Hall at Cambridge, notes that deaf children, in the absence of instruction, can develop sign languages that appear quite as rich in grammar and expression as spoken languages (1988, 159). Nevertheless, Bickerton dismisses the entire gestural origin camp because their theory merely complicates without contributing new explanations. The theory cannot answer questions like the origin of grammar; “moreover, it would seem to make predictions (for instance, that spontaneous signing should occur in infants prior to spontaneous vocalization) that are easily falsified” (1990, 142). For Bickerton, that means language could only have developed vocally.
Chomsky’s Universal Grammar
Noam Chomsky, one of the movers and shakers in the field of linguistics of the past century, however, thinks that all this wondering about the evolution of language is non-productive. Crediting natural selection with the emergence of language “amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation … Can [the evolution of language] be addressed today? In fact, little is known about these matters” (qtd. in Pinker, 1995, 355). He is best known for hypothesizing the existence of a Universal Grammar that is common to all the languages of the world, and advancing the idea of language as instinct. This innate “language organ” (Pinker, 1995, 24) allows all normal children below a certain age to acquire any human language by giving them the ability to construct an infinite variety of structured sentences. Pinker claims, perhaps rightfully, that Chomsky could only benefit from those intent on proving the evolution of language through natural selection. However, instead of this Darwinian mechanism, Chomsky believes that language or natural grammar “may well have arisen as a concomitant of structural properties of the brain that developed for other reasons. Suppose that there was a selection for bigger brains” (qtd. in Pinker, 1995, 362). However, a human ancestor that thrived for nearly a million years, Homo erectus, possessed brain sizes comparable to those of modern humans towards the end of that time span (Bickerton, 1990, 162). Moreover, Neanderthals, which some classify as a human subspecies – Homo sapiens neandertalensis, had larger brain sizes than modern humans did (Bickerton, 1990, 162). However, neither of these species developed language, evidenced both by the primitive tool designs that remained unchanging for the duration of their existence, and by the fact that they are now extinct. Although Chomsky does not subscribe to a gradualist evolution of language, or to any specific view at all, Pinker suggests, referring to Universal Grammar, that “grammars of intermediate complexity are easy to imagine; they could have symbols with a narrower range, rules that are less reliably applied, … and so on” (1995, 366). Whereas Bickerton’s protolanguage is plausible because it developed from animal representational systems, many wonder where Universal Grammar could have come from. Pinker makes the point that “although natural selection involves incremental steps … , the enhancements do not have to be to an existing module. They can slowly build … out of some previously nondescript stretch of anatomy” (1995, 349). The intermediate grammars that led to the Chomskyan grammar organ were perhaps the result of rearranging existing neural circuitry. Pinker suggests that this would be another possible theory for the origin and gradual evolution of language.
Jaynes's "Ages" of Language Development
Coming from a completely different academic angle, Julian Jaynes, professor of psychology at Princeton University, has his own theory on language that strict linguists would probably find questionable. In a paper also presented at the conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, Jaynes outlines the series of stages by which language evolved (1976, 315). Incidentally, he subscribes to the gestural theory of language origin – hominids were intentionally gesturing long before they could speak. This signing selected for a larger, more capable brain that did have control over the vocal cords, allowing speech. The “intentionalization of vocalization” (1976, 315) launched a rapid jump into language. Jaynes envisions the emergence of various elements of language in fluid stages after that. In the “age of modifiers,” (1976, 317) humans, by modulating the intensities of natural cries, acquired the ability to express degrees of meaning. The “age of commands” (1976, 317) succeeded that era, wherein intensity was used to distinguish between questions and affirmations. It was only with modifiers and commands that other elements of language could materialize, and Jaynes suggests this order: life nouns, including names for animals; thing nouns, including names for new human inventions like pottery and art; and, as agriculture developed and people settled down, name nouns, or names for other people.
We don't know How Language Truly Evolved, but can we agree on Why?
The theories proposed or implied by Bickerton, Hewes, Chomsky, Pinker and Jaynes are merely possible, necessarily speculative pathways by which language evolved from whatever it might have been in the distant past. An equally crucial question when discussing the origin and evolution of language, the answer to which linguists and other thinkers tend to agree upon more often, is why language evolved.
A Little Bit of Language can be a Dangerous Thing
If language is the result of natural selection, it must have developed in response to new environmental pressures. In the introduction to his view of language origin, Jaynes makes the point that language is not useful in some ecological niches (1976, 312). If chimpanzees were successfully taught language, and returned to their native habitats, speech would attract predators, and hand gestures would put them in vulnerable positions, as their hands are extremely important in climbing and hanging. These gestures might even ruin chimpanzee social organization by interfering with instinctive signaling systems. Bickerton expresses a similar thought about a distant human forerunner, Australopithecus afarensis: “Noise at the wrong time must have been far more deleterious to afarensis than to any ape species” (1990, 143); afarensis was small compared to modern-day humans, and lived in areas where escape up trees was not possible. Language must have offered advantages for a specific species in a specific situation in order to emerge. It had to develop at some interval when some group of humans or pre-humans faced challenging new conditions to which it was not completely adapted. This could have been at any number of times and places after the emergence of bipedalism in primates a few million years ago. A number of them left the trees for the plains of Africa and moved on to the rest of the world. Jaynes believes that language development took place during the successive eras of glaciation within the last million years, but that thought merits further discussion. Nevertheless, most of those theorists who subscribe to gradualistic natural selection as the mode of evolution for language have put forth views similar to the previous, though their thoughts on the advantages that language conferred, the very reasons for its appearance, differ somewhat.
Bickerton: Language Enhances Learning
According to Bickerton, one of the most important benefits of language in humans was the ability to “learn at any time” (1990, 172). While a PRS can only represent data relating to immediate survival, an SRS allows the representation of as much data as an organism desires, and allows it to represent not only data relevant to immediate events but also to envision potential events (1990, 172). Humans can classify and consider almost anything in the world as a result of their SRS. Citing fossil evidence, Bickerton notes that “early hominids had many enemies and competitors and exploited sparse and widely scattered food sources. For them, curiosity about their surroundings may simply have been a matter of life or death” (1990, 153). An SRS, as previously mentioned, gave them some autonomy in deciding what sensual data to process from their environment; full consciousness was far off, but this ability was nevertheless an advantage. As brain size increased and brain structure became more specialized, hominids even gained some cortical control over their vocal cords, whose structure and orientation had also changed as posture became ever the more upright. A structure intended for such things as alarm calls allowed the SRS to adopt a spoken medium – first protolanguage and then language. Increasing intelligence in hominids also improved the ability to reason. Protolanguage or language would have speeded up the thinking process. Bickerton likens a world without words to “a world without money” (1990, 157); thinking would be possible with the SRS, but it would be so slow as to prevent any complex thoughts. “Constructional learning” (1990, 159), i.e. learning without any direct examples to follow, as opposed to “observational learning,” would also have been enhanced by language as an SRS, since it would allow humans to create hypothetical models before carrying out an action.
Why Let Your Hands Do the Talking When You Can Use Your Lips?
Those who support the gestural origin of evolution, including Hewes, have suggested that once primates became bipedal and left their forested environment their arms were free for gesturing. The conditions of their new environment, encompassing plains, valleys, etc., selected for greater intelligence and larger brains. When they grasped the potential in their free hands, they began to explore their world by touch and carry out simple communication by gesture. Positive feedback continued to select for larger, structured brains. Bickerton agrees that tactile exploration “enriched the network of neural connections” (1990, 149), though for him the glottogonic theory was not a possibility. Gesturalists could argue that if hominids had control over their hands long before they did their larynxes, Bickerton’s SRS of protolanguage could just as easily have taken on a gestural component. The advantages offered by mutually perceptible language would have demanded it. However, the gestural theory does not offer too many reasons as to why spoken language should have evolved, except for an opportunistic explanation like the previous. Nevertheless, gestural origin followers tend to agree that hominids finally acquired cortical control of their vocal cords, and thus language, because of changes in their brain size and structure. They were not only able to suppress some of their spontaneous cries but could voluntarily emit sounds. Hominids quickly switched over to verbal communication, which offered a number of additional advantages, including a lower energy requirement than gesturing, a freeing of the hands for other manual tasks, and functionability in the dark (Hewes, 1976, 489). There seem to be more advantages to a vocal emergence of language, but for glottogonic supporters, the fact remains that hominids were capable of using their hands long before they did their voices.
Language as Superweapon in the Biological Arms Race
Pinker promotes the Darwinian evolution of language by way of Chomskyan Universal Grammar. Chomsky found natural selection too simple and too much of a non-answer for the emergence of a grammar organ, and remarked on the inability of present-day science to explain it. Though he finds it difficult to specifically indicate why Universal Grammar developed, Pinker argues that since “evolution often produces spectacular abilities when adversaries get locked into an ‘arms race,’” it is quite possible that this innate device resulted because a “cognitive arms race clearly could propel a linguistic one” (1995, 368). Human ancestors “were not grunting cave men with little more to talk about than which mastodon to avoid.” They were more like contemporary hunter-gatherers, who are “accomplished toolmakers and superb amateur biologists with detailed knowledge of the life cycles, ecology, and behavior of the plants and animals they depend on” (1995, 367). Language would have offered them many advantages in the ability to exchange such useful information on survival. People everywhere today cooperate to survive by living in societies. Pinker asserts that the grammar organ, capable of relating basic information about orientation with such things as tenses, would have been especially advantageous.
Jaynes: Language is Obviously an Advantage
Jaynes gives many reasons, seemingly common-sensical, as to why language might have evolved. Language affects behavior. The ability to name or label things or places allows the “training of attention” (1976, 313); language improves perception. Many animals have the same sense organs that humans do, but humans are able to integrate environmental stimuli into a meaningful whole. The ability to remember, refer to, and recognize things is one of tremendous survival value. Language also allowed for desensitization: “Speaking the noun of a feared thing” (1976, 322) and repeating it could reduce the fear of it by associating it with a familiar medium, language. The innumerable benefits that language brought strengthened the human species and gave this important instinct permanence. There are many more obvious reasons why language would have been advantageous.
Perhaps all of these reasons and all of these theories would be less speculative if linguists and other thinkers had merely ignored the Linguistic Society of Paris’s ban almost a century and a half ago, when Darwinian natural selection was still gaining acceptance in the educated world. Chomsky would have nothing to complain about.
Bickerton, Derek. Language & Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. New York: Crowell, 1874. Introd. H. James Birx. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Fabian, A.C., ed. Origins: The Darwin College Lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Harnad, Steven R., Horst D. Steklis, and Jane Lancaster, eds. Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, vol. 280. New York: New York Academy of Science, 1976.
Hewes, Gordon W. “The Current Status of the Gestural Theory of Language Origin.” Harnad 482 – 504.
Jaynes, Julian. “The Evolution of Language in the Late Pleistocene.” Harnad 312 – 325.
Lyons, John. “Origins of language.” Fabian 141 – 161.
Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995.