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#744 Where and when did language originate?

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Where and when did Language originate? This is an impossible question to answer, but, probably, in and around Africa between 150,000 and 50,000 years ago.

Our ability to communicate is obviously one of the things that sets us apart from animals. Nearly all animals have the ability to make sounds, but their communication is limited to a specific goal, such as getting food or warning of a predator. Their language is not creative and they have no way of adding to their vocabulary. Some animals, such as parrots, can make more sounds and can mimic human speech, but they are not communicating. Even dolphins and whales don’t have complete language in the way that we do. So, where and when did language originate?

It is an impossible question to answer because the only information available are fossils of early people. It is possible to look at those fossils and see the size of the head and various body parts, but it is impossible to know for definite what those different parts did. It is also impossible to know if language appeared suddenly or evolved in stages over a long period of time.

The current main theory is that language evolved in stages and was probably complete by 50,000 years ago. This is shown by the amount of art that existed at that point and the presence of musical instruments. Being able to think symbolically is a great indicator of language because it is a form of communication. There are also many tools that show this symbolic thinking, such as needles for sewing. Neanderthals, who shared almost all of our genes, had no art, musical instrument, or any of these symbolic tools. Approximately 50,000 years ago there was a huge increase in the amount of art and symbolic thinking, indicating that language was firmly entrenched.

The where language originated is probably the easiest question to answer because early humans didn’t start to leave Africa until about 60,000 years ago, so, logically, language probably began there and they carried it around the world. That theory is borne out by the fact that all languages in the world use sounds to represent words and ideas. All people on Earth have the ability to learn any other language. If language had started in more than one place, chances are good that there would be major differences in modern language.

When language started is a much more difficult problem. There are several changes in early humans that began about 100,000 or so years ago. There is an emergence of art and these complex and symbolic tools. Also, around about this time, our larynx and tongue began to change. It is hard to prove this because they are made of cartilage and muscle, so they don’t leave fossils, but the general size and shape can be seen. The mouth became smaller and the larynx became longer. The tongue became more versatile and moved further back into the throat. All of this allowed for the more complex sounds that are vital for language and that animals cannot make. These changes probably happened because fire was discovered and it became possible to cook meat. Cooked meat is softer and we didn’t need such large jaws and muscles to chew our food. However, as a downside, the tongue at the back of the throat made it easier for us to choke. Language was obviously more evolutionarily favorable than not choking.

Another piece of the puzzle is the FOXP2 gene, known as the language gene. It is not known exactly why, but the FOXP2 gene is vital for language. People who have a deficiency in this gene end up unable to pick up language in the same way as people who don’t have the deficiency and they are unable to move their faces and mouths as well, something vital for language. All animals have the FOXP2 gene, which enables them to make sounds and to communicate with each other in the way that they do, but our version of the FOXP2 gene has more amino acids than any other species. Chimpanzees are the next closest to us and we have two more amino acids than they do, which (probably) is the reason why we have complex language and they don’t. Studies have shown that our version of this gene split from the version that apes have between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, which would lead more weight to the theory that language began to evolve about 150,000 years ago.

There is no way of answering this question for definite and there are many arguments for language appearing all at once as one mutation or evolving slowly over time. However it started, it seems fairly conclusive that we had language by at least 50,000 years ago. And this is what I learned today.

Photo by fauxels:


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