February Meet-Up: Origins of Language

Every month we center on a particular theme which we discuss twice a month, once in an open group where anyone and everyone can join, and once in a closed group, which allows for a limited number of participants and is for group members only.  This month’s topic was language, particularly the origins of language.  We focused on what language is, how it differs between humans and other animals and how/why we may a language faculty may have evolved.  So, without further ado:

What is language?

Language is a tought term to pin down.  Essentially, language is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, and a language (like English or Japanese) is any specific example of such a system. When used more generally, it could refer to the cognitive ability (an ability which is related to learning, understanding, thinking about and remembering something) to use systems of complex communication, or to describe the rules that make up these systems (like grammar, for example), or the set of utterances that can be produced (in other words, speech) from those rules. All languages rely on semiosis (a sign process; any form of activity, conduct, or process that involves signs, including the production of meaning) to convey meanings. Linguistics and language often get confused, so as a side note, linguistics is the scientific study of language, rather than the communication system itself.  But linguistics is a discussion for another day.

Are languages restricted to humans only?

To answer this question, let’s talk about some different kinds of language first.  A natural language, also called an ordinary language, is any language which is created naturally (as opposed to a constructed language, which was created deliberately) as the result of our facility (or built-in ability) for language. Any normal human infant is able to learn any natural language without requiring instruction to do so. Both signed and spoken languages are considered natural languages.

Human language is open-ended and productive and based on a dual code, meaning it allows humans to produce infinite speech from finite elements (letters, words, sounds, grammar rules) and to create new words and sentences. Human language is modality-independent, which means it is not dependent on any one type of encoding (such as writing or sound) to be learned or acquired. The symbols and grammatical rules of a language are largely arbitrary, meaning that the system can only be acquired through social interaction. Human language is also unique in being able to refer to abstract concepts (like freedom) and to imagined or hypothetical events (like asking what we would do if we could live forever) as well as events that took place in the past or may happen in the future. It is unique because it has the properties of productivity, recursivity, and displacement.

Productivity, in this sense, means how much or how well we form words and grammatical expressions.  Our ability to produce novel sentences is evidence of our high level of productivity.  We don’t only repeat sentences we have picked up before, we can also produce our own sentences which have never been created before.

Recursion is the process of repeating items in a self-similar way, so when we use the same words over and over to mean the same things, that’s recursion.  Our ability to use the word freedom in more than one situation to mean the same thing is an example of this.

Displacement is the capability of language to communicate about things that are not immediately present spatially or temporally, things that are either not here or are not here now.  So when we talk about things we did yesterday or are going to do tomorrow, or talk about what’s in our house, or abstract ideas, that’s displacement.

How is this different from animal language?

Animal communication can only express a finite number of utterances that are mostly genetically transmitted.  They cannot produce novel sounds or symbols like we can, nor can they communication thoughts or opinions or ideas.  None have been able to learn as many different signs known by an average 4-year-old human (and only some other primates and dolphins have been able to do that much), nor have any acquired the complex grammar of human language. Language also relies entirely on social convention (a socially acceptable way of acting) and learning. Its complex structure allows a much wider range of possible expressions and uses than animal communication.

So where did language come from?

There are many theories about the origins of language, but the prevalent one holds that language started when early hominids’ primate communication gradually changed and they achieved the ability to form a theory of other minds and a shared intentionality. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others as well as understand those states in others. It’s necessary for empathy, which helps us care about each other and work together.  Intentionality is the power of minds to be about something, or to represent things, properties and states of affairs.  So when two people express the same feeling, belief or opinion about something, they are sharing intentionality.

Languages evolve and diversify over time. All languages change as speakers adopt or invent new ways of speaking and pass them on to other members of their speech community (people who all speak the same language, basically). Language change happens at all levels, from the phonological level (the level of sounds, or what we refer to ask accents and pronunciation) to the levels of vocabulary, morphology (the parts of words, including roots or even intonations or stresses), syntax (the formation and organization of words and sentences), and discourse. Language change is often looked down on, at first, by native speakers who often consider call the changes “decay” or “degradation” or a sign of slipping norms of language usage, it is natural and inevitable.

There are different theories about the origin of language depending on the assumptions about what language is. Continuity-based theories are based on the idea that language is so complex that it must have evolved from earlier systems of our pre-human ancestors. The opposite viewpoint, discontinuity-based theories, holds that language is such a unique human trait that it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans so it must therefore have appeared suddenly in our species. Most scholars agree with continuity-based theories but they don’t agree on how exactly it developed. Some see language as being mostly innate, like Steven Pinker, and believe it to be wholly animal cognition, whereas others see language as a socially learned tool of communication and think it developed from animal communication, either primate gestural or vocal communication, but works in conjunction with social learning.

So why do we have language at all?

One view sees our capacity for language as a mental faculty that allows humans to learn a means of communication and to produce and understand it.  Language is universal to all people and we have the neurological capacity to develop it, so it seems that it is this faculty is biologically innate. Proponents of this view often argue that this is supported by the fact that children who can access language in their environment acquire it even without instruction.  This is, as you can see, ties more strongly into the continuity-based theories.

Another view sees language as a formal system of signs governed by grammatical rules of combination to communicate meaning.  This is called the formal symbolic system theory. This view stresses that human languages are arbitrary, even man-made rules and systems that point signs to meanings. It concedes that our capacity for communication is innate, but formal systems of language are not necessarily.  Rather than focus on where language comes from historically, they focus on how rules and systems were made.  This one, on the other hand, ties more strongly into the discontinuity-based theories.

Yet another view sees language as a system of cooperation.  Rather than a natural ability, it sees language as a cultural creation used to enable people to express themselves and manipulate their surroundings.  This argues that while there is a connection between our animal language and our capacity for communication, it did not necessarily have to be language, but language was derived from a drive to cooperate.  This, too, ties more strongly into the discontinuity based theories.

Communicative style is the ways that language is used and understood within a particular culture. Communicative style also becomes a way of displaying and constructing group identity. Some would go so far as to say language is, in this way, divisive: Linguistic differences may be a factor in the divisions between social groups (speaking a language with a particular accent may imply membership of an ethnic or social group or status as a second language speaker). These kinds of differences are not part of the linguistic system, but are an important part of how people use language as a social tool for constructing groups. However, many languages such as Spanish or Japanese also have grammatical conventions that signal the social position of the speaker in relation to others through the use of registers. In many languages, there are stylistic or even grammatical differences between the ways men and women speak, between age groups, or between social classes, just as some languages employ different words depending on who is listening.

How do we learn language?

The learning of one’s own native language, typically that of one’s parents, normally occurs spontaneously in early human childhood and is biologically, socially and ecologically driven. A crucial role of this process is the ability of humans from an early age to engage in speech repetition and so quickly acquire a spoken vocabulary from the pronunciation of words spoken around them.

 Stuff to check out:

Theories of origins of language:


Steve Pinker on Language:


Noam Chomsky on Language:



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