social sciences

Evolution of language: why did humans start talking to each other?

200,000 years ago when the Homo Erectus disappeared and the Homo Sapiens was the newest species in the Hominids line, language wasn’t the same as it is today. There have been theories that development of language is linked with genetic changes. Although it is sometimes claimed that evolution takes millions of years, this usually isn’t the case. An example of short-term evolution is lactose digestion in humans of adult age in Europe. These same Europeans were likely to be lactose intolerant before they actively started to domesticate animals for milk production (Beja-Pereira, et al. 2003). Breeding for the purpose of attaining cow milk started about 8,000 years ago and in that short period of time genes linked to lactose digestion has increased in the European population.

Language, as it exists today,  is most likely a product of years of evolution. At least, this is what Pinker (2003) theorizes, he postulates that language is an adaptation for socially interdependent lifestyles. He points out that the use of language is a universal phenomenon across all societies. And children go through universal stages of learning a language. And in communities without a common language or deaf communities, language or sign language will spontaneously emerge (e.g. lingua franca or creole languages). He makes an interesting point that language can be used to share information with others and that expertise makes it possible for us to live in a wide range of habitats.

Social world
Dunbar (2003) discusses language being a tool to create bonds among people in larger groups. Thus language wasn’t a device to convey information about the physical world, but the social world instead. He argues that the evolution of language might have been a long process, which started off with primates making contact calls to other group members. And after this process, the environment pushed humans to adapt by being part of large social groups. In which, of course, the exchange of social information becomes of importance. Before language, the only way to connect to others is to physically groom each person individually, which is very time-consuming behavior, if done in large groups. However, with the use of language, it’s easier to talk to several others at once.
Aside from language, singing is also an important tool in large groups. The author points out that for singing language isn’t necessarily needed. The act of communal synchronized vocalizations is enough to stimulate endogenous opioids (e.g. endorphins, which creates feelings of happiness). This will make humans feel more positive toward their singing companions, and is therefore beneficial is social contact in large groups.

Archaeological evidence
Another important aspect of the emergence of language among the hominids is the ability to talk. Several organs are needed to do so, including the brain, the throat, hyoid, hypoglossal canal, and the spinal cord. And looking at behaviors and acts carried out by these hominids – hunting, creating tools, burials, migration, art – one could argue that symbols were needed to engage in these (Davidson, 2003).

Biological evidence
Up until now we are convinced that the Australopithecines had no language, so it must have emerged somewhere along the hominid line. In terms of the beginning of language, ideas exist that it didn’t start off with words, but with holophrases. It has been proposed that the emergence of syntax in language started about 90,000 years ago. Furthermore, mirror neurons have been deemed important for learning a language. Neurons are nerve cells that fire, for instance, when someone performs a behavior. However, it has been found that these same neurons also fire when we see someone perform that behavior. So this is also the case when we see someone pronounce a word. And in terms of genetics, while the FOXP2 gene was promptly dubbed the gene for language, it is not entirely clear which specific function it serves (Bickerton, 2007).

Beja-Pereira, A., Luikart, G., England, P. R., Bradley, D. G., Jann, O. C., Bertorelle, G., … & Erhardt, G. (2003). Gene-culture coevolution between cattle milk protein genes and human lactase genes. Nature genetics, 35(4), 311-313.
Bickerton, D. (2007). Language evolution: A brief guide for linguists. Lingua, 117(3), 510-526.
Davidson, I. (2003) The archaeological evidence of language origins: States of art. In Language Evolution (Christiansen, M.H. and Kirby, S., eds) Oxford University Press
Dunbar, R. (
2003) The origin and subsequent evolution of language. In Language Evolution (Christiansen, M.H. and Kirby, S., eds) Oxford University Press
Pinker, S. (2003) Language as an adaptation to the cognitive niche. In Language Evolution (Christiansen, M.H. and Kirby, S., eds) Oxford University Press
Source image.