Essay on Language Evolution

Submitted By laeloren
Words: 2362
Pages: 10

Evolution of Language
LING 100

In the “struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual or any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to the external nature, will tend to the preservation of the individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.”
- Charles Darwin (1859)

Origins of Language n How did language evolve? n Religions provide various explanations n n


E.g., Garden of Eden, Tower of Babel

1866: Linguistic Society of Paris banned papers concerning origins of language
Chomsky: argues language is innate, but discouraged interest in language evolution

Anthropology and



Writing inadequate as evidence: only
5,000 yrs old
Vocal apparatus does not survive in fossil records
Stone tools survive better than evidence of language

Language Evolved Only Once n If language evolved several times, there would be evidence of separate evolution n n


All existing languages display common properties of grammar, meaning and sound
A child can acquire natively any language, if moved to a different speech community

Language must have evolved before any contemporary human group became geographically separated from the rest of the human race

First Human Separation n Earliest separation was settlement of
Australia by homo sapiens n

At least 40,000 years, to 60,000 years ago n Fully modern language must have developed by this date A Modern Vocal Tract n For a modern spoken language, a modern vocal tract is necessary n Requires human L-shaped vocal tract n n n n

Oral cavity at right angles to pharynx
Larynx low in the neck
All other mammals (including human babies in first few months of life) have a high larynx, allowing the epiglottis to form a self-contained airway from nose to lungs, to enable breathing while swallowing

Adults require a pharynx for both air and food

Infant Vocal Tract

Ape and Human Vocal Tracts

Theories of the Vocal Tract 1 n Liebermann n Neanderthals (became extinct 35,000 yrs ago) n n n Larynx positioned very high in the neck, preventing production of full range of modern vowel sounds
Possible cause of Neanderthal demise
Flaw: argument depends on an interpretation of fossil cranial anatomy generally rejected by anthropologists

Theories of the Vocal Tract 2 n L-shaped tract byproduct of bipedalism n n

Head reoriented in relation to spine and thus a shortening of the base of the skull, squeezing the larynx lower in the neck

When did our ancestors become bipedal? n n Fossil footprints 3.5 million years ago
‘Lucy’ skeleton (australopithecus afarensis)
3 million years ago

Consequence or

Viewpoint 1: lowering of the larynx a result of evolution of language n n

Predominant view, but influenced by ‘brainfirst’ view of human evolution

Viewpoint 2: lowering of the larynx a precursor of language evolution

Brain Structure and Language n Interpretations of ridges and grooves inside fossilized skulls, e.g. Broca’s area n n n n

But identifying hominid correspondences to
Broca’s area controversial
Broca’s area not only module of language use
Broca’s area in monkeys are not associated with their vocalizations, so hominid Broca’s areas may not be linguistic either

Right-handedness and language n Coincidence? Not the best evidence for language in hominids

Culture and Archaeology n Perhaps a sudden jump in the sophistication of human language triggered a sudden jump in sophistication of tools, ornaments, and art n n

Large increase in variety and quality of tools in
Europe and Africa circa 40,000 years ago
Lascaux cave paintings 30,000 years ago n n

But date is too ‘late’ compared to settlement of Australia
Cultural behaviour, such as burial pits, incised bones, and use of red ochre pigment for body decoration occurred thousands of years earlier

Genetic Evidence n n

Organelles in cells called…