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  • In the 1980s, a bonobo named Kanzi

  • learned to communicate with humans to an unprecedented extent

  • not through speech or gestures,

  • but using a keyboard of abstract symbols representing objects and actions.

  • By pointing to several of these in order, he created sequences to make requests,

  • answer verbal questions from human researchers,

  • and refer to objects that weren't physically present.

  • Kanzi's exploits ignited immediate controversy over one question:

  • had Kanzi learned language?

  • What we call language is something more specific than communication.

  • Language is about sharing what's in our minds:

  • stories, opinions, questions, the past or future,

  • imagined times or places, ideas.

  • It is fundamentally open-ended,

  • and can be used to say an unlimited number of things.

  • Many researchers are convinced that only humans have language,

  • that the calls and gestures other species use to communicate are not language.

  • Each of these calls and gestures generally corresponds to a specific message,

  • for a limited total number of messages

  • that aren't combined into more complex ideas.

  • For example, a monkey species might have a specific warning call

  • that corresponds to a particular predator, like a snake

  • but with language, there are countless ways to saywatch out for the snake.”

  • So far no animal communication seems to have the open-endedness

  • of human language.

  • We don't know for sure what's going on in animals' heads,

  • and it's possible this definition of language,

  • or our ways of measuring it, don't apply to them.

  • But as far as we know, only humans have language.

  • And while humans speak around 7,000 distinct languages,

  • any child can learn any language,

  • indicating that the biological machinery underlying language

  • is common to all of us.

  • So what does language mean for humanity?

  • What does it allow us to do, and how did we come to have it?

  • Exactly when we acquired this capacity is still an open question.

  • Chimps and bonobos are our closest living relatives,

  • but the lineage leading to humans split from the other great apes

  • more than four million years ago.

  • In between, there were many speciesall of them now extinct,

  • which makes it very difficult to know if they had language or anything like it.

  • Great apes give one potential clue to the origins of language, though:

  • it may have started as gesture rather than speech.

  • Great apes gesture to each other in the wild much more freely

  • than they vocalize.

  • Language may have begun to take shape during the Pleistocene,

  • 2 to 3 million years ago, with the emergence of the genus Homo

  • that eventually gave rise to our own species, homo sapiens.

  • Brain size tripled, and bipedalism freed the hands for communication.

  • There may have been a transition from gestural communication

  • to gestural language

  • from pointing to objects and pantomiming actions

  • to more efficient, abstract signing.

  • The abstraction of gestural communication would have removed the need for visuals,

  • setting the stage for a transition to spoken language.

  • That transition would have likely come later, though.

  • Articulate speech depends on a vocal tract of a particular shape.

  • Even our closest ancestors, the Neanderthals and Denisovans,

  • had vocal tracts that were not optimal,

  • though they likely had some vocal capacity,

  • and possibly even language.

  • Only in humans is the vocal tract optimal.

  • Spoken words free the hands for activities such as tool use and transport.

  • So it may have been the emergence of speech,

  • not of language itself, that led to the dominance of our species.

  • Language is so intimately tied to complex thought, perception, and motor functions

  • that it's difficult to untangle its biological origins.

  • Some of the biggest mysteries remain:

  • to what extent did language as a capacity shape humanity,

  • and to what extent did humanity shape language?

  • What came first, the vast number of possible scenarios we can envisage,

  • or our ability to share them?

In the 1980s, a bonobo named Kanzi

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B1 US TED-Ed language communication vocal speech extent

Evolution's great mystery- Michael Corballis

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    Mahiro Kitauchi posted on 2020/08/26
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