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  • How did language begin?

  • If we want to know when humans started making fire, or cultivating plants, or domesticating

  • animals we can look for the things they left behind when doing those things.

  • But what if we want to know how language began?

  • Language disappears on the air as soon as it is produced.

  • It doesn't get left behind.

  • We will never dig up the first word, or discover a fossilized sentence.

  • That hasn't stopped people from speculating about how that first word came about.

  • For centuries, people have put forth theories on it.

  • There's the bow-wow theory, that language started from imitation of sounds that things

  • make.

  • There's the Pooh-Pooh theory, that it came from automatic vocal responses to fear, pain,

  • surprise or other emotions.

  • There's the Yo-He-Ho theory, that it came from rhythmic grunts or chants used to coordinate

  • actions when working on big projects together.

  • There's the La-La theory, that it emerged from the sounds of inspired playfulness, poetic

  • sensibility and song.

  • This one is lovely, but no more likely than any of the others.

  • By the late 19th century so much fruitless speculation about the origin of language was

  • going around that the Paris Linguistic Society banned all discussion of the topic in its

  • bylaws.

  • It was fed up scholars who gave the theories those silly nicknames.

  • But even though language itself doesn't leave a trace we can tell from fossils when we had

  • the brains and other physical parts that make speech possible.

  • For instance, we can tell when the voice box moved into its current position.

  • Chimps, our closest relatives, have their voice boxes in a different place, so they

  • can't produce the sounds we can, but they also can't choke on food.

  • We have speech, but we can choke.

  • Evolutionarily speaking, it must have been really worth it to have the lower voice box.

  • So the physical pieces were were falling into place 100,000 years ago, when we became homo

  • sapiens.

  • Did we have language then?

  • Maybe.

  • Maybe we first needed to develop better memory, or more complex social structures, or other

  • abilities.

  • By the time we were building things that required a lot of coordination, language was probably

  • happening.

  • If we had the ability to think symbolically enough to make cave paintings, language was

  • probably happening.

  • Maybe it was first a sort of rudimentary toddler-like language.

  • Maybe it started with gestures.

  • Yes, that's a lot of maybes.

  • Which should give you some sense of how much people still disagree about this.

  • Humans are the only beings that have language, but we are not the only ones that communicate.

  • Why didn't it develop in other species?

  • Some people think there was a genetic mutation that created an innate language ability.

  • Others think you don't need to assume a sudden mutation, but the right accumulation of other

  • skills -- good working memory, fine motor control, skill for pattern recognition and

  • imitation, the ability to imagine other people's minds and make assumptions about what they

  • understand, an impulse toward social cooperation, a long period where the young stay with adults

  • as their brains are still developing, -- some animals have some of these things, but humans

  • have all of them, and maybe, if you have all those things together at a certain level,

  • you get language for free on top of that.

  • So how did language begin?

  • We don't know, but some time between, oh, 100,000 and 10,000 years ago we started to

  • share our thoughts with each other in words and sentences.

  • Then we immediately started using it to criticize teenagers for how they were ruining our language.

  • That's what I think anyway.

  • I'm calling it the tsk-tsk theory.

How did language begin?

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B1 US language theory pooh mutation imitation choke

How Did Language Begin

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