Jukebox keys that are letters of the alphabet

Do you know when humans first developed language?

Somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 years ago, our ancestors likely first began communicating ideas through sounds in a more structured way than other species on the planet ever had before.

That’s the beginning of what we now call language, and on an evolutionary scale, it’s remarkably recent (for context, the earliest writing was some 6,000 years ago and we split from the Neanderthals some 700,000 years ago.)

In ‘The First Word,’ a 2008 book by Christine Kenneally, the research into the origins of language are unveiled. I read it earlier this year. Critics liked it when it first came out, and I enjoyed it myself. I read it for two reasons: both as part of my on-going resolution to reading books by women and people of color and to help kickoff a deep dive I’ve been doing into linguistics.

A few weeks ago I decided I just didn’t understand enough of how language developed — or how we’d figure it out. This book was an excellent foundation for me, and I was surprised (and thrilled) by how much evolutionary biology is involved in pinpointing the origins of language. For example, if chimps can do certain language-like things (like gesture, the beginning of language), then humans likely got that from our last common ancestor some four million years ago.

I was so taken by the book and many of the concepts, that I shared some notes below. Consider reading the book yourself, and use this as a jumping off point.

I’m sharing the notes I took from reading the book.

  • In 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned research into the history of language, considering it a waste of time (as it would have no records or, at that point, scientific means to discover anything).
  • Discrete infinity” is a defining characteristic of language described by Noam Chomsky, the legendary and category-defining linguistics professor. This recursive concept describes how language is the infinite use of finite means. (p. 33)
  • In 2002, Chomsky published a landmark paper on Nature and Language that further helped the explosion of new research into the language origin.
  • One of the defining linguistics questions of today: is language a byproduct of big brains (ie. a “spandrel“), or is language an evolutionary result, that natural selection brought us communication? (p. 55) A related question is whether language would have started as internal dialogue or for external communication?
  • All language has always been complicated and we know of no complex society without language. It is not just a defining characteristic but perhaps a necessary step.
  • In evolutionary biology, there are Homologous Traits (which come from the same ancestor, like human arms and bat wings) and Analogous Traits (which is a similar solution but different ancestor like bat wings and butterfly wings). (p. 89)
  • …I can’t read my note but apparently there was a chimp joke on page 90.
  • Our ability to communicate with dogs shows an example of a pre-language ability to put sound and reference together (118)
  • Chimps can sign to humans. But not listen to each other if they can both sign well (129). So the ability to process internal thoughts predate some communication (with listening) and explains why the concept of physically pointing to show another member of your species something is complex.
  • Among Chomsky’s defining points from early in his career (1950s and 1960s) was separating out intonation and gesture and syntax and meaning, the components of language. He’s always been known for considering syntax in-born to humans.
  • Gesture is the scaffolding for language that many near species to us can do (133)
  • Home sign is when deaf or hearing-challenged children aren’t taught modern sign language and develop their own form. It mirrors many syntax concepts all language has. (135)
  • Zipf’s Law, dates from the 1930s, notes that all human language has a gradient of sound usage but random sound does not (Read this). That’s how we know babies are just making random babble noises, rather than some in-born language. This “entropy level” is how linguists think they’ll be able to determine the complexity of alien messages someday. (143)
  • This is just my reminder that transitive verbs have an object (she kicked it) and intransitive don’t (she slept). (163)
  • Linguists say all communication is defined as iconic, indexical and symbolic. Only humans do the third — though this book shows how often we’ve gotten wrong assuming something was only done by humans (like use tools or collaborate on projects). For now though, we still say only humans say no or have concepts of consent, rather than physical bouts. (168)
  • Pythagoras said music is like math but really music is like language which are both like us, and yes math tells what works in life (172)
  • EQ is a way to show the proportional size of a species brain to body, which does show some prediction of cognitive ability. (185)
  • An average human might know 60,000 words (187) By the way, linguists often describe this by saying we have 20,000 words we use independently and another 40,000 we know passively (meaning, we understand but might not use).
  • Another on-going linguistics question: what minimum do we need to have language-ready brains? (189)
  • A genome is not a blueprint, as the common metaphor goes, because your environment impacts what potentials are turned on or off. That’s one way evolution happened with the movement of people across the world. (197)
  • Remember that Neanderthals spent 200,000 years in Europe, but our species left Africa just 60,000 years ago. So who will actually last longer? (212)
  • Here’s the main divide in linguistics this book takes on: some think 50,000 years ago, we hand a major mutation that led to culture and language, as it exploded around that time. The gradualism view suggests language is on an evolutionary continuum more akin to the complex development of the eye. (216)
  • Language and culture builds on itself to pass on ideas and allow to more quickly move on to others. That tool allowed humans to collaborative more effectively and thrive. (228)
  • There’s a concept of “language as virus,” an organism that evolves to survive by adapting the human brain. (235)
  • In various experiments, robots create grammar and syntax over time, arguing it’s an emergent adaptive system not a human gene. (241)
  • Baldwinian Evolution, or the Baldwin Effect, is an evolutionary biology concept that learned behavior shapes natural selection. It’s an interplay of culture and biology, like the development of music and its similarity to birdsongs. (250)
  • There is evidence that protolanguage developed first, and then human brains got bigger. (252)
  • “Evolution is the opposite of destiny.” The meaning comes later. All is random.
  • Did language evolve slowly or explode? Chomsky argues Language was in Inner speech before communication (269)
    A classic Chomsky academic question: “is language useless but perfect or useful and imperfect?” (272)
  • The appearance of design does not necessitate a designer, Darwin notes, in opposition to the old Watchmaker’s analogy. (275)
  • With what we know now, is allowing language extinction moral? (288)

I was clearly captivated by the book. Consider reading it yourself.

Photo at the top by Diomari Madulara of jukebox keys in the Phillipines via Unsplash.