Life + Outdoors » Field Notes

Language: 100,000 or 1 Million Years Old?



Seriously! My headline isn't hyperbole — that's what linguists are arguing about. This isn't like the age of the universe, with experts debating whether it's 13.7 or 13.8 billion years old. Same thing, for most of us. This is a serious, tenfold difference of opinion. If you're in the "continuity" camp, you believe that language arose gradually a million or more years ago in Homo erectus ("upright man"), the species of humans that led to Homo neanderthalensis and us, Homo sapiens. The "discontinuity" camp, led by the redoubtable linguist Noam Chomsky, thinks that language came about as a result of a single chance neural mutation in one member of the newly emerged Homo sapiens between 80,000 and 100,000 years ago.

Unlike tools and bones, unwritten language leaves no trace. Everything we can say about its origin has to be inferred from indirect evidence, with many scientific disciplines adding to the picture: linguistics, archaeology, comparative biology, cognitive science, paleoneuroscience, evolutionary theory, genetics and more. The current consensus has swung away from Chomsky, who practically ruled the field of linguistics for decades ("Chomsky: Copernicus of Linguistics," July 30, 2009), and his followers. The proponents of the gradualist camp don't see that a single individual, born with the capacity for language as a result of a mutation, would have had an advantage over his or her non-linguist peers. I'm reminded of the H.G. Wells short story The Country of the Blind, where the only person with sight is an unwelcome aberration.

There was a brief flurry of excitement 20 years ago when a gene, FOXP2, was shown to be critical in the production of language. Was this the hypothesized "language gene" that allowed our ancestors to go from non-speaking to speaking in a few generations as it swept through ancient populations? No. Turns out language is far more complicated than can be explained by a single mutation.

More compelling to most researchers is a scenario in which language — defined as the transmission of information by symbols — arose gradually a million or more years ago. This was a time when Homo erectus, at the time the smartest creature to have ever lived, was fashioning bone and stone tools, taming fire for cooking, creating art and journeying across oceans to the islands of Flores (Indonesia) and Socotra (off the Horn of Africa). That is, they possessed culture, the precursor of language. According to linguistic anthropologist Dan Everett ("Language: Innate or Invented?" Sept. 29, 2016), "Culture transforms 'things' into symbols and meaning. If erectus had symbols, it had language."

While researchers are slowly coming to a consensus about the who (Homo erectus), when (1-2 million years ago) and where (Africa) of language, that leaves the how and what unanswered. Theories for how language came about abound, with primate communication — grunts, yells and gestures becoming increasing complex — frequently cited. What language consisted of back then is also disputed. While the Chomsky camp maintains that grammar is essential for language, the gradualist school says that you don't need grammar to communicate. Taking Everett's examples, everyone knows what the grammar-less sign "No shirt, no shoes, no service" means, while the movie title "Eat Drink Man Woman" practically gives the whole plot away. And these days, a few simple emoji symbols can communicate whole realms of meaning sans grammar.

The debate over how "human's greatest invention" came about is far from over, but increasingly it seems that we and our Neanderthal cousins were born into a world already rich with language.

Barry Evans (he/him, is amazed at how easy it is to miscommunicate, even with language.

Add a comment