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Language evolution remains mysterious, scholars say

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Posted April 18, 2014

Scholars from a wide array of different disciplines have looked for the origins of the human language. Biologists, archeologists, and mathematical modeling specialists have made contributions to our knowledge of this fascinating topic. However, the world-famous scientists like Noam Chomsky and Richard Lewontin are skeptical about the current scientific knowledge of language evolution.

Picture: Construction of the Tower of Babel, 1563. Author: Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Picture: Construction of the Tower of Babel, 1563. Author: Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In their new article, called “The mystery of language evolution“, they argue that “both scientists and journalists have rushed to premature conclusions based on woefully incomplete or absent evidence.“

The researchers from the USA and the UK claim that the most important biological ability enabling us to use complex languages is the so called discrete infinity. This predisposition allows human to build unbounded number of complex linguistic structures out of various linguistic objects. “These structures are generated by a recursive procedure that mediates the mapping between speech- or sign-based forms and meanings, including semantics of words and sentences and how they are situated and interpreted in discourse,“ the scientists claim.

Chomsky and his colleagues survey various insights coming from comparative studies of animal behavior. Although they admit that these explorations are valuable, authors do not think that they sheds light on the evolution of the human language. For instance, it is reported that the way, in which some animals acquire their communication tools, is similar to that of human infants. Songs of the songbirds are often cited as a relevant example. However, there are at least two important differences.

The first difference is that “song is a highly specialized and finite system, with the underlying neurobiology linked to one sensory channel (acoustic), and the signal itself is linked to a narrow function and hardly changes once acquired“. The second difference is that the possibilities to combine linguistic objects are low and these combinations have no influence on the function of the song. In addition, studies with genetically closer relatives, such as non-human primates, did not provide us with any evidence that they express abilities needed to manage the human language. The position of the reviewers is neatly summarized by their claim that “the gap between us and them is simply too great to provide any understanding of evolutionary precursors or the evolutionary processes (e.g., selection) that led to change over time.“

Emergence of language is not accounted by the available paleontological and archeological studies. The only reliable statement, which can be deducted from the available data, is that this event was relatively recent. Homo Sapiens started to use language after the divergence with Homo neanderthalensis. Paleontological studies are usually targeted to “preserved bony structures associated with the production and reception of articulate speech, and to alleles purportedly associated with language“.

The available fossils and genomic evidence show that Neanderthals possessed anatomical attributes and genetic traits, which are necessary for speech production and understanding. Unfortunately, these traits are not sufficient. For instance, it is known that these hominides possessed one of the genes associated with language. However, one is not enough and they lacked other needed allelles. Moreover, there is no archeological evidence which would let us to indicate that Neanderthals used language. “Homo neanderthalensis failed to leave any unequivocal evidence for the symbolic behavior patterns (including painted and engraved, imagery, the use of musical instruments and symbolic and notational systems) that characterize modern, linguistic, human beings.“

Finally, according to the leading evolutionary model, language capacities evolved because they allowed successful communication. And the successfully communicating individuals were able to overcome the barer of the natural selection. “If communication has played a significant role in the evolution of language, its force should be observable in the process of language transmission,“ say the researchers.  This model predicts that widespread languages are such due to their communicative advantage. However, there is no evidence that more common languages are better suited for communication than the rare ones.

Article: Hauser MD, Yang C, Berwick RC, Tattersall I, Ryan M, Watumull J, Chomsky N and Lewontin R (2014). The mystery of language evolution. Frontiers in Psychology. 5:401. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401, source link.

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