Language and Linguistics







Origins of Language

MYA = million years ago
KYA = thousand years ago

  • Ancestral roots of human language in animal sounds: grunts, barks, whines

  • The language capacity is a product of natural selection, a successful adaptation taking place over the course of human evolution and providing its users with the survival advantages of communication and enhanced group cooperation (Lieberman)

  • 8 - 6 MYA: ancestors of humans split from chimpanzees; the vocal tract of chimpanzees is incapable of the articulation of the full range of sounds used by modern humans; e.g. chimp cannot raise its tongue toward the roof of its mouth to articulate vowel sounds like [u] ("oo") and [i] ("ee") or cut off passage of air and make consonant sounds like [k] (Savage-Rumbaugh); but apes capable of learning sign language

  • 4 - 3.5 MYA: Australopithecus genus, apelike vocal tract, could not speak, communicated by gestures and grunts (Ehrlich). Brain growth in Australophitecus related to consumption of meat, also caused difficulties giving birth (due to large size of head of offspring and pelvis changes connected to bipedalism)

  • 2.5 MYA - 300 KYA: Homo genus, continued brain growth related to changes in diet (meat eating), brain pressing down on roof of the mouth and other organs of the vocal tract, eventually leading to longer pharynx and lower-positioned larynx necessary for the production of modern human speech sounds (Tattersall); Homo erectus developed physical organs and mental capacity to produce a rough form of speech but did not yet have language

  • 300,000 years ago: early Neanderthals still could not pronounce [i] "ee," [u] "oo," or [a] "ah" ( the first vowel in "father")

  • 300,000 to 200,000 years ago: origins of Homo sapiens; vocal tract capable of articulation of the full-range of sounds of human language; dietary diversification, including fish, shellfish and other marine food sources; brain lateralization and formation of language-capable brain structures

  • 100,000-70,000 years ago: birth of symbolic language and symbolic thought as we know them; evidence from archaeological sites like Blombos Cave in South Africa (Henschilwood). Shell jewelry and ochre processing tools in Blombos cave indicate a self-consciousness in Homo sapiens consistent with the use of language.

  • Likely origin of all human languages in a single language (Proto-World), first spoken in Africa around 100,000-70,000 years ago.

  • Homo sapiens migrations led initially to dialectal variations and eventually to whole new languages, as a result of language use in new situations and environments and lack of communication/contact with other groups. All ancient and modern languages however grew out of Proto-World and are therefore related, no matter how different they may seem from one another.

  • 50,000-40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens reaches Europe (Cro-Magnon culture); language-empowered modern humans gradually displaced (but also interbred with) Neanderthals. It's possible Neanderthals may have had some language abilities but likely not as sophisticated as those of Homo sapiens

  • 40,000 years ago, earliest cave paintings and sculpture, clear evidence of symbolic thought and sophisticated language use

  • 40,000- 30,000 years ago: Neanderthals extinct

  • 12,000 - 10,000 years ago, end of the Ice Age, development of agriculture and animal herding

  • 5,300 years ago (3,300 BC), Sumerians develop writing in Mesopotamia, end of the Stone Age and Prehistory, beginnings of civilization and historical time

References & Links:

  • Christopher S. Henschilwood et al., "A 100,000 Year-Old Ochre-Processing Worshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa," Science 334 (2011): 219-222.
  • Ian Tattersal, The Monkey in the Mirror (2002)
  • Ian Tattersal, "How We Came to be Human," Scientific American, December 2001, pp. 56-63.
  • Paul Ehrlich (Stanford University), Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect (2000)
  • Philip Lieberman (Brown University), Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution (1998)
  • Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (Wayne State University Research Bibliography)


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Last updated: August 27, 2018 0:50


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