The Evolution of Language

Humans have learned a lot about our growth as a species through the study of apes and ape culture, and now the latest scientific evidence suggests that language originated with our hands.

Scientist are now focusing on how we convey information and io9 evolution writes that how we make the sounds of language – which of course primarily happens in our voice boxes – is less important than how we convey meanings.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute purport that the gesture theory of language evolution suggests that the complex spoken languages we use today originate from relatively simple ideas our ancestors conveyed with their hands.

Their research found that all four of these species (of apes) develop a complex system of hand-waving and gestures in the first twenty months of life. These range from simply poking other apes to get their attention to slightly more abstract gestures like shaking their heads or extending their arms outward.

The fact that their young can and do pick these up shows that it is a way for them to convey meaningful information.

Researcher Michael Collins notes, “In monkeys, intentional arm movements are dedicated mainly to grasping. Communicative gestures probably emerged in apes, and began to assume grammatical forms in hominins.”

Another important fact to consider is that human babies learn the same basic gestures across cultures regardless of where they are raised.  Apes, however,  did not show common meanings for gestures across or within species.  The only commonality was that they used hand gestures in sophisticated ways from a young age.

2 responses to “The Evolution of Language”

  1. PeterKinnon says:

    I am afraid I find article this rather silly. While all observations are useful for our understanding of mature there is nothing original or at all unexpected in these findings.
    T
    Moreover, the remark “Communicative gestures probably emerged in apes, and began to assume grammatical forms in hominins” is essentially nonsense.

    The fact the article is is considered at all news-worthy stems from the all too common confusion of language with communication. The communication channels available to organisms are many and varied.

    They can use light, through vision. Hand signals are but one variant of this category .Other bodily movements are also used. I believe some marine organisms are able to use the optical channel by glowing. Then there is the waggle-dance of the bee! Even in our own species hand movement communication is still ubiquitous in terms of the pen, mouse or keyboard.

    Chemical channels: Dogs, for instance communicate information odorously in this way, and pheromones are widely employed throughout the animal kingdom.

    Sound happens to be a particularly useful mode for larger creatures as it is not limited to line-of-sight , not as dispersible as molecular species and has good range. it is has far greater bandwidth than the chemical mode, and has the potential for generation and modulation at a wide range of frequencies by mechanical means that are within the capability of biological systems. Even so a “voice box” is not a prerequisite for this channel. The cicada is one of the many insects that, lacking lungs, pre-empted the use of the acoustic channel by non-vocal devices.

    Language is not mere communication.
    Language is best defined as the transfer of imagination.

    The cicada has very little imagination and its transfer requirement is correspondingly low.

    The imagination of a dog or an ape is much higher, as is its transfer capabilities.

    The imagination (often described by the vague term “intelligence”) of our own species, of course, exceeds that of other creature beyond all comparison. It is reflected not only in the great variety of artifacts and technologies to which it has given rise but also in the prodigious extent to which it provides the export, transfer and storage of imagination which language represents.

    It is very wrong to think of our highly developed “voice-box” as a precursor to language.
    Rather it is a communication channel which has synergistically co-evolved with hearing systems and imagination together with its transfer aspect, language.

    While the acoustic and visual channels are those most commonly used by humankind for transfer of imagination, they are by no means essential.
    Anybody who doubts this should check out the case of Helen Keller.

    Such considerations form part of the very broad evolutionary model encompassed by my books “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” and “Unusual Perspectives” Both are available as free downloads in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

  2. Peter – Thank you for your detailed interpretation of the article and its findings. We always appreciate feedback and comments. While language is more complex then communication as you so wisely pointed out it is not exactly just the transfer of imagination (intelligence) as even in the explanation or depiction through videos, paintings, sculptures etc. ) we are not always able to transfer exactly what is in our imaginations into our empirical world.

    You state, “…stems from the all too common confusion of language with communication. The communication channels available to organisms are many and varied. ” and then later report, “It is very wrong to think of our highly developed “voice-box” as a precursor to language. Rather it is a communication channel which has synergistically co-evolved with hearing systems and imagination together with its transfer aspect, language.”

    The article does state “that how we make the sounds of language – which of course primarily happens in our voice boxes – is less important than how we convey meanings.”

    I believe this is what you are suggesting to a point. What the article is saying is that how we communicate via language as well as other channels can affect receivers more so than the actual words/sounds spoken. Suggesting that how we communicate as being of great importance rather than what we are communicating probably began with our primate (apes/monkey) ancestors.

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