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The 2nd theory of language and Evolution – what made humans speak?

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  • September 27, 2017

In our last blog “What made humans speak their first words – Evolution of human language!” we explained about how our language might have originated as a result of the evolutionary adaptation process. We also spoke about the series of complex communication needs that was felt by early humans and how these needs resulted in transformation of basic calls and gestures to complex ones, eventually giving way to primitive language.

Since none living today have been a part of the evolution, we cannot count on a single theory for language development. This opens the window to other possibilities. Linguist Noam Chomsky and biologist Stephen Jay Gould, thus came up with a different perspective to the origin of human language. As per Chomsky and Gould, language did not result as a direct consequence to evolution. In fact, it was the secondary product or by-product (‘spandrel’ as Gould calls it) which came into being for reasons other than what the evolution was initially meant for. In simpler terms, it arose out of an adaptation (better known as exaptation) that occurred for some other reasons but was later used for developing language.

Language is estimated to evolve around the same time when human brains were growing bigger in size and undergoing structural changes. Size enhancement was a call of nature since it improved our cognitive functions such as making tools and learning rules. A research says that development of Wernicke's area (an area that was formed as the temporal, parietal and occipital lobes of the brain connected physically) was first seen in Homo halibis, a species of primitive humans. This species is believed to create tools for the first time in human evolution history, about 2.3 million years ago. Considering this, few researchers are of the notion that Homo Halibis was one of the more intelligent human species to be born in that era. Origin of language is anticipated to have taken place somewhere close to the time when these intelligent people were learning to make tools. The bigger brains would have been an evolutionary adaptation to capacitate humans with better hunting skills through creation of tools. Since bigger brains supported cognitive skills, language development would have occurred as a spandrel to the adaptation.

Other than the brain getting larger, humans are believed to have undergone many other physical adaptations to enable them to speak. Unlike their ancestors, ape, human teeth changed in shape from slant to straight and became roughly even in height which were essential for correct pronunciation of alphabets such as ‘f’ and ‘v’. Our lips became more flexible to make ‘p’, ‘b’ and ‘m’ sounds. The larynx on our primates was positioned higher in the neck before they learnt to speak. With the evolution of language, the larynx descended in position, an important adaptation in helping humans speak vowels which further gave way to enhanced communication skills.

Though the Chomsky and Gould theory explains the probably reason to why and how language came into being, it fails to explain its complexities. Though formation of words could possibly come as a consequence of already developed neural connections, stringing them together to form sentences with the nuances of grammar cannot be attributed to exaptation alone. Natural selection of the human species certainly had a role to play in this, which again links back to the Darwinian Theory.