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Evolution of Language

In: Philosophy and Psychology

Submitted By jeremyguy5
Words 3620
Pages 15
Research Report for WR227
Jeremy Byrd
Winter Term, 2013

Table of Contents
Introduction 3

The Emergence of Language 3

The Theories of Johann Gottfried Herder 4

Pre-Language 4

Sound and Language 5

Theory of Divine Inspiration 5

Criticism of Herder's Work 6

The Gestural Theory 6

Motor Activity and Language 7

The Mirror Neuron System Theory 7

Theory of Sound Symbolism 8

Synesthesia 8

Discontinuity Theories 9

Summary 9

Works Cited 10


The origin of human language is a mystery which has baffled scholars and scientists for thousands of years. It can only be speculated how language began and evolved; the lack of direct evidence suggesting that it is perhaps a riddle that cannot be solved (Deacon 7). Yet this has not stopped many various theories from emerging over the years, speculations ranging from wild guesses to educated, scientific deductions. According to prominent linguist Eric Heinz Lenneberg, theories surrounding the origin of language are categorized into two main groups: continuity theories and discontinuity theories (Hill 134). Continuity theories hold that language was formed through a long process of evolution. Discontinuity theories are based on the belief that language is too complex to have evolved out of natural systems and is the result of a significant evolutionary jump which took place relatively abruptly. On the side of continuity theories are the works of German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, whose famed Treatise on the Origin of Language covers many 18th century hypotheses on the subject of language origin. Also within the group of continuity theories is the gestural theory, which emphasizes the connection between motor skills–such as gesturing–and language. The theory of sound symbolism explores the scientific evidence supporting synesthesia, or the blending of senses such as hearing and sight, in relation to the origin of language. Discontinuity theories consist mainly of the philosophies of renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, who believes language emerged as a chance mutation and resulted in the human species being anatomically and mentally capable of speech. Together, continuity and discontinuity theories form a majority of the theories on the origin of language.

The Emergence of Language

From an anatomic perspective, humans became capable of speech between 150,000 and 300,000 years ago (Holden, “Origin of Language”). Archeology has revealed that by this point, evolution of the brain had led to remarkable growth in the Broca area in the left frontal cortex and the Wernicke area in the left temporal lobe–greatly impacting hominid speech ability (see Figure 1). Fossils also indicate that throat and mouth anatomy was by this time fully optimized for speech, specifically in the lowering of the larynx, or the voice box, to the top of the trachea, a position which increased the range of frequencies able to be produced by the human voice (Holden, "No Last Word On Language Origins”). Despite this evidence however, there is no indication of speech or language among hominids until 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. It was during this period, a time scientists call the early Upper Paleolithic era, that archeological carvings, tools, and burials indicate the definite presence of communicating hominids (Holden, "No Last Word On Language Origins”). This however would suggest that there was at least a 100,000 year gap between the first appearance of the anatomically modern man and the speaking man, posing a major problem to scientists studying the origins of language; “when” becomes as much debated as “how”.

The Theories of Johann Gottfried Herder

Johann Gottfried Herder was a German philosopher born in 1744. His famed work Treatise on the Origin of Language explores his Enlightenment-era theories on the naturalistic and philosophical side of the language origin.


Pre-language is a theory held many scientists to describe any form of vocalization before the emergence of language. Herder states that as an animal, humans are born with a basic, inherent proto-language, one solely based on the sensation of pain (Herder 65). Assuming a person is anatomically capable of vocalization, Herder believes that the soul expresses pain through sound, an outward phonic representation of feeling which serves, in the most basic sense, as a form of natural language, or pre-language as it will be called in this paper. This pre-language is completely mechanical; an inherent, genetically prescribed response to sensation (Herder 80). It is here that Herder's views defer from the opinions of other philosophers of the day, specifically Jean-Jacques Roussau and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, who believed modern language grew from pre-language through an evolutionary process of learning to associate sound with meaning. Herder however, states that this view is unrealistic, claiming that language is much too complex to have evolved from this low-level pre-language (76). There is then need for a third, middle attribute; one that would join the early hominid's existing pre-language and what is called language today (Herder 81). Herder states that nature has given this attribute to animals, so it cannot be absent from man: bees dance to communicate the location of nectar, birds sing to attract mates, lions roar to demonstrate power (Herder 81). Humans must have a distinctive quality setting them apart from animals; an attribute surpassing pre-language as sufficient basis for the evolution into modern language.

Sound and Language

This middle attribute of man is his “reflection”, an idea coined by Herder referring to the ability of being aware of one's own cognition (87). Just as the bird sings and the lion roars, the invention of language must have come naturally to the human species as unique property bestowed by nature distinguishing man from beast (Herder 82,87). Yet the question remains of exactly how modern language originated. Assuming the pre-historic man did posses inherent “reflective” ability, it would be unrealistic to believe he simply opened his mouth and began talking in a completely meaningful fashion and was understood by his fellow man. Herder credits the ear as being the first and primary teacher of language, the first traces of modern language being the imprints of sounds on the soul. Colors, shapes, and feelings are characteristics inexpressible without a strong concept of language. For instance, shapes are essentially indescribable. It can be said that this round or that is square, yet these words are meaningless in themselves. This true for colors and emotions as well. Sound, however, is a definite and defining characteristic (Herder 98). Herder illustrates this point by giving the example of a sheep. A primitive man with no concept of language besides pre-language may well stare at the sheep, see its color and its shape, and might even take hold of the sheep and feel it–yet all this is inexpressible without first knowing language. But then the sheep bleats! Sound rips away from the inexpressibility of color, shape and feeling and penetrates deeply into the soul. The sheep becomes distinguishable to the man because it makes sound. Its bleating is a resounding word that the man will remember; a new word is added to his unspoken vocabulary. As Herder puts it:

The human being is therefore, as a listening, noting creature, naturally formed for language, and even a blind and dumb man, one sees, would inevitably invent language, if only he is not without feeling and deaf. Put him comfortably and contentedly on a lonely island; nature will reveal itself to him through his ear, a thousand creatures which he cannot see will nonetheless seem to speak with him, and even if his mouth and his eye remained forever closed, his soul does not remain entirely without language (89).

Language was thus formed, according to Herder, coming naturally to humans, growing and evolving as man gained more sound-words in his “inner vocabulary” until thoughts themselves became words, and words became sounds. No longer was man limited to expressing sensations such as pain through harsh pre-language. The sheep became “the bleater”, the wind “the whistler”, and the lion “the roarer” (Herder 99).

Theory of Divine Inspiration

Despite being a Christian theologian, Herder firmly believed in his naturalistic theory of language origin, rejecting any notion that language had been either initiated or given as gift from a divine being. His primary argument lies in the fact that language itself betrays human fallibility. Herder claims that “if an angel or heavenly spirit had invented language, how could it be otherwise than that language’s whole structure would have to be an offprint of this spirit’s manner of thought?” (99). As shown through his previous theories, Herder believes the first vocabulary came from listening to the sounds of nature. The first words reflected the sound emitted by the creature or object, thus nouns came from verbs, and not verbs from nouns. The original name for sheep may not have been “sheep”, but rather “the bleating creature”, and thus an interjection was turned into a verb, which was turned into a noun (Herder 100). Herder states that synonyms also betray human imperfection. Arabic, for example, has over two hundred synonyms for the word “snake” and over a thousand synonyms for “sword”. Herder poses the question of why a powerful divine being would create such unnecessary and inefficient vocabulary. Looking at it from a human perspective however, the matter does seem to explain itself: familiar and available subjects, such as “snake” and “sword”, are going to have many synonyms, while rare and difficult ideas, such as “nature” and “spirit” are going to have fewer words to describe them. As cultures develop and language groups merge, its makes sense that Arabic ended up with a thousand variations of “sword”, and relatively few for “God”. Herder believes a divine being could never be the author of such a language, displaying its weakness through the use of hundreds of synonyms (117). The theory of divine inspiration is definitely one of the less popular theories, and Herder shows that it is possible to remain theist and still give language natural origins.

Criticism of Herder's Work

Criticism of Herder's philosophies comes mostly from the fact that he gives no explanation to the bases of his theories, namely, how man acquired this ability of “reflection”, or self-aware cognition (Sikka 37). In doing so, Herder becomes guilty of the same criticism he gave Jean-Jacques Roussau and Étienne Bonnot de Condilla–“he assumes what he sets out to prove” (Ferber 217). From his work, it would seem that this inherent “reflection” is the actual origin of language. An account of its source is sorely lacking in his treatise, potentially nullifying the rest of Herder's hypotheses. Today, scientists still regard the theory of pre-language as accurate, the main problem with Herder's work being his definition of the “middle” attribute. The gap between pre-language and modern language is acknowledged by all in those accept ing continuity theories however–how this gap was filled remains the principle area of speculation.

The Gestural Theory

Moving away from Herder's naturalistic philosophies, the gestural theory presents a more scientific approach the origin of language. The theory's main concept lies on belief that the first syntax was a byproduct of evolving motor systems (Liebal, Katja, Müller, Pika, 7)–motor being a physiological term referring to any muscular activity, from walking to blinking.

Motor Activity and Language

Researches are becoming increasingly interested in language's dependance on motor areas of the brain. Anthropologist Terrance Deacon states that speech maybe be better understood as a motor activity, as it requires fast and coordinated motor control of the larynx, throat, mouth, and tongue (Holden, “Origin of Language"). Studies show that both speech and gestures are controlled by bordering areas brain, implying the presence of intention and meaning in motor activity, specifically hand gestures. It should also be noted that small infants and primates use gestures as means of communication (Arbib, Liebal, Pika, 1053). This fact suggests that early hominids at least possessed the ability to communicate without having, or being capable of speech. It has been hypothesized that our ancestral hominids may have used a pointing gesture systematically at some stage before ever showing linguistic behavior. Pointing might have initially arisen from aiming and throwing projectiles at prey, and as the motor skills controlling these actions became more refined, they were used to display intention. Actual vocalization would then have eventually followed, most likely beginning as emotional expressions of pain or fear. As these utterances became more developed, the accompanying gestures would have become superficial, and thus dropped (Arbib, Liebal, Pika, 1061). Even today gestures are still an important part of communication, a swirling motion being worth many adjectives when it comes to describing a spiral.

The Mirror Neuron System Theory

In addition to the links made between motor systems and language, new discoveries in the realm of neurobiology are adding to the evidence for the gestural theory of language origin. The mirror neuron system theory was pioneered by neurophysiologists Giacomo Rizzolatti and Michael A. Arbib, who conducted extensive research in 1996, discovering what are called “mirror neurons” in monkey brains (Holden, “Origin of Language”). According to Rizzolatti and Arbib, this new class of neurons was found in the ventral premotor cortex area in the brain of a macaque monkey, the equivalent location of the aforementioned Broca’s area in the human brain (refer to Figure 1). These neurons were called “mirror neurons” because they fired both when the monkey executed a particular manual action, as well when he observed another primate, human or non-human, executed the same action (Liebal, Katja, Müller, Pika, 8) . This was obviously big news for scientists and linguists, who called this mirror neuron system the missing link between movement and speech. It also fits with the motor system theory; research showing that infants learn words through imitation of mouth and facial movement as well as the sound of the word itself (Holden, “Origin of Language”). The mirror neuron theory was further advanced by Arbib, who introduced a multistate hypothesis relating to evolution of language. The hypotheses commences by assuming the early hominid has the ability to make a simple grasping movement. Next, by the mirror neuron system, this simple and natural movement turns into a neurologically complex movement, combining the ability to recognize and repeat the actions of others, giving birth to approximations and thus variants of the original grasping action. As imitation skills are honed and novel ideas surface, the state of proto-sign is reached. According to Arbib, “this involves the breakthrough from employing manual actions for praxis [the application of skill] to making such actions exclusively for communication, extending to the repertoire of manual actions to include pantomime of non-manual actions”. The next state is proto-speech, where the hominid has linked proto-sign with vocalization, and the last step is finally language–the change from an “action-object” structure to a “verb-argument” structure, where speech and intention have reached their full potential (Liebal, Katja, Müller, Pika, 10).

Theory of Sound Symbolism

Related to the gesture theory is the theory of sound symbolism. This modern interpretation of the Ding-Dong Theory holds that language originated out of a natural correlation between objects and the vocal noises which were part of the early man's reaction to them; essentially that the sounds of words inherently reflect their meaning (Robson, “Language's missing link”). One of the major opponents of this theory was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In the early 1900s, De Saussure seemed to have found sufficient proof that words do not inherently reflect their meaning. Taking the french word for ox, bœuf, he compared it to the English translation. Seeing no obvious connection, De Saussure made the assumption that sound symbolism is random and arbitrary, having no place in a serious linguists list of potential hypotheses on language origin (De Saussure, “Arbitrary Social Values and the Linguistic Sign.”). Newer studies however have shown considerable evidence for the argument of sound symbolism through research in the realm synesthesia.


Synesthesia refers to a condition where “people seem to blend sensory experiences, including certain sounds and certain images”. A synesthete might for example link certain colors with certain days of the week, or link certain sounds with certain colors (Ramachandran, Edward, “Synaesthesia–A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language”). According to the research of neuroscientists Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard however, synesthesia is not only a physiological generational condition but is in fact a feature of the human brain, and can be applied in the pursuit of language origin (Robson, “Language's missing link”). In 2001, Ramachandran and Hubbard conducted an important experiment on the effects of synesthesia. Test subjects were presented with two meaningless objects: one spiky and pointed, the other round and curved. The subjects were asked to the label the shapes as either “kiki” or “bouba”, 95% of the people naming the spiky object “kiki”, and the curved one “bouba” (Ramachandran, Edward, “Synaesthesia–A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language”). Ramachandran and Hubbard have given several explanations for this result. First, the shape of the lips as the words are formed seem to reflect the meaning. With the vowels of “bouba”, the lips are more curved and open than in “kiki”. Also, the “b” sounds in “bouba” are “continuants”, which means they are made with continuous air flow, resulting in a much smoother sound, while the “k”s of “kiki” break up the airflow and make the word more jarring (Robson, “Language's missing link”). Bringing all the evidence together, it appears there is basis for the claim that sound symbolism was influenced the origin and evolution of language. Ramachandran and Hubbard believe sound symbolism provides the necessary stepping stone between animal cries and and verbal communication. If the angular sound of “kiki” seemed to fit a sharp, jagged rock, for example, that word might have emerged as the obvious shorthand form. “Sound symbolism helped to get the first words off the ground” (Robson, “Language's missing link”).

Discontinuity Theories

The discontinuity theories of language origin can for the most part be derived from works of famed American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, known as the “Father of Modern Linguistics”. Chomsky holds the view that language is so complex, it could not have possibly evolved through natural selection (Ramachandran, Edward, “Synaesthesia–A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language”). His view is rather that language originated by a chance mutation, or a “great leap forward”, where the “brain was rewired” (Chomsky, 12), making the language possible and natural to the new and improved human.


There are two main groups of theories concerning the origin of language: continuity theories and discontinuity theories. The continuity-theory works of Johann Herder explain how language originated as the result of the evolution of cognitive systems combined with man's need to express his senses, especially hearing. Herder also stresses the impossibility of divine inspiration as a possible solution, stating that proto-language doesn’t betray the divine quality attributed to god(s), but human fallibility in use of synonyms and in structure. The gestural theory explores language as an extension of pre-linguistic communication through motor systems, noting that motor activity is a prominent form of communication in not only primates, but many living creatures. The sound symbolism theory, made popular by neuroscientists Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard, shows the link between words and their meaning. Through the kiki/bouba experiment, they demonstrated that humans have a seemingly inherent tendency to link certain sounds with certain meanings or objects–emphasizing the notion that synesthesia may have had a significant role in the evolution of language. Finally, the discontinuity theories of Noam Chomsky counter many previous philosophies concerning the origin of language. Chomsky states that linguistic ability was not built on progressive evolution, but it was rather acquired through an abrupt and significant mutation occurring sometime during man's evolutionary process.

Works Cited

|Arbib, Michael A., Katja Liebal, and Simone Pika. "Primate Vocalization, Gesture, and the Evolution of Human Language." Current |
|Anthropology 49.6 (2008): 1053-076. Print. |
|Chomsky, Noam. "Three Factors in Language Design." Linguistic Inquiry 36.1 (2005): 1-22. Print. |
|De Saussure, Ferdinand. "Arbitrary Social Values and the Linguistic Sign." Trans. Albert Riedlinger. Course in General Linguistics. Comp. |
|Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Ed. Charles Bally. Chicago: Open Court, 1983. 149-55. New Page 1. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. |
|. |
|Deacon, Terrence William. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Print. |
|Ferber, Ilit. "Herder: On Pain and the Origin of Language." The Germanic Review 85.3 (2010): 205-23. Web. 3 Mar. 2013 |
|Herder, Johann G. "Treatise on the Origin of Language." J. G. Herder : Philosophical Writings. By Michael N. Forster. Port Chester: |
|Cambridge UP, 2002. 65-164. Ebrary. Web. 1 Mar. 201 |
|Hill, Jane H. "Possible Continuity Theories of Language." Language Journal of the Linguistic Society of America 50.1 (1974): 134-50. JSTOR.|
|Web. 25 Feb. 2013. |
|Holden, Constance. "No Last Word On Language Origins. (Cover Story)." Science 282.5393 (1998): 1455. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Feb. |
|2013. |
|Holden, Constance. "The Origin Of Speech." Science 303.5662 (2004): 1316-1319. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Feb. 2013. |
|Liebal, Katja, Cornelia Müller, and Simone Pika. Gestural Communication in Nonhuman and Human Primates. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Pub., 2007.|
|Print. |
|Ramachandran, Vilayanur S., and Edward M. Hubbard. "Synaesthesia—A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language." Journal of Consciousness |
|Studies 8.12 (2001): 3-34. Center for Brain and Cognition, UC San Diego. Web. 4 Mar. 2013. |
| |
|Sikka, Sonia. "Herder's Critique of Pure Reason." The Review of Metaphysics 61.1 (2007): 31-50. JSTOR. Web. 4 Mar. 2013. |

Figure 1: Broca and Wernicke Areas of the Brain 12 Mar 2013

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Philippines, Being One of the Most Friendly Countries Towards Homosexuality According to a Survey “the Global Divide on Homosexuality” Conducted by the Us-Based Pew Research Center Last 2013. Being a Country That Widely

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