The Evolution and Power of Language

Even today, modern language is continually expanding. With the development of new technologies, fields of study, and industrial processes, new words are being added to lexicons to enable us to incorporate these advances into society and communicate their applications in a universally understood manner. Words may be borrowed from other languages, existing words may assume supplementary definitions, words may be combined to represent new symbols, acronyms may be developed comprised of contemporary words, or entirely new combinations of the fundamental phonetic components of a language may be created to develop new words.

Culture also contributes to expansion of language. New words and alternative definitions can be created by trending culture, and culture can even modify the rules of syntax when popular “catchy” phrases take root in commonplace vernacular, especially if that phrase originates from popular music, movies, or art. If a person several decades from the past were to jump into a time machine and arrive in the present, certain words and phrases which have been adapted by modern society would not be recognizable outside of their literal meaning if that person did not understand the context of the reference.

This continuing evolution of modern, standard language raises questions about the origins of language and how language has impacted hominids as a species. To examine the inception of language in early man, it would be appropriate to revisit arguments from last week’s blog post. Biological evolution of species is a process which enables a species to adapt to its environment. Simply stated, nature created a mysterious mechanism is all species to allow for genetic intervention to develop biological tools which afford a species a greater chance for survival.

An attribute afforded to early hominids which made them distinct from all other species was the ability to create artefacts. This unique trait combined with the innate instinct of hominids to congregate in social orders created a need to communicate so that technology could be passed along and built upon by others in the social order and to subsequent generations. In early environments in which humans were physically at a disadvantage to larger, quicker, and more powerful prey, the ability to communicate technology and collaborate on collective hunting and foraging activities created a survival necessity to communicate complex task. Therefore, the development of a language faculty was a result of evolutionary intervention.

The development of spoken language likely did not transpire over a few generations. This likely took thousands of years as the language faculty and physical anatomy of early hominids continued to develop to accommodate the necessity to communicate escalating sophistication in technology and increasing complexity in social orders.

In his book “Linguistics: An Introduction,” Andrew Radford described the development of language in children. Children generally produce their first recognizable word around their first birthday. From then until the age of about one and a half years, children’s speech consists largely of single words spoken in isolation, at which point they begin to form elementary phrases and sentences. From then on, children experience rapid growth in grammatical development, so that by the age of two and a half years most children are able to produce adult-like sentences.

Early hominids likely experienced the same progression of speech over thousands of years. What began as grunts transformed to phonetic sounds as cognitive and anatomical capabilities in the species progressed. Phonetics and phonology matured into the morphology, which enabled hominids to develop words to symbolize and distinguish objects. This was the foundation of the first lexicons. As technology and social dynamics became increasingly sophisticated, morphology matured into syntax which enabled early hominids to construct simple phrases and sentences, allowing them to issue instructions in collaborative activities and communicate threats.

Nurtured by thousands of years of cognitive and biological development, the analogous congregation of early humans in homogenous social and cultural sects made possible the development of a commonality of expression which incorporated nouns to represent objects, people, and animals; verbs to symbolize actions; and interfaces such as conjunctions, prepositions, articles, modifiers and reflexives. These content and functional words assembled with syntax provided the building blocks of language. Much later, written language enabled humans to record information on physical mediums. Written language likely contributed immensely to the pragmatic standardization of language, providing rules of sentence structure and standard speech.

A question which many scientists have pondered over is why so many languages exist. As early populations grew, groups of hominids migrated away from each other from Africa to Asia and Europe, likely in search of scarce or competing resources. These early hominids did not have developed languages. Therefore, languages among different groups of hominids developed independently of one another. The assumption that all early groups of hominids developed language, reasoning that all humans today utilize language, I think would be an error. It is just as probable to assume that those early groups which did not develop language did not survive, or maybe that some which did not were later absorbed into cultures which did.

Evolution provided early hominids the essential aptitude of language faculty to survive, but conversely, did language further develop the human mind, enabling hominids the ability to explore new frontiers of cognitive thought? Another question is whether this expansion of the mind and cognitive thought contributed to the explosive growth in the development of the human brain? Being that the human brain has developed considerably more than that of any other species over the past hundred thousand years, and language is the most discernable distinction between humans and other species, it is difficult to dismiss the causal relationship between the development of early language and the development of the early brain.

Regardless of whether language developed the human brain, or whether language is simply the product of a developed brain, language has provided humans a vehicle to generate infinite series of expressions and ideas from a finite means. It allows humans to share and expand knowledge, explore cognitive curiosity, build upon technology, and innovate. Language is arguable the most powerful gift afforded to any species in existence.