Lan­guage enables us to inter­act with each oth­er through symbols

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Lan­guage is a recent attribute in hominid evolution

Humans are unique because they can cre­ate new sym­bols and agree on their mean­ing. For exam­ple, these sym­bols can describe objects – like riv­er”, meat” and hye­na” and emo­tions – like kind­ness”, despair” and love”.

We also use these sym­bols in dif­fer­ent sequences, through an agreed sys­tem called gram­mar, to deliv­er dif­fer­ent mean­ings and sub­tleties, some of which are abstract and aren’t asso­ci­at­ed with objects.

Lan­guage is a rel­a­tive­ly recent attribute in hominid evo­lu­tion. Although some ani­mals per­haps com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er through ges­tures or sounds, these are not usu­al­ly arranged in com­plex sequences, and can only deal with imme­di­ate events.

Say what?

There are at least two cen­tral ele­ments to human lan­guage: the phys­i­cal devel­op­ment of the vocal tract, and the men­tal abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate using sym­bols. The com­bi­na­tion of these ele­ments is unique to humans. Attempts to teach apes to talk have been unsuc­cess­ful because apes’ throats are anatom­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent and they sim­ply can­not pro­duce our range of sounds. Research has also shown that chim­panzees, for exam­ple, may hear dif­fer­ent­ly to humans, which could inhib­it their abil­i­ty to repro­duce sounds.

How did we come to talk?

Some researchers argue that although hominids could have devel­oped a vocab­u­lary, the leap to com­plex lan­guage was a sud­den one – per­haps linked to muta­tions in the brain.

A muta­tion of the FOXP2 gene, esti­mat­ed at about 200,000 years ago, con­tributed to changes in the capac­i­ty for speech, influ­enc­ing the devel­op­ment of lan­guage. Palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gist Ian Tat­ter­sall has sug­gest­ed that only Homo sapi­ens has been able to speak a lan­guage, though Pro­fes­sor Phillip Tobias thinks Homo habilis may have been the first to speak.

First words

Phys­i­cal changes to the size and organ­i­sa­tion of the brain togeth­er with changes in the throat, tongue and vocal chords enabled hominids to begin speak­ing to one anoth­er using symbols.

But phys­i­cal changes don’t tell us exact­ly when com­plex lan­guage and abstract thought began.

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The leap to com­plex lan­guage was sudden

Per­haps the ear­ly tool­mak­er, Homo habilis, agreed upon the first sym­bols to teach oth­ers how to make tools. But this knowl­edge could have been passed on through ges­tures and mim­ic­ry – a sim­ple form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but not lan­guage as we know it.

Maybe speech and vocab­u­lary evolved grad­u­al­ly, with names being assigned to objects like tools and ani­mals, and lat­er words being attached to con­cepts like go hunt” or fetch water”.

As hominid brains grew with the emer­gence of dif­fer­ent Homo species, these sym­bols may have even­tu­al­ly led to com­plex language.

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