The Evolution of Language

Any discussion of the origins of language evokes an image of cavemen sat around in committee, with an array of objects before them. Picking up a stone, the chairman asks – “onto the next item, what shall we call this?”. The change in language within a single lifetime is pronounced – maybe particularly so for us now compared with thousands of years ago. But in any case generation-to-generation memetic change is far more pronounced than its genetic cousin. Language has come so far from its origins it is pointless to speculate why particular words are associated with particular meanings (with a few exceptions such as with onomatopoeia).

But, although lost in history, the association between sound and meaning appears not to be completely arbitrary. In discussing synaesthesia in the ‘The Emerging Mind’, Ramachandran talks of metaphors and our ability to associate different senses with one another. People can map sounds to shapes irrespective of culture. People can separate out foreign language names for different types of birds from types of fish with a statistically significant success rate. He puts this down to cross-activation between areas of the brain because they are next to one another in the Penfield motor map. This cross-activation can also explain why, when people cut with a pair of scissors they clench and unclench their jaws unconsciously as if to echo or mimic the movements of the fingers as first described by Darwin. (Or perhaps also why people stick their tongue out of the corner of their mouth when performing some fine motor skill such as threading a needle.) Ramachandran calls this ‘synkinesia’. Simularly, in ‘Supersizing the Mind’, Andy Clark discusses gesturing at length – the link between speech and motor functions. For example, why we wave our hands around even when we are talking on the phone.

I like Ramachandran’s speculations. Here’s one of my own. It took more more than just a serendipitous genetic mutation forming a link between neighbouring functions of the brain for language to evolve. Imagine a seminal moment in human prehistory…

A hunter-gatherer is picking low-hanging fruit (in the original, literal sense of the phrase) from a tree, stretching for the not-so-low fruit just outside normal reach. With each stretch exertion, she make a distinctive grunt. A fellow hunter-gatherer sees some fruit the picker has missed that should be reachable and makes a sound that imitates the picker’s distinctive grunt. Another witness recognizes this (mocking) imitation – an unexpected insight that makes her laugh. Suddenly there is the breakthrough – the mutual connection between a sound (distinctive grunt) and an idea (‘fruit’).

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