Out of all forms of animal communication, human language is unparalleled. Even our closest genetic relatives, the Neanderthals, are not thought to have had language. The evolution of language has many similarities with biological evolution, and evolutionary biologist Mark Hauser […]
Out of all forms of animal communication, human language is unparalleled. Even our closest genetic relatives, the Neanderthals, are not thought to have had language. The evolution of language has many similarities with biological evolution, and evolutionary biologist Mark Hauser says this makes it a useful tool for tracing recent human history and studying the evolution of culture among related linguistic groups.
Unlike other forms of animal communication, human language is unique in that it is compositional. This means speakers are able to express thoughts in sentences that consist of subjects, verbs, and objects, while also accommodating tenses such as past, present, and future. Because of this, human language has an infinite potential for generating new sentences by combining and recombining sets of words into different subject, verb, and object roles. Additionally, human language is referential, enabling speakers to exchange specific information about people or objects and their respective locations or actions.
Hauser said that the exact time of the evolution of language remains uncertain. However, researchers have found evidence from fossils and genetics that suggest it can likely be traced to populations of Homo sapiens who lived in eastern or southern Africa around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. As all human groups possess language, it is safe to assume that language, or at least the potential for it, has existed for at least that long. This notion is supported by evidence of symbolic and abstract behavior among early modern humans such as art.
Currently, there are approximately 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, which means that most individuals cannot communicate linguistically with a vast majority of other people. Interestingly, this number is likely lower than the peak of human linguistic diversity, which occurred around 10,000 years ago before the advent of agriculture. Prior to that time, all human societies were comprised of small, nomadic hunter-gatherer groups. With the growth of agricultural societies came larger group sizes and demographic prosperity, resulting in the absorption of many smaller linguistic groups. Today, due to the scarcity of hunter-gatherer societies, our linguistic diversity reflects the effects of our relatively recent agricultural past, noted Hauser.
Language has been a key factor in human evolution and the ability to adapt to diverse environments. Unlike other species, humans have been able to adapt at the cultural level, acquiring knowledge and producing tools for survival in various habitats. The possession of language has allowed humans to transmit detailed information down generations and to accumulate sophisticated cultural adaptations throughout history. The ability to store and code information has led to the creation of complex technologies and cultural diversity.
Hauser said it could be argued language has played a more important role in human evolution than genes due to the rapid evolution of culture compared to genes. This cultural diversity and the relative genetic homogeneity of humans are due to the evolution of language as a high-fidelity code for transmitting information. As a result, we live in a world full of technologies that few of us even understand, and our cultural diversity persists despite our relative genetic homogeneity. The importance of language in shaping human history cannot be overstated.