Source: The Economist
Scientists have reached no consensus on the origins of language
IN 1866, the founding statutes of the new Linguistic Society of Paris included this curious ban: “The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language.” Darwin had published “On the Origin of Species” just seven years earlier, and he was intrigued by the parallels between linguistic and physical evolution. The society, with Catholic leanings, wanted none of it.
For more than a century afterwards, little was learned about the evolution of language—even though evolution had become the standard explanation for nearly all biological phenomena, whether physical or behavioural.
Today, the debate is lively. But there is still no consensus on how, when or why language evolved. There is hardly even the barest agreement that it evolved at all, in the sense of having been the specific product of gradual natural selection.
One figure who initially also kept mum on this subject was Noam Chomsky. For decades the towering figure of modern linguistics refused to be drawn into theorising about how language arose, arguing that although it must have arisen by evolution in some broad sense, it was impossible to know much in detail.
Speech leaves no fossils. Palaeoanthropologists know when the human brain began to grow to its unusually large size, but not when or why homo sapiens started putting that big brain to linguistic use. Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist who was much loved for his popular writings, stepped into the debate by calling language a “spandrel”. He borrowed the term from architecture, where a spandrel is the space between two arches which, over time, came to be decorated as features in their own right. In much the same way, Gould thought, big brains and increased intelligence were the original feature. The ability to turn that feature to complex and abstract communication was a spandrel.
In 1990 Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, both then at MIT, published an article making a surprisingly controversial case. In their view, language had of course evolved in a typically Darwinian fashion: slowly, first as a result of random genetic mutation, but gradually giving early humans a survival advantage. That advantage was that each new human need not learn valuable information by direct experience, but can learn it from those who had come before: eat this, not that; this animal is dangerous; here’s how to make an axe. While no one can say what the stages between basic cries and intricate modern syntax were, Messrs Pinker and Bloom were confident in positing a gradual unfolding.