The Development of Language

C. George Boeree

Language began with the simple association of certain vocalisms with objects ("dog"), then actions ("go"), and finally qualities ("hot"). Children would learn these associations from their elders, rather than invent a new vocabulary with every generation. But once the idea of association was realized, I am certain that the numbers of these proto-words increased rapidly.

Then, just like children do, primitive humans began putting two vocalisms together: "dog go", "see dog", "big dog, "dog('s) bone", etc. And then the strings of vocalisms expanded to three: "I see dog", "big dog go", etc. And so forth. What passed for syntax was the simple ordering of the words, probably in order of importance. Perhaps pronouns date from this era: me, you, this, that. This probably was the extent of language for millenia.

My guess is that this began early in our evolution, pre-Homo, and did not require any specialized area of the brain, although, of course, it would involve the auditory cortex and the motor areas devoted to vocalization.

But translating the multidimensional perceived world into a linear set of vocalizations would make specialization of parts of the cortex advantageous, and we may have started to differentiate the Wernicke's and Broca's areas from the auditory and motor cortices. As language became an increasingly important part of human survival and prosperity, this specialization would be selected for.

At some point, humans invented some real syntax in the form of set sequences of words: Subject-object-verb, with adjectives before nouns, and postpositions; or maybe subject-verb-object, with adjectives after nouns, and prepositions.  Perhaps each group of humans adopted their own preferred sequences.

At some point, regular words began to be used as particles with more abstract meanings. For example, "head" may  have been used for "top", "on", and "above", and "follow" for "after", etc. Perhaps a word like "finish" was used to mark a verb as past perfect. Expressive vocalisms became other particles, such as using "huh?" to create questions. Some adjectives began to modify verbs as well as nouns. You can still see the remnants of these processes in a number of languages.

Some of these particles may have become attached to more significant words as clitics, affixes, and even inflections. The syntax and, now, morphology used by parents were passed on to their children by example, and the children could then expand these examples by generalizing the rules to cover novel situations and needs.

Eventually, humans came up with the idea of imbedding one sentence inside another, along with special particles like "which", "that", "if", "because", and so on. And at some point, they had the idea that one could use pronouns and proverbs to interconnect the actors and acts in these clauses.

Finally, we developed words and ways of combining words to express abstract ideas, and to use these new words to form ever more complex theories about ourselves and the world. With syntax, morphology, clauses, and abstractions, brain size would become increasingly significant as a determiner of survival and reproduction, and modern humans would be well on their way to developing civilization.

Was there ever a single "mother language" from which all others descend? Probably not. The idea of communicating with vocalizations must have spread like wildfire among our pre-Homo ancestors, and was then, presumably, elaborated into true language by our Homo sapiens ancestors. It is possible that there was originally only one tribe of Homo sapiens, but language changes relatively easily, and there were probably already multiple languages that were not interintelligible before we even expanded beyond Africa. Again, when that expansion finally happened, there may have been only a few pioneering tribes, each with their own language, who in turn began to differentiate.

The idea that we all shared one language is very interesting, even romantic, but it is pretty clear, all objections to the contrary, that going back further than, say, 10,000 years is about as far as it goes.

© Copyright 2013, C. George Boeree