Is Language an Invention or an Intrinsic Trait?

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The birth of human intelligence, language and culture is very similar to the “chicken or egg” problem. Did our distant ancestors emerge with vocal communication, bringing about culture, community and intelligence – or was language a consequent invention of tribal behaviour? Are there clues in the evolution of language or how we learn it?


The Greatest Achievement in Human History


Language is regularly credited with being the greatest achievement of humankind. It allows us to communicate intricate, complex ideas and (even in the simplest terms) deep emotions, with very little effort. It seems so simple and basic, but it’s a power that each of us who can speak, read and write takes entirely for granted.


No matter which language you speak, you have command over an ancient power that connects you with everyone who shares your language – the potential to exchange data in a way no computer can match, create bonds and friendships – or even forge mortal enemies.


Of course, most of us will limit our use of language throughout our lives. Most of us won’t (thankfully) forge mortal enemies, but will make close bonds with other people. We’ll write when we need to, read when we want to and talk at leisure. But when you’re next ordering a cup of coffee, or trying to get your feelings out, or sending a group message on your phone – try to remember that you’re tapping into a primal force.


Wait – is language really a primal force? Because as we’ve seen before, when people are isolated from human contact, language doesn’t develop at all. So, if language isn’t a built-in trait, and we all have to learn it from our cultural surroundings – what is it?


Where did Language Come From?


Language couldn’t strictly be called an invention – it’s very unlikely that one day, somebody woke up and decided that one sound means “tree” and another means “water”, and then somehow spread that around to everyone else in their tribe, without the means to communicate with them.


The idea that language was a god-given human trait wasn’t contested until the 18th century. And still, there aren’t any solid theories to explain its exact origin.


But each human is equipped to speak: huge parts of our brain are devoted to it, our mouths and tongues, vocal cords and airways are adapted to make distinct, specific sounds. We’re all built for it – but without exposure to it, we don’t learn how to speak.


What’s most likely is that a large group of people collectively agreed that certain vocalisations and sounds meant certain things. This is a much more convoluted and drawn out process – but it’s overwhelmingly more likely. The process would be akin to evolutionary development: a collective, generational development, not a single technological invention.


And as we evolved, so our speech evolved. Even though speech is a late addition to the human intelligence armoury, there appear to be adaptations specifically for better vocalisation that are unseen in other animals.


Language could probably best be described as a consequence of evolution. Humans evolved with few physical defences, but compensated with intelligence and social bonds for protection. It’s almost inevitable that speech would arise in those conditions: bodies capable of complex sounds, minds with a keen sense of pattern recognition and a social structure that requires emotional bonds.


But exactly how it happened remains a mystery. Theories range widely – but the fact remains that no other species that we know of has ever formed such a complex, intricate and nuanced way of communicating. Humans have found a way of encoding and decoding information – and it’s what got us where we are today.


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