How did human language begin?

Last Updated March 30, 2021

We know more about the origins of humanity, the evolution of the species, and the development of civilization than ever before. But what about the origins of language?

How did humans, out of all living things, develop this advanced form of communication? Researchers have spent a long time trying to figure this out.

We generally use language unconsciously, without thinking about it. We may sometimes wonder about the origin of a certain word, and a quick Google search reveals, in most cases, it derives from Latin or Greek.

Dig a bit further and we find out all Indo-European languages have common roots and are derived from a single proto-language.

But what came before that? How did the proto-language develop, what were its origins, and how did humans develop this unique feature?

Let’s take a quick look.

Monkeys, Birds, and the Integration Hypothesis

It’s estimated that language emerged about 100,000 years ago. Anthropologists suspect that processes leading to its development occurred in primates, the direct ancestors of hominids.

In 2014, Live Science published an important article featuring a theory from Shigeru Miyagawa, a linguist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Miyagawa’s “integration hypothesis” suggest content-based language may has roots in monkey alarm calls, while grammar comes from the expressive parts of bird song.

According to Miyagawa, the expressive system is found in songbirds and corresponds to grammar in human language. For example, male songbirds sing to attract mates or protect their territory, but their songs do not have any concrete meaning in the real world.

That is where vocabulary comes into play. The lexical system is found in monkeys and corresponds to words in human language. For example, vervet monkeys use unique alarm calls to warn of specific predators, with specific calls communicating threats such as “eagle,” “snake” or “leopard.”

Only in humans did the two systems come together as language, with silvery gibbons serving as the point of connection. These primates produce lengthy, complex songs to guard their territory and communicate with potential mates and family members.

Ultimately, we still do not know why human language emerged and what the process looked like. We do know, however, that the process is ongoing.

language origins

The Ongoing Evolution of Language

Language allows us to share thoughts, ideas, emotions, and intention with others. Over thousands of years, humans have developed a wide variety of systems to assign specific meaning to sounds, forming words and systems of grammar to create languages.

Language theorists and researchers generally agree on one thing: language is constantly evolving. We coin new terms seemingly every day. For example, there was a time where no one would say “let’s Zoom” or “take a selfie”.

Colonization drives these changes. Important social, economic, or political events contribute to the ongoing development of how we communicate. Humans unfortunately eradicate languages in the process.

Technological advances have also revolutionized the way we communicate – we use more abbreviations, skip punctuation, and use emoji on our mobile devices at an ever-increasing rate.

The challenge, as always, is to understand each other, connect, and prosper.

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