How did language originate?

Due to scientific progress we know more and more about the origins of humans, the evolution of our species and the development of our civilization. But what are the origins of language? What made our species, out of all animals, develop this way of communication? Researchers have spent a long time trying to find the answer to this question. We would like to share with you what they have found out so far.

We use language unconsciously, not even thinking about it. Sometimes we reflect on the origin of a certain word to conclude, in most cases, that it derives from Latin or Greek. Going this way, we find out that all Indo-European languages have common roots and are derived from a single proto-language. But what was before? How did the proto-language develop, what were its origins and how did humans develop this unique feature?

Evolution or revolution?

All language theorists and researchers agree on one thing: language is constantly evolving. Several hundred years ago, this evolution was driven by colonization. Nowadays, any important social, economic or political event can contribute to this. We can hear new words being coined every day – a few years ago no one knew words like “skyping” or “selfie”. The emergence of high-technologies has revolutionized the way we communicate – we use more and more abbreviations, skip punctuation and use borrowings. One may wonder whether this is an example of indolence as regards language purity or yet another manifestation of the ongoing evolution.

Monkeys and birds

We learnt partially how language originated in 2014, when the Livescience magazine published a thesis by Shigeru Miyagawa – a linguist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. In his article, Miyagawa presented a theory in which he defined our language as a derivative of two communication systems used by two animal species: birds and monkeys.

We adapted the expression system which corresponds to the present grammar from birds, more specifically – we took over the elements of their singing while mating or deterring their rivals. The lexical system (responsible for vocabulary) was developed by humans based on the way monkeys alerted each other on an approaching predator. They use different kinds of sounds, depending on what animal threatens them. Summing up: birds communicate with each other using structures resembling our grammar, in which it is not important what the message is, but the way it was communicated. Monkeys, in turn, inspired people to use words.

Clear? Not completely.

Although researchers have presented evidence that we used elements of communication systems found among animals long before our species emerged, we still do not know why it happened and what this process looked like. It is estimated that language appeared about 100,000 years ago, but anthropologists suspect that processes leading to its development (both social and mental ones) occurred already in primates, which were the direct ancestors of hominids, i.e. people. High hopes are associated with further research on other primates using an expression system (typical for other species, e.g. birds), but we will have to wait a long time until we know everything about the origins of language.

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