Language evolution: The origin

1 Introduction

Evolutionary linguistics encompasses the origins of language, the change within and across different languages, and the acquisition of language and languages by children and adults (Gong, Shuai, & Zhang, 2014). We shall start framing this voyage by looking back two centuries. Then, some theories of language origins seem to have displayed considerable ‘imagination’ (Aitchison, 2008; see for instance Grimm 1851/1905, in German). Thus read a piece from the time:

The further argument for the possession of language by mammals and birds, at least, is that they readily learn to respond to a name given them. To what extent that sense can be cultivated is shown in Sir John Lubbock’s dog, which brings out a card with “o-u-t” on it when he wants to take a walk. (Jastrow, 1886: 556)

The account betrays lacunas on cognition generally and language in particular. Such accounts had been drawing scepticism to the study of language evolution (LE). By 1866, the question looked so blurred to the Societé Linguistique de Paris banned it for its own protection.1 Truly, new LE research in the mid-19th century was lacking any preeminent theory to weigh against, thus allowing for more facile explanations.

Speculation was a major factor in the mid-19th-century crisis. Yet, even if we have grown more factual of late, speculation was long crucial to science. Thus it might simply be problematic in great quantity, so let us try and measure it. Based on current accounts, it could still be abundant:

In this admittedly speculative essay… (Deacon, 2003: 138)

Theory and speculation are simply not empirically comparable. (Smolensky & Dupoux, 2009: 468)

The absence of direct evidence does not, of course, prevent speculation, hypothesizing and inferencing, and in the ever-growing literature on language evolution we see all. (Pavlenko, 2014: 26)

We will aim at a more quantitative measure by comparing the speculation in the LE area with that in others, on the basis of a repository survey. Below is a rough measure of acknowledgment about speculation in several areas, based on publications from 1994 to 2014. Speculation ratios were obtained by dividing the number of hits with the term ‘speculation’ by the total hits.

Speculation ratios ordered from the highest rank, LE, through other areas of language research, down to a topic from the so-called exact sciences (Thomson Reuters’ Web of ScienceTM,
Speculation ratios ordered from the highest rank, LE, through other areas of language research, down to a topic from the so-called exact sciences | Credit: Thomson Reuters’ Web of ScienceTM

According to the index search, LE ranks high in the contingency of speculation. Because this is a relatively novel, perhaps even unorthodox method of analysis, we decided to include a topic from the hardcore sciences among our queries—the Large Hadron Collider, a recent advancement in physics—, which as predicted returned the lowest ratio of speculation. The figures stand to reason, considering the lacunas on LE described above. The same holds for the current lacks in subfields relevant to LE, such as genetics and neuroscience (Marcus, Marblestone & Freeman, 2014). Moreover, the great acceleration of data levelled in various disciplines makes it hard to attain any desirable synthesis. On the brighter side of things, we could highlight the greater scientific rigour that was attained after the ban.

2 Origins traced

As regards the origins of language, most of the evidence from archaeology, historical demography and computational modelling points to monogenesis — i.e., one single start line — in Africa. Other theories fell out, including polygenesis in Asia and Africa (Nichols, 2011), and macromutation, i.e. reasons unknown (Chomsky, 1968).

Language Evolution, image, Pablo Bernabeu
0.2: Young but fast-growing

The time question is less precisely delimited. That is, some literature refers us back 2.6M years (Stutz, 2014), or 1.4M (Levinson & Holler, 2014), whilst others leave it at 70k years (Bolhuis, Tattersall, Chomsky, & Berwick, 2014). First of all, we should not bypass the marvel behind these estimations: their mere existence tells of ever more precise tools, both archaeological and analytical-computational. Yet, the divergences are considerable, to say the least. Homo Sapiens dates from about 200k years ago, so the measures are considering significantly different species. To clarify, the start of a behaviour such as language is dated with respect to variables considered as key to the behaviour as we know it. So, what really happens with estimates on language is that earlier estimates are so because they bear on more primitive precedents than do later estimates of language origins (cf. transmitted skills versus creation of symbolic displays). That is, if the concept of language one has in mind is fundamentally linked to the processing of syntactic units in communication (cf. Bolhuis et al., 2014), the date of origin will be set much more recent than if we think of language as more importantly linked to broader factors not specific to language, to know, social structuration, mass migrations, or cultural production (cf. Stutz, 2014). It remains a necessity to address the core nature of language. Meanwhile, a mutable definition of Language, and the lack of direct evidence that is inherent to LE, have left us to probe whatever may have been essential to the origin, evolution and acquisition of language, as addressed in Part 2 of this article.


Aitchison, J. (2008). Lifting the veil: Uncovering language origin. In P. van Sterkenburg (Ed.), Unity and diversity of languages (pp. 17-25). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Bolhuis, J. J., Tattersall, I., Chomsky, N., Berwick, R. C. (2014). How could language have evolved? PLoS Biol 12, 8, e101934.

Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and Mind. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace.

Deacon, T. W. (1997). The symbolic species: the coevolution of language and the brain. New York, NY:W. W. Norton.

Gong, T., Shuai, L., & Zhang, M. (2013). Modelling language evolution: Examples and predictions. Physics of Life Reviews, 11, 2, 313-314.

Grimm, J. (1851/1905). Über den Ursprung der Sprache. Auswahl aus den kleinen Schriften, 162-246. Hamburg: Im Gutenberg-Verlag Dr. Ernst Schultze.

Jastrow, J. (1886). The evolution of language. Science 7, 176, 555-7

Levinson, S. C., & Holler, J. (2014). The origin of human multi-modal communication. Phil Trans R Soc B, 369, 20130302

Marcus, G., Marblestone, A., & Freeman, J. (2014 November 12). How to Study the Brain. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Nichols, J. (2011). Monogenesis or polygenesis: a single ancestral language for all humanity? InTallerman and Gibson (Eds.), Handbook of language evolution (pp. 558-572). Oxford: OUP

Pavlenko, A. (2014). The bilingual mind: And what it tells us about language and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pnewell (2008, May 7). Reddit’s science forum banned climate deniers. Why don’t all newspapers do the same? [Web log comment]. Retrieved 2014 September 1 from

Press Association (2014, January 17). Ban the teaching of creationism in science lessons, says Alice Roberts. The Guardian (online). Retrieved 2014 Sept. 1 from

Smolensky, P., & Dupoux, E. (2009). Universals in cognitive theories of language. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32, 468-469.

Stutz, A. J. (2014). Embodied niche construction in the hominin lineage: semiotic structure and sustained attention in human embodied cognition. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 834.


1Articles from before the ban are highly elusive online. As regards censorship around science, notice current examples in areas such as evolution (against creationism, see Press Association, 2014), and environment (against the denial of global-warming, see Pnewell, 2008).


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