How Did Language Begin?

By David L. Brown

Disclosure statement: I am not Noam Chomsky nor do I have any formal training in the “science” of linguistics. However, I am someone to whom language has been a supreme influence, both in its spoken and particularly its written forms. With deference to Chomsky and his fellow linguists I humbly submit that the study of language may be somewhat comparable to the ancient Chinese art of reading the cracks in tortoise shells or the pronouncements of shamans around ancient campfires. That said, I wish to present my personal thoughts on the possible roots of language, that unique skill that has made human civilization possible and which sets we members of the species Homo sapiens sapiens apart from all other creatures.

As I understand it (and since I am not a serious student of linguistics I may well have a simplistic and incorrect impression of this), many linguists believe that language is something that occurred because of evolutionary changes in the human brain. Chomsky has concluded that the ability to use language is “hard wired” in the brain from birth, and I will cede him that assumption. He further postulates that a common sense of “grammar,” the ability to put words together in certain standardized ways no matter what language the speaker is raised in, exists in human instinct. This too may be true, but whether it is or not doesn’t really matter for the ideas I will propose in this essay.

The question I will explore is: How did this all start? What was the defining event that set humans on the path to using language? Did pre-humans begin to grow huge brains in anticipation of attaining at some time in the remote future the ability to use language to communicate complex ideas and concepts? That does not seem likely. The idea that language is an evolutionary development of the human brain makes less sense to me than the idea that our brains evolved to accommodate the “discovery” of language. It’s a chicken or egg thing, and the idea of language evolving is not really the way evolution works. Plants and animals do not evolve toward some future condition, but in order to adapt to present ones.

Our animal brethren obviously have some ability to at least recognize language, or at least simple words and phrases, and in some cases to replicate the sound if not to fully understand the meaning of human words. One has only to listen to a talkative parrot to understand this fact. Even crows and ravens can make human sounds and almost appear to have the power of speech. I have a vivid memory of an experience many years ago in Lincoln Park in Chicago. I was walking past a bench where a man was sitting alone. I happened to observe as a crow flew up, settled on the other end of the bench, and addressed the man clearly: “Hello. My name’s Joe. What’s yours?” This was during the era when a guy named Alan Funt had a TV show called “Candid Camera” in which people were placed in embarrassing positions which were being recorded by hidden cameras. I could see the thought process of the man on the bench as he looked warily around for the camera crew, and I have always felt it was poor manners indeed that he did not engage Joe the Crow in conversation but merely looked uncomfortable and got up and walked away. I would have at least had the good grace to tell Joe my name and ask him how he was, if only to see what response I might have gotten. No doubt a request for food.

Those of us who have been blessed with having pets know how smart “dumb” animals can be. We once had a German shepherd dog that was privileged to have a great number of “squeaky toys” in many shapes and forms. Each time we went to the grocery store, it seemed, we would purchase an addition for his vast collection. These included such things as a “sandwich,” a “hotdog,” a “mouse,” a “piece of cheese,” a “carrot,” and so forth. Each time we brought a new toy home we would introduce it to the dog, whose name was Prince, telling him its name. Later, it would be added to the rest in a large bucket in the corner of the living room. What is interesting about this is that when we would say “Prince — Get the…” and name one of the toys, he would go to the bucket, begin to throw toys all around as he searched for the requested one, and proudly bring it to us. Once a toy had been given to him and having been told its name just once, he never in several years made a mistake and brought us the wrong toy. Obviously, the ability to learn vocabulary is “hard wired” in the brain of an intelligent dog and many other animals as well as that of humans. The “grammar” described by Chomsky may not exist in animal brains, but many of the basic building blocks of language are obviously there, just as they must have been in our pre-language simian ancestors.

So how did the forebears of we “wise apes” learn to take language to the next stage and create a communications tool on which our human ancestors have built succeedingly complex civilizations? Well, now we get to my theory. Remembering that I am not a linguist, but also taking into account that linguistics may well be more an art or an exercise in philosophy than a science, please consider my idea with an open mind.

Not long ago my wife and I were playing with our cat and my wife tried to point to something to direct the cat’s attention to it. She was frustrated that the cat would only look at her pointing hand, not at the object. That reminded me of something I had read not long before in Science magazine (unfortunately I have been unable to find the reference) which indicated that the ability to follow a pointing finger with one’s eyes is a particularly human trait. As I explained this to her, it started me thinking about what that simple fact might mean. Somehow it seemed important, and it occurred to me that the ability to follow a pointed finger might have begun as a learned behavior in pre-humans. And that in turn led to the thought that that simple bit of behavioral knowledge could explain the very beginning of language, could indeed have been the foundation stone of it all.

How? Follow me on this. Non-human animals have some very basic “language” words that are used to warn of danger, announce the availability of food, threaten enemies and so forth. But these “words” are very broad and general, just a short list of noises really. Unlike human words, the limited vocabulary of animal “languages” cannot give specifics of the nature of the danger, the exact kind of food, or specify to enemies exactly what might be about to happen to them.

But think how much that would change if a certain species, ancient ancestors of ourselves, could have learned to point and say one single “word” with the meaning “Look!” There is the meat of my argument, the proposition that the first true individual human word was one with the meaning of “Look,” or, in its Biblical vernacular, “Behold!”

(I will not make the irrational leap of reason to point out that the traditional chimpanzee sound “Ook!” lacks only one letter from being the English word “Look.” Well, OK I will point that out, but only in a sense of fun because although it is quite certain that the first speaking pre-humans had much in common with chimps, it is exceedingly unlikely that they were about to begin speaking English.)

So how could learning to follow in the direction of a pointing finger with one’s eyes and the utterance of a single sound transform pre-humans and start them down the road to becoming the “wise apes” into which we have evolved? It follows quite naturally, for if one has the power to point and say “Look!” or “Behold!,” the next obvious step would be to begin to name the objects to which attention is being drawn. In the myth of Genesis it is written that after God created Adam and Eve he left it to them to name the many animals with which He had peopled the Garden of Eden. As analogy and historical reconstruction the Biblical authors may have been onto something when they mentioned this “fact.” That they had insights into the nature of language is further illuminated by the fable of the Tower of Babel, through which the assumed Creator confounded Mankind by causing him to speak in many tongues. All of this could have been derived from observation and deduction, just as I am doing in this essay.

In fact, as soon as the act of pointing to direct the attention of others became established proto-human behavior, the naming of the objects of attention would become an absolute requirement. Here we can picture a primitive pre-human, near-relative of the chimpanzee and gorilla, that has learned to point and to make a sound with the meaning “Behold!” He or she may be pointing to any number of things, and the immediate question raised by his or her companions (perhaps by scratching their heads, shrugging their shoulders, or merely looking confused) would be: “Behold what?” Let us say that these early conversationalists are standing in an African landscape that might contain an entire menagerie of wildlife, trees and plants of various kinds, and even mountains, rivers, and the Sun and Moon in the sky. Obviously, the mere act of pointing and speaking the word for “Look!” would no longer be adequate. Is the speaker pointing to the zebra? the buffalo? the crocodile? the tree full of ripe fruit? … the possibilities would often have been many, and would pose a problem particularly if the object was merely a small part of the landscape such as a brightly colored bird that had caught the speaker’s eye among the teeming realm of possibilities, a venomous snake hiding in the tall grass, or a leopard creeping through the brush.

From this necessity to answer the obvious question “Behold what?” a basic vocabulary of language would have begun to develop in short order as the many animals, plants, and all the features of the Earth were named and categorized in order to have an answer when the first invitation to “Look!” is followed by the obvious question. As human ancestors evolved to make greater use of this new skill, complexity of language would have grown steadily over time, following a pattern such as “Zebra” … “Bright Sun Reflects on Water” … “Flying Geese Make Pattern in Sky” … or “Place Where We Killed Mammoth Two Winters Past.” Increasing amounts of information would be conveyed as language grew more powerful and complex.

From two simple learned traits — the ability to follow a pointing finger with one’s eyes and the understanding of a word meaning “Look!” — all of language would follow like dominoes falling in a row. The beginning could have happened in a moment, from a single individual’s sudden insight and the insistence to teach his or her fellows to follow the pointing finger. “Look!” “Behold!” “See That To Which I Am Directing Your Attention.”

So simple — and yet this little thought experiment of mine could explain how human speech began and how learning the simple little “trick” of pointing and calling attention to objects could have started our ancestors down the evolutionary path to processing ever more complex language and passing on to others the growing universe of ideas it made possible. That evolutionary road would have included the development of larger and more complex brains, and of a tongue and palate capable of making more distinctive sounds to create and to communicate more rapidly an expanding vocabulary of words for things, concepts, colors, places, sounds, emotions, and ideas. The power of language would make possible the beginnings of myth and legend, the passing of arcane knowledge and arts from one generation to another, and the socialization of human society. In short, it would have made possible everything that we have become.

Chomsky’s “hard wired” aptitude for a universal grammar would only be a small part of the integrated evolution of our human brains, our bodies, and our language itself, a process that has brought us to where we are today. Language has allowed us to create a vast body of knowledge and power that has transformed the Earth and made us the dominating force of Nature.

Whether or not that is a good thing remains to be seen, but all that aside it could all have started with a single human ancestor, long ago in unrecorded Time, who learned to point to the rich diversity of Nature and say to its companions “Behold!”

Note: This essay first appeared on my blog, Star Phoenix Base, December 27, 2006 with the title “Did Language Begin with a Gesture and a Word?”