The Roots of Human Language


human evolutionBeing able to communicate has surely advanced the human race to greatness. Without a common speech, we’d probably stop short of global dominance as a species, thus the skill to communicate on a profound level is the major aspect that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Then, how did human languages develop, how did we start talking to each other rather than grunting? New research from the linguist Shigeru Miyagawa at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts suggests that human language is rooted in the blend of two different communication systems: namely birdsong and monkey cries.

Miyagawa calls this an ‘integration hypothesis’ in that the animal kingdom consists of two different modes of communication, dubbed ‘expressive’ and ‘lexical’. Human language is the mixture of these types, and with evolution the expressive system became grammar whereas the lexical type evolved into words and phrases. While the expressive system is used by songbirds, the lexical is a primary mode of communication among monkeys, which are characterised by alert calls or warnings.

These two types have distinct evolutionary processes, which always relate to survival. The expressive system evolved as a process of birds’ means of survival in attracting a mate or marking territory. Meanwhile, the lexical system developed throughout monkey species as a means to protect themselves and their community from predators.

Researchers have, however, found it difficult to explain how the systems merged. While it may seem obvious that the lexical system is inherent in our communication style as our genetic makeup is very similar to that of monkeys, the expressive system may seem somewhat distant. The last common ancestor between humans and songbirds was long extinct before anything similar to modern language started to evolve. It has nevertheless been suggested that the expressive system evolved into humans from another type of monkey species, namely the silvery gibbon.

If put in this light, researches are able to explain the blending of the two systems, yet several linguistics have been reluctant to accept this hypothesis. Although in the end human language is primarily based on a biological process closely linked to evolution. With Homo Sapiens being the last step in human evolution, a need for a profound level of communication had arisen quite extensively since we first started to walk upright. Our ancestors such as Homo Erectus are indeed suggested to have communicated more profoundly than older generations of hominids, and research even puts human languages to be at least 100,000 years old!

You can read more about the evolution and roots of human languages here.

Click here for a glossary on human evolution.




Introduction to Human Evolution

What does it mean to be human?

The Mystery of Human Language



By Oscar Larsson
Student at University of Glasgow, School of Social & Political Sciences
Communication Trainee at TermCoord