Sunday, May 24, 2015
How Did Language Begin?
I came across an essay by Ray Jackendoff from the Linguistic Society of America. Here are some interesting excerpts from it:
“Every human language has a vocabulary of tens of thousands of words, built up from several dozen speech sounds.
“What happened to humans in the 6 million years or so since the hominid and chimpanzee lines diverged, and when and how did hominid communication begin to have the properties of modern language?
“The basic difficulty with studying the evolution of language is that the evidence is so sparse. Spoken languages don’t leave fossils, and fossil skulls only tell us the overall shape and size of hominid brains, not what the brains could do. About the only definitive evidence we have is the shape of the vocal tract (the mouth, tongue, and throat): Until anatomically modern humans, about 100,000 years ago, the shape of hominid vocal tracts didn’t permit the modern range of speech sounds. But that doesn’t mean that language necessarily began then. Earlier hominids could have had a sort of language that used a more restricted range of consonants and vowels, and the changes in the vocal tract may only have had the effect of making speech faster and more expressive. Some researchers even propose that language began as sign language, then (gradually or suddenly) switched to the vocal modality, leaving modern gesture as a residue.
“We do know that something important happened in the human line between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago: This is when we start to find cultural artifacts such as art and ritual objects, evidence of what we would call civilization. What changed in the species at that point? Did they just get smarter (Even if their brains didn’t suddenly get larger)? Did they become smarter because of the intellectual advantages that language affords (such as the ability to maintain an oral history over generations)?”
About The Linguistic Society of America
The Linguistic Society of America was founded in 1924 for the advancement of the scientific study of language. The Society serves its nearly 6,000 personal and institutional members through scholarly meetings, publications, and special activities designed to advance the discipline.
The Society holds its Annual Meeting in early January each year and publishes a quarterly journal, LANGUAGE, and the LSA Bulletin. Among its special education activities are the Linguistic Institutes held every other summer in odd-numbered years and co-sponsored by a host university.
The website for the Society (http://www.lsadc.org) includes The Field of Linguistics (brief, nontechnical essays describing the discipline and its subfields) and statements and resolutions issued by the Society on matters such as language rights, the English-only/English-plus debate, bilingual education and Ebonics. To learn more about them, please contact them at:
Linguistic Society of America
1325 18th St, NW, Suite 211
Washington, DC 20036-6501
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