On the origins of language: knowing what we don’t know

In 1835 the French philosopher Auguste Comte [1] tried, somewhat ambitiously, to set the possible limits of human learning. He agreed that we could know the distances and motions of the stars, but never their composition. Within ten years he was wrong. The invention of spectroscopy rendered his prediction void.

The origins of human language seem even more impenetrable. Between the utterances of bonobos and our own all-syntax, fully-vocabularised and recursive model lies a gap of at least four million years with absolutely nothing in it. It is like being an educated Roman standing on the shores of Spain in about 50 BC trying to guess what was on the other side of the Atlantic from two bits of washed up flotsam.

There are tiny, fascinating clues. The FOXP-2 gene is in there somewhere. Brains have got bigger, and there have been changes in key areas like Broca’s tissue. Certain gestures seem universally understood. Linguistic and genetic evidence seem to indicate a common origin of the languages of Homo sapiens somewhere in Africa probably between 200 000 and 140 000 years BCE. That’s a lot of time, and a big area.

But it seems to us, sadly, that everything beyond that is speculation and guesswork. We have great regard for the valiant enquiries of some very learned people; a good jumping off point is the Wikipedia article below[2] Sadly, their efforts are intriguing but not yet convincing. When the Paris Linguistic Society banned all discussion of the origins of language, we can understand why. So, although it is tempting to imagine some early hominins directing hunts in language comprising nouns only, that is not science. (You should try communicating in nouns for just an hour or so-it’s surprising how far you will get.)

The only way forward we can think of is advanced computer modelling. Would it be possible to programme the communication systems of chimps and bonobos into a computer, subject them to iterations of evolutionary pressure, and see what happens? Or would the old principle of “rubbish in= rubbish out” apply? Could we model the brain of a Homo erectus, human, but smaller than our own, to assess its capacities. Answers on a postcard, please. In language.

#humanevolution #linguistics #computermodelling #limits of knowledge

[1] Auguste Compte Cours de Philosophie Positive


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