Skip to main content

Precursors to Language

Abstract

One view of language is that it emerged in a single step in Homo sapiens, and depended on a radical transformation of human thought, involving symbolic representations and computational rules for combining them. I argue instead that language should be viewed as a communication system for the sharing of thoughts, and that thought processes themselves evolved well before the capacity to share them. One property often considered unique to language is generativity—the capacity to generate a potentially infinite variety of sentences. I suggest that generativity is derived from the understanding of space and the capacity to recall or construct spatiotemporal scenarios, and probably goes far back in the evolution of animals that move in spatial habitats. Another property essential to language is theory of mind, the ability to understand what others are thinking, which probably emerged from animal empathy and became more complex in hominin evolution. Language evolved for the sharing of experiences, whether remembered or constructed, perhaps initially through pantomime but gradually conventionalized into standardized forms, including speech. These developments probably took place gradually during the Pleistocene, rather than as a sudden event in the evolution of H. sapiens.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. Sharing, whether of information or of resources, benefits the group as well the individual, and necessarily operates at the group level. This raises the question whether natural selection itself can operate at this level, rather than at the level of the individual (e.g., Wilson and Sober 1994). Discussion of the controversial issue is beyond the scope of this paper; for a detailed analysis in relation to language evolution, the reader is referred to Hurford (Hurford 2007, especially Chapter 10).

  2. This is not to disparage sign languages, which have advantages in expressivity, and to some extent in transparency. Nevertheless the transfer to speech was sufficiently adaptive to bring about the biological changes necessary for vocal learning and intentional vocal control, and to overcome the risk of choking. And any advantage in terms of energy-saving is partially offset by the fact that people continue to gesture anyway while they speak (Fitch 2010).

References

  • Arbib MA (2012) How the brain got language: the mirror system hypothesis. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Armstrong DF, Stokoe WC, Wilcox SE (1995) Gesture and the nature of language. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Aronoff M, Meir I, Padden CA, Sandler W (2008) The roots of linguistic organization in a new language. Interact Stud 9:133–153

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bickerton D (2014) More than nature needs: language, mind, and evolution. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Brinck I, Gärdenfors P (2003) Co-operation and communication in apes and humans. Mind Lang 18:484–501

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burling R (1999) Motivation, conventionalization, and arbitrariness in the origin of language. In: King BJ (ed) The origins of language: what human primates can tell us. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe

    Google Scholar 

  • Call J, Tomasello M (1999) A nonverbal false belief task: the performance of children and great apes. Child Dev 70:381–395

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Call J, Tomasello M (2008) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends Cogn Sci 12:187–192

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chomsky N (1959) A review of Skinner’s verbal behavior. Language 35:26–58

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chomsky N (1995) The minimalist program. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Chomsky N (2010) Some simple evo devo theses: how true might they be for language? In: Larson RK, Déprez V, Yamakido H (eds) The evolution of human language. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 45–62

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Clay Z, Archbold J, Zuberbuhler K (2015) Functional flexibility in wild bonobo vocal behaviour. Peer J 3:e1124. doi:10.7717/peerj.1124

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Condillac EB de (1971) An essay on the origin of human knowledge: being a supplement to Mr. Locke’s essay on the human understanding. Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, Gainesville. (A facsimile reproduction of the 1756 translation by T. Nugent of Condillac’s 1747 essay.)

  • Corballis MC (2002) From hand to mouth: the origins of language. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  • Corballis MC (2009) The evolution of language. the year in cognitive neuroscience. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1156:19–43

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Corballis MC (2010) Mirror neurons and the evolution of language. Brain Lang 112:25–35

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Corballis MC (2013) Mental time travel: a case for evolutionary continuity. Trends Cogn Sci 17:5–6

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cosentino E, Ferretti F (2014) Communication as navigation: a new role for consciousness in language. Topoi 33:263–274

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Darwin C (1871) The descent of man and selection in relation to sex, 2nd edn. Appleton, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Deacon T (1997) The symbolic species. Norton, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Donald M (1991) Origins of the modern mind. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Dor D (2015) The structure of imagination: language as a social communication technology. Oxford University Press, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Evans N (2009) Dying words: endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Evans N, Levinson SC (2009) The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behav Brain Sci 32:429–492

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fano G (1992) The origins and nature of language. Bloomington. In: Indiana University Press, 1992. (Originally published in Italian in two parts, first in 1962 and second in 1973, and translated by S. Petrilli)

  • Ferretti F (2014) Travelling in time and space at the origins of language. Humana Mente J Philos Stud 27:243–268

    Google Scholar 

  • Fitch WT (2010) The evolution of language. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Foster DJ, Wilson MA (2006) Reverse replay of behavioural sequences in hippocampal place cells during the awake state. Nature 440:680–683

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gärdenfors P, Osvath M (2010) Prospection as a cognitive precursor to symbolic communication. In: Larson RK, Déprez V, Yamakido H (eds) The evolution of human language. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 103–114

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Grice HP (1989) Studies in the ways of words. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Gupta AS, van der Meer MAA, Touretzky DS, Redish AD (2010) Hippocampal replay is not a simple function of experience. Neuron 65:695–705

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hewes GW (1973) Primate communication and the gestural origins of language. Curr Anthropol 14:5–24

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2011) Serial gesturing by wild chimpanzees: its nature and function for communication. Anim Cogn 14:827–838

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2014) The meaning of chimpanzee gestures. Curr Biol 24:1–5

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hockett CF (1960) The origins of speech. Sci Am 203(3):88–96

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hopkins WD, Taglialatela JP, Leavens DA (2007) Chimpanzees differentially produce novel vocalizations to capture the attention of a human. Anim Behav 73:281–286

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hurford JR (2007) The origin of meaning. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Jackendoff R (2002) Foundations of language: brain, meaning, grammar, evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Jerison HJ (1976) Paleoneurology and the evolution of mind. Sci Am 234(1):94–101

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jürgens U (2002) Neural pathways underlying vocal control. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 26:235–258

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kendon A (2011) Vocalisation, speech, gesture, and the language origins debate. Gesture 13:349–370

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Knott A (2012) Sensorimotor cognition and natural language syntax. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Krachun C, Carpenter M, Call J, Tomasello M (2009) A competitive nonverbal false belief task for children and apes. Dev Sci 12:521–535

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mandeville B (1728/1970) The fable of the bees. Penguin, Harmondsworth. (trans: John Philip Harth from the 1728 original)

  • McBrearty S, Brooks AS (2000) The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. J Hum Evol 39:453–563

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McCawley JD (1982) Thirty million theories of grammar. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • McNeill D (2012) How language began: gesture and speech in human evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Miller JF, Neufang M, Solway A, Brandt A, Trippel M et al (2013) Neural activity in human hippocampal formation reveals the spatial context of retrieved memories. Science 342:1111–1114

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Moser MB, Rowland DC, Moser EI (2015) Place cells, grid cells, and memory. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol 7:a021808

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • O’Keefe J, Nadel N (1978) The hippocampus as a cognitive map. Clarendon Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Penn DC, Holyoak KJ, Povinelli DJ (2008) Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behav Brain Sci 31:108–178

    Google Scholar 

  • Petkov CI, Jarvis ED (2012) Birds, primates, and spoken language origins: behavioral phenotypes and neurobiological substrates. Front Evol Neurosci 4:12

  • Pfeiffer BE, Foster DJ (2013) Hippocampal place-cell sequences depict future paths to remembered goals. Nature 497:74–79

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pfenning AR, Hara E, Whitney O, Rivas MV, Wang R, Roulhac PL et al (2014) Convergent specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds. Science 346:1333–1346

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pinker S, Bloom P (1990) Natural language and natural selection. Behav Brain Sci 13:707–784

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Premack D (2007) Human and animal cognition: continuity and discontinuity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:13861–13867

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Premack D, Woodruff G (1978) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behav Brain Sci 4:515–526

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rizzolatti G, Sinigaglia C (2006) Mirrors in the brain: how our minds share actions and emotions. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Rizzolatti G, Sinigaglia C (2010) The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nat Neurosci 11:264–274

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Robertson JM (2014) Astrocytes and the evolution of the human brain. Med Hypotheses 82:236–239

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Savage-Rumbaugh S, Shanker SG, Taylor TJ (1998) Apes, language, and the human mind. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Scott-Phillips T (2015) Speaking our minds: why human communication is different, and how language evolved to make it special. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Scott-Phillips TC, Blythe RA, Gardner A, West SA (2012) How do communication systems emerge? Proc R Soc B 279:1943–1949

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shea JJ (2011) Homo sapiens is as Homo sapiens was. Curr Anthropol 52:1–35

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Skinner BF (1959) Verbal behavior. Appleton-Centrury-Crofts, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Slocombe KE, Zuberbühler K (2007) Chimpanzees modify recruitment screams as a function of audience composition. Proc Natl Acad Sci (USA) 104:17228–17233

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sperber D, Wilson D (2002) Pragmatics, modularity, and mind reading. Mind Lang 17:3–23

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Striedter GF (2005) Principles of brain evolution. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland

    Google Scholar 

  • Studdert-Kennedy M (2005) How did language go discrete? In: Tallerman M (ed) Language origins: perspectives on evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 48–67

    Google Scholar 

  • Suddendorf T, Corballis MC (1997) Mental time travel and the evolution of the human mind. Genet Soc Gen Psychol Monogr 123:133–167

    Google Scholar 

  • Suddendorf T, Corballis MC (2007) The evolution of foresight: what is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behav Brain Sci 30:299–351

    Google Scholar 

  • Tattersall I (2012) Masters of the planet: the search for human origins. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Tomasello M (2008) The origins of human communication. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Tomasello M (2009) Universal grammar is dead. Behav Brain Sci 32:470

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tooby J, DeVore I (1987) The reconstruction of hominid evolution through strategic modeling. In: Kinzey WG (ed) The evolution of human behavior: primate models. SUNY Press, Albany, pp 183–237

    Google Scholar 

  • Tulving E (1985) Memory and consciousness. Can Psychol 26:1–12

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vico G (1953) La scienza nova. Laterza, Bari. (originally published 1744)

  • Wilson DS, Sober E (1994) Re-introducing groups selection to the human behavioral sciences. Behav Brain Sci 17:585–654

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael C. Corballis.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Corballis, M.C. Precursors to Language. Topoi 37, 297–305 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-016-9418-8

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-016-9418-8

Keywords

  • Generativity
  • Gesture
  • Language evolution
  • Mental time travel
  • Space
  • Theory of mind