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Language and Culture Prof. R. Hickey SS 2006 The evolution of language. Melanie Lüth (Hauptstudium, TN) Ivo Tateo (Hauptstudium, TN) Brigitte Knocke Martina Kleinebreil (Grundstudium, TN/LN) Frauke Skrobaschewsky (Hauptstudium, TN/LN). Table of Contents. The Study of Language

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language and culture prof r hickey ss 2006 the evolution of language

Language and Culture Prof. R. Hickey SS 2006 The evolution of language

Melanie Lüth (Hauptstudium, TN)Ivo Tateo (Hauptstudium, TN)Brigitte Knocke Martina Kleinebreil (Grundstudium, TN/LN)Frauke Skrobaschewsky (Hauptstudium, TN/LN)

table of contents
Table of Contents
  • The Study of Language
  • Language Origin
  • The Evolution of Language
    • The Emerge of Rule
    • The Expansion of Language
  • Diffusion of Language
  • language must have evolved between 100,000 to 50,000 years ago; some researchers date the evolving around 250,000 years ago
  • Different ludicrous views:
    • Noah’s Ark view: Chinese as primitive language was spoken in the Ark and so survived the flood
    • Lord Monboddo: people learned different skills from different animals → to sing and speak from birds by imitating
theories a bird like skill
Theories – a bird-like skill

→ only shows that parallel systems can emerge independently

  • external – clues from outside human language

→ evolutionary theory, archaeology, anatomy and physiology, ethology, psychology, anthropology

  • internal – information from languages itself

→ provided by linguistics

→ pidgins and creoles are valuable sources

the amoeba question
The Amoeba Question
  • Did language elaborate from a simple outline?
  • Did a mish-mash become neat and orderly?
  • bow-wow theory

hunters imitated the sounds of animals they wanted to track down

  • Rousseau/ Jespersen

first languages were singable and more passionate – became simple and methodical

  • spaghetti junctions

various possibilities existed and were used – in the long run certain features were more likely to be chosen

the rabbit out of hat problem
The Rabbit-out-of-hat problem
  • language emerged fairly suddenly (like a rabbit out of a hat)
    • mutation in hominid gene pool
    • extra use for already enlarged brain


  • language evolved slowly over millennia
why do languages differ
Why do languages differ?
  • new appearances could not be handled with properly (e.g. (new) thoughts could not be expressed properly)
  • differences between and within languages are signs of a flexible and adjustable system
  • ‘Tower of Babel’
why do languages differ1
Why do languages differ?
  • ‘Swiss army knife’ view: specialized linguistic system, which allows variation
    • human mind as gadget with numerous specialized devices
    • humans acquire language through a language-handling mechanism
    • difference of language according to an inherited degree of flexibility
  • ‘Auntie Maggie’s remedy’ view: languages differ because human general intelligence produced them
    • language is one of many different tasks children have to encounter – use the mind to sort out the way it works
    • tasks can be encountered in different ways
why do languages differ2
Why do languages differ?
  • hard-wired: - pre-programmed

- do not have to be learned

- instinctive

- (Swiss army knife)

  • soft-wired: - can be acquired

- have to be learned

- Auntie Maggie’s remedy

  • past: nature – nurture; hard – soft; instinct – learning controversies
  • present: ‘innately guided behaviour’
  • many theories – scientific or non-scientific – were propounded
  • Amoeba Question and the rabbit-out-of-hat problem
  • differing: - Swiss Army Knife vs. Auntie Maggie’s remedy; hard-wired vs. soft-wired;

- innately guided behaviour

the human s history of evolution
175,000 BP

300,000 BP

1,5 m BP

2 m BP

3 m BP

4 m BP

4,5 m BP

Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans)

Archaic Homo sapiens

Homo erectus (upright man)

Homo abilis (handy man)

Homo (man)

Australopithecus afarensis

Australopithecus ramidus

The Human’s history of evolution
the principle of natural selection
The principle of Natural Selection

In 1859 Charles Darwin published the book “On the origin of species” in which he demonstrated that Humans are the result of a long evolution.

He explained the principle of Natural Selection with these words:

“Any variation, if profitable to an individual of any species

will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will be

generally inherited by its offspring. I have called this principle

by the term of Natural Selection ”.

how did language emerge
Language emerged suddenly, as a rabbit out of a hat. This would be possible because humans are endowed with an innate language faculty (Chomsky).

Language is the result of a long process, creeping upwards in complexity over millennia, like a snail creeping up a wall. Language capacity increased very slowly.

How did Language emerge?
  • Language evolution alternated between periods of stasis (stagnation) and periods of fast development (Eldredge and Gould).
  • The most accredited theory is that of a ‘language bonfire’. After this theory, sparks of language have been flickering for a long time before language begun a fast evolution and then stabilized around 50,000 years ago.
the development of language
The development of Language

Key properties of Language



The Grooming Theory: grooming is for animals a factor of social interaction as language for humans.

Maybe language is a substitution for grooming, since:

- Humans are ‘naked apes’ with little hair for grooming

- Great groups of primates tend to abandon grooming

the development of language1
The development of Language

Key properties of language



The theory of mind

The ability to deceive may be an important prerequisite for language, which is not only confined to humans.

This process (we may also talk about ‘lying’) implicates that the individual is able to put himself into another person’s shoes and act to his own advantage.

the search for the missing link
The gestural origin of speech

Sign language is easier than speech

The idea that gestures are universal

Neurological connection between speech and movements

The search for the missing link

How did language get started? Many support the gestural theory, which claims that sign language is the missing link between the primate communication and human language. These supporters emphasize four reasons:

basic requirements for human language
Basic requirements for human language

ƀ Sound-producing ƀ Sound-receiving

ƀ Sound-planning ƀ Sound-interpreting

The human voice-box or larynx is more streamlined than that of other primates; it is also positioned lower than in other primates.

The particular position of the larynx, the complexity of the muscular tongue and the possibility to produce vowels via mouth, allow the human beings to produce three fairly extreme vowels:

[i] [a] [u]


Language appeared about 200,000 years ago and developed very fast between 100,000 and 75,000 years ago (language bonfire theory)

Language probably emerged to satisfy a need of interaction or to influence other individuals

Language probably developed from gesture. Sign language has been the intermediate between the two:

Primate communication

Sign language

Human language

Sound-producing, sound-receiving, sound-planning,sound-interpreting mechanisms and the particular position of the larynx, among others, allow the human beings to produce sounds which are unique to our species.

the evolution of language

The evolution of language

The emergence of rules -

Brigitte Knocke

the emergence of rules
The emergence of rules
  • A language needs ‘rules’. Communication would break down if there were no agreed ways of combining linguistic units.
  • In theory there are nearly endless possibilities to combine words and sounds. However, any full language has narrowed down the range of possibilities to a few allowable combinations

=> the grammar.

how could grammar have arisen in the evolution of language
How could grammar have arisen in the evolution of language?

Simple rules have two requirements:

  • different types of basic units must exist
  • ways of combining the units must be agreed
Different types of basic words
  • Nouns are the basic words, which arose before other types of words were developed
  • Nouns and verbs together constituted the first ‘grammar’ => humans could mentally distinguish things and people from actions and events for a long time before establishing them as nouns and verbs.
  • Nouns and verbs are regarded as the universal categories of all languages.
the combination of words as a requirement for the emergence of grammar
The combination of words as a requirement for the emergence of grammar
  • Grammar emerged when noun-type words were combined with verb-type words.
  • Two possible ways by which nouns and verbs could have been combined:

1. ‘build-up’-route

2. ‘re-analysis’-route

the build up route
The build-up route

....assumes that a large number of single words accumulated. These were words of different types, some involving things, others actions. At a later stage these words were combined.

e.g. child: “mummy open” as a request for “Mummy please open this”

the re analysis route
The re-analysis route

...assumes that words, mainly nouns, were already being combined, but that sometimes more than one interpretation was possible

e.g. the word ‘singsing’ in Tok Pisin (pidgin, Papua New Guinea)

(singsing = any festival which involves dancing and singing)

ð“mi singsing” means “I went to the song and dance festival” or “I sang and danced”

consistent ordering of words
Consistent ordering of words

There are several possibilities as to how a firm word order might have happened in the evolution of languages

  • the signing of chimps
  • the utterances of Vincent, a child of deaf parents
  • the predispositions of the human mind
1 the signing of chimps nim chimpsky
1. The signing of chimps - Nim Chimpsky
  • At first sight Nim’s signing was quite unordered.
  • However Nim had some preferences:

-- food was placed first: “grape eat, banana Nim eat, apple

me eat”

--“more” at the beginning: “more eat, more tickle, more drink,..”

--his own name at the end

--repetition of words: “eat Nim eat, Nim eat Nim”

ðNim’s ordering resembles the process found when a language acquires new word-order rules:

mild stylistic preferences change into strong preferences which stabilize, become a habit and form a pattern which influences the formation of others.

2 the utterances of vincent child of deaf parents
2. The utterances of Vincent, child of deaf parents
  • Vincent: hearing child of deaf parents who taught him sign language. He did not speak and heard sounds only by watching television. He was first exposed to speak English when he was over three years old.
  • at first his speech was barely intelligible and only slowly his speech became clear
  • short utterances: “You –uh-oh”
  • limited vocabulary: „puter“ was a general, all-purpose verb.
  • “You”: several meanings: you, he, she
  • tendency to “copy-around” a word, to put one form on both sides of another “You house you”
The way Vincent put words together was bizarre.

However when his repeats and copying around were omitted, a clear word ordering preference appeared

=> he constructed many sentences according to a basic, but private, plan

=> Both the chimp and the child show that an optional word order can become a preferred order which later becomes a certain rule.
3 human mind set
3. Human mind set

Our human-mind set dictates how we see the world and create the language.

‘Ontological categories’, such as people, things, actions, events, provide a universal initial structure of the language of thought on which language is based.

The innate thought structure also covers the way in which words may be combined.

e.g. The cat sat on the mat. The dog lay under the table.

not: The mat lay under the cat. The table stood over the dog.

=> The location of ‘small onto large’ may be due to the human mind-set. Human thoughts run along certain routes,which are likely to affect the order of participants in a grammar.

preferences and pre linguistic rules
Preferences and pre-linguistic rules
  • ‘animate first preference’:

It is more normal to say “Patsy was hit on the head by a ball” than “A ball hit Patsy on the head”

=> The ‘animate first preference’ is not due to any obvious linguistic factor, but the human mind-set plays an important role.

  • The ‘animate first’ preference is linked to an ‘actor first’principle, because in real life animates act on lifeless things more often than the other way round.
  • The preferences are based on pre-linguistic mind-sets, which explain why so many languages show similarities.
  • Language began when words were combined.
  • There are several theories on how grammar could have arisen:

-out of ‘build-ups’: putting individual words together,

-out of ‘re-analyses’ of combined nouns.

  • At first many word combinations were possibly repetitive and inconsistent.
  • The examples of the chimp and the child Vincent show how rules may have became fixed: optional orders became strong preferences which later became rules.
  • The original preferences were probably on pre-linguistic ‘mind-sets’ => explains why so many languages show similarities
the evolution of language1

The evolution of language

The expansion of language –

Martina Kleinebreil

first steps
First steps
  • - Humans named themselves - parts of body- the immediate environment
inwards and outwards inwards and outwards
Inwards and OutwardsInwards and Outwards
  • The human body, and the space surrounding it, presumably formed the basis of further meaning extensions.
  • Humans body-parts move outwards to features of environment.e.g.Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea)
het = headhet bilong diwai - top of a treehan = handhan bilong diwai – branch of a treehan bilong pik – front legs of a pigOr even in English: head of state
  • Outer behaviour is a regular source for talk about the inner mental self.e.g. Physical sight expressionsI see what Helen means.Peter is still in the dark.
physical holding mental grasping
Physical holding - mental grasping:
  • - Did you grasp what he meant?- Did you get this?- Paul hold on to his point of view.
adpositions pre postpositions
Adpositions (Pre- & Postpositions)
  • - a limited number of prepositions- re-apply of the old ones, instead of inventing new ones.
Tok Pisin:mi go long taun – I go to townmi kam long town – I come from townmi stap long haus – I stayed at homemi paitim dok long stik – I hit the dog with a stick
Nouns – durable: dog, skyVerbs – rapid change: swim, go, hit properties – hot day, green houseproperties are less time-stable than nouns, but more time-stable than most verbs
1st possibility
1st possibility
  • Subdivision into stative and non- stative verbsnon-stative: kill, shootstative: be-green, be-ill(Mandarin Chinese, Yoruba)
2nd possibility
2nd possibility
  • adjectives as an extra category border-line between nouns/adj.and verbs/adj. seems arbitrarye.g. a gold watch  noun a lasting peace  verb
In the early days verbs and adjectives were probably indistinguishable.To reach a clear distinction later word- endings were added.
But a language is still not complete with just a few parts of speech, and various attachements for its verbs.


Frauke Skrobaschewsky

moving outwards
Moving outwards
  • roughly 75.000 years ago humans moved out of Africa and into Asia
  • first to Asia Minor
  • then westwards to Europe
  • eastwards to the Far East and Australia
the last continent to be populated was America
  • crossed from northeastern Siberia into northwest Alaska
  • went by boat via the Bering Strait
  • smalls groups
  • probably spoke dialects of the same language
the hunt for universals
The hunt for Universals
  • language universals = features which occur in all languages
  • any human can learn any language, so something must link all languages together
  • a possible list of “narrow“ absolute universals:
all languages
All languages
  • 1) have consonants and vowels
  • 2) combine sounds into larger units
  • 3) have nouns  words for people & objects
  • 4) have verbs  words for actions
  • 5) can combine words
all languages1
All languages
  • 6) can say who did that to who
  • 7) can negate utterances
  • 8) can ask questions
  • 9) involve structure-dependance
  • 10) involve recursions
finding absolute linguistic universals is hard because they differ in details from language to language
  • language must have constraints which prevent it from flying apart in different directions
  • constraints are hard to find  promising approach is the search for constraining links
  • language constructions are often linked tp one another in implicational chains
  • Noam Chomsky‘s ‘paramter setting‘  best known implicational theory
Chomsky‘s parameter setting
  • children have an inbuilt knowledge of some basic language principles
  • in addition they are instinctively aware of some key ‘either/or‘ options
  • they need to find out which options their own language selects
  • the extra information follows automatically
the future
The future
  • there are about 6.000 languages spoken today
  • in this century 90% of all languages will cease to exist
  • 3.000 languages are ‘moribund‘: no longer learned as a first language by the new generation of speakers
  • the few languages that will remain will spread across the world
  • Aitchison, John. The seeds of speech – Language origin and evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1996.