May 01, 2014

The Mystery of Language evolution (Hauser et al. 2014)

Many big names grace this paper which appears to pretty much say that know close to nothing about how language has evolved. The authors don't seem to buy into the theory that the hyoid bone of the Kebara Neandertal proves that H. neanderthalensis had language (which would probably push the origin of language to a time much earlier than the invention of recognizably modern human culture).

In a sense we have no data because our evidence for language is from recent millennia of our own species and older hominins did not exhibit behaviors that would unambiguously require language. So, the origin of language may remain obscure unless some breakthrough identifies the genetic substrate of language whose existence in different ancient hominins can then be ascertained.

Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401

The mystery of language evolution

Marc D. Hauser1*, Charles Yang2, Robert C. Berwick3, Ian Tattersall4, Michael Ryan5, Jeffrey Watumull6, Noam Chomsky3 and Richard Lewontin7

Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, 1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; 2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; 3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; 4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.



eurologist said...

Concerning the use of language, all I have to add is that I would have chosen "paucity" over poverty, but then again, I am not a native speaker.

More seriously, I largely agree with the abstract.

LivoniaG said...

This is bad science defending itself.

It’s of course false that other animals don’t provide strong clues as to how “human language” evolved.

You can get this kind of weird conclusion only if you insist that language is not basically about communication. Animals can communicate and understand communication very well. Not as effectively as humans, but effectively enough to show the evolutionary value of communally sharing information.

Chomsky’s concept of language seems to have nothing to do with communication. It’s all about structure, grammar and syntax. So, those supposedly unique aspects of the “universal” human language show up no where else but in humans. Never mind that they serve the same functions that communication does in other animals.

Simply take the position that grammar is nothing but disambiguation of reference or sense in communication and the problems disappear. The evolutionary advantages of more precise communication between individuals becomes obvious. It becomes a quantitative difference that appears to be a qualitative difference.

As Darwin pointed out, language can only be partly “instinctive.” It’s partly hardware, but an important part is the software. And the function of the software shapes the hardware. This group needed a Ray Kurzweil to unravel their mystery.

DocG said...

The earliest languages were probably tone languages. This can be inferred from the fact that almost all African languages are tone languages, and there is NO evidence anywhere in Africa for tonogenesis. The "experts" have been looking in the wrong way for the wrong things. Which is what "experts" do, I suppose.

German Dziebel said...


" there is NO evidence anywhere in Africa for tonogenesis."

True. But considering that there's plenty of evidence for recurrent tonogenesis in Asia and America, proto-African tones had likely evolved in Asia before modern humans colonized Africa.

dbnut said...

This paper seems mostly concerned with "how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved" or, as I read it, "originated". And I guess that's still a huge mystery.

How languages have since "evolved" or "developed" seems much less a mystery in principle, even if linguists can't (yet?) reconstruct very far back in time.

Anyway, this all reminded me of a long-time bee in my bonnet about the drivers of language change. The most usually invoked are drift and contact "borrowing" (more accurately theft). Isn't it true that much less attention is given to language replacement?

The little we know of ancient migrations suggests to me there would have been countless occasions of wholesale and partial replacement in whirlpools like India, Southeast, East and Central Asia.

My pet modern-day example is the spread of English in India where "original" forms have been modified in pronunciation (widespread intrusion of retroflex) and syntax (over-use of continuous relative to simple present tense). No doubt a real linguist could detect many more changes than I'm aware of. And if India had been the only place where English survived it would probably be nearly unrecognisable by now.

Another example, perhaps. It has bugged me for years that Thai unvoiced consonants p, t, k simply don't sound quite like their European counterparts: they have a certain quality of strength (or sharpness or explosiveness) that I find really difficult to replicate.

Though I'm much less familiar with other Southeast Asian languages, my impression is that Burmese and Mandarin lack that "strength" but something similar is detectable in Indonesian and Tagalog (probably Mon and possibly also Khmer).

You can believe the excitement on finding Pittayaporn's 2009 paper on Proto-Thai phonology where he constructs a series of implosive/glottalized stops contrasting with both voiced and voiceless!

I'm left wondering just how much of a language sea-change occurred when the Tai expansion from South China progressively overwhelmed SEA's former Austroasiatic cultures, and can well imagine that tone splitting would have resulted from all that consonantal havoc.

Maybe I'm talking nonsense.