The Origins of Human Language

Ron Lunsford, English, UNC Charlotte

In this seminar, we will explore in some depth the current hypotheses on language origins. When did humans first talk? As it turns out, this question may be inseparable from the question of why humans talk—that is, what evolutionary advantages did language provide for humans? Once these questions are raised, other questions soon follow, such as: What is the relationship between language and thought? Do other species have language? These, and many other questions, were put on hiatus in 1866 when The Linguistic Society of Paris officially banned discussion of the subject of origins of language. One might find the banning of a topic of study by a group of scholars dedicated to the search for new knowledge odd in any circumstance; in the context of the late nineteenth century, some 17 years after the publication of Origins of the Species, this ban seems more than odd—indeed deeply perplexing. What could account for such a ban? In part, the ban could be blamed on the fact that the topic of language does not lend itself to direct physical evidence in the way that studies of the celestial bodies, earth, or even the human anatomy do. Where does one go to find records of how humans used language 10,000 years ago? 100,000 years ago? Certainly not to fossil records, not to recordings, not even to written records? When the ban began to lose its grip on linguistic thinkers in the late twentieth century, those who turned their attention to origins found they could not limit their investigations to one discipline: linguistics; rather, they had to broaden their search to include work done in such fields as archaeology, psychology, and anthropology. Among those pursing this research, there are various hypotheses as to when, where, and how language first appeared and, depending on the hypothesis, as to whether language actually precedes humans in the evolutionary process. It is not difficult to see, in retrospect, why this topic was banned in 1866 and why it is still problematic for some: the answers we will ultimately find will no doubt affect our conception of what it means to be human.

This broad interdisciplinary approach to the study of language origins provides a natural point of contact between the information on origins we will be examining in this seminar and the individual studies participants might undertake. Some example inquiries might explore connections between human language and:

1) music

2) thought

3) reasoning

4) mathematics

5) culture

6 writing

7) languages of other species

Seminar participants might look at the content they teach through the lens of our seminar.Thus, a music teacher might explore the evolutionary connections between human language and music; a philosophy teacher might explore connections between human language and thought, or between human reasoning and language; a mathematics teacher might explore the “language” of mathematics in light of human language; a sociology teacher might explore issues of culture and human language; a psychology teacher might investigate modern research into how language “works” in the brain in light of the evolutionary history of language. A writing teacher might examine relationships between oral and written language with an eye to pedagogical implications for the teaching of writing; a biologist might explore connections between human language and language of other species. As we shall see, the interdisciplinary nature of this study, which makes it what some have called the “hardest problem in science,” also makes it among the most interesting.

Explore curriculum units developed by Fellows in this seminar here.