What are the origins of human language?

Human language builds on birdsong and the language of primates. This is the hypothesis of a new academic study, according to which man learned the melody of birdsongs as well as the more pragmatic, content-carrying primate language. Roughly 100,000 years ago, these capacities fused into the form of human language we know today.

On the island of Java, the silvery gibbon is a unique example of a primate that sings: 14 different note types, which allow it to mark its territory and communicate with others in its group. This unusual animal could help us understand how language evolved. It’s clearly difficult to say how human language emerged. But we can nevertheless draw analogies with similar systems found in nature, systems whose means of communication are fairly close to our own. This is what Shigeru Miyagawa, a linguist at MIT, and his team of researchers have done.

Our language consists of two layers: the expressive layer (related to the structure of sentences) and the lexical layer (related to the meaning). With its rhythms and melodies, the expressive layer is derived from birdsong, suggests Miyagawa. Meanwhile, the lexical layer, with its rich content, appears to have been borrowed from primates.

Birds, however, have a limited number of melodies they can sing and recombine, and primates make only a limited number of sounds with particular meanings. Given the seemingly infinite combinations of human language, we are faced with an interesting challenge: how was man able to merge two finite languages in order to create something much richer, in particular through the lexical layer?

This intriguing question was already being put forward by Charles Darwin and others in the 19th century. In any case, we are a long way from the myths and legends surrounding the birth of language (the god Hermes of Greek mythology, or even the Bible and the Tower of Babel…)!
One thing is certain: it is through the fusion of different means of expression that man has been able to develop language, and this in return has allowed man to create societal structures and organizations. Language is a fundamental part of what makes man a social animal!
Source: Source : Shigeru Miyagawa, Shiro Ojima, Robert C. Berwick, Kazuo Okanoya. The integration hypothesis of human language evolution and the nature of contemporary languages. Frontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5 DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00564

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