A Shot at Understanding Language Origins
Language is the medium that allows all other cultural practices to take place. Without language, there would be no belief systems, rituals, or social norms. Humans are the only organisms that have language. The evolutionary benefits of language are evident, but what originally caused hominids to have the mental and physiological capacities for speech is not. Researchers from the fields of linguistic and physical anthropology have been working together to answer this question.
MacNeilage and Davis (2005) focus on embodiment in their take on Frame/Content theory. Frame/Content theory states that the first step for true language is taking subsets of meaningful vocal units and forming patterns for more words. For this to be possible, the structures necessary to produce language must be present. MacNeilage and Davis (2005) emphasize embodiment, which is the initial use of the physical apparatus to create phonological structures.When considering a vocal-auditory medium for language origin, the first stage in language is precursor behaviors. One important aspect is the precursor structure which is the mandible. According to MacNeilage and Davis (2005) the first step was the cyclical mandible present in the early mammals 200 million years ago. This allowed for the mouth close-open alternation that later made it possible for consonant-vowel syllables to be produced. After this, mandibular oscillation developed which led to the rhythmic cycle. This step led the way to actions like teeth chatters and lipsmacks. Another important adaptation that later evolved in hominids is the ability to mimic (MacNeilage and Davis, 2005).
The next stage is the proximal trigger phase. At this point, hominids have the physical apparatus needed for speech and the capability to mimic. Two different selection pressures are also present that lead to the necessity for language (MacNeilage and Davis, 2005). The first is the need for more efficient communication between a caregiver and infant, which would increase infant survival. Second is the need for better communication within a community, which would assist in procreation, protection, and managing food (MacNeilage and Davis, 2005). Seyfarth, Cheney, and Bergman (2005) show communication used for understanding hierarchies is used in baboons, who share a common ancestor with humans. Baboons are able to ascertain a narrative from the calls they use that includes an agent, and action, and a recipient. This ability to combine types of knowledge helps social organization within the community. The authors (Seyfarth et al., 2005) suggest that this same need for social organization could have been present in early hominids.
This is only a small taste of one of the many theories researchers have on language origins. It is difficult to study because language cannot be directly uncovered in the archaeological record. Obviously this does not keep scientists from trying. Using theories from different field like linguistics and physical anthropology does provide broader avenues for study and helps us get at the big picture.
MacNeilage PF, Davis BL. 2005. The frame/content theory of evolution of speech: a comparison with a gestural-origins alternative. Interaction Studies 6:173-199.
Seyfarth RM, Cheney DL, Bergman TJ. 2005. Primate social cognition and the origins of language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9:264-266.