The Origin of Language
Brian MacWhinney’s essay, “The Gradual Emergence of Language,” highlights four major advances in human evolution that brought about the emergence of language. These advances – bipedalism, social cohesion, mimesis, and systematization – represent “four major co-evolutionary periods,” dating all the way back to eight million years ago (MacWhinney 65). I find bipedalism to be the most interesting factor in the emergence of language, especially because it is where our ancestors diverged from the ancestors of monkeys and apes today by “adapt[ing] a more exclusively upright gait” (MacWhinney 66). I find it fascinating that humans are the only animals to have developed a complex language system, while it seems to me that so many other animals may have the potential to do so as well. Why, then, are there no other animals with a language system such as ours, and will the potential for another species to also gain our ability ever exist?
While most terrestrial animals are quadrupeds, there are several species that are bipedal, similar to humans. Birds, kangaroos, primates, and bears all have the ability to walk upright on two legs. This allows their upper two appendages the freedom to fly, use tools, or fight. In early human ancestors, this freedom was imperative in allowing them to adapt to their “new drier savannah habitat in a way that did not compete with monkeys” (MacWhinney 66). By occupying a new, unique niche, human ancestors were able to “wield small weapons and tools,” giving them a “clear advantage over monkeys” when it came to obtaining food or fighting enemies (MacWhinney 67). It seems logical, then, that other species would use the freedom that bipedalism gives to their advantage, as well.
Bipedalism accompanied by tool use by the freed upper limbs is not uncommon. In fact, recently, scientists observed a brown bear using tools in the wild. One particular bear picked up a rock with his forepaw and scratched his neck with it, either to relieve an itch or to remove food from his fur. In addition, primates have been known to use tools such as walking sticks, spears, and stone hammers. This phenomenon of tool use by animals other than humans demonstrates that other animals may not only possess the first physical trait necessary in the evolution of human language, but also that they may have the ability to think critically and manipulate their environment in a beneficial way. Although MacWhinney states that chimpanzees and monkeys “do not appear to make planful use of mental imagery to limit their search through possible methods of tool use,” which differs from the way that humans use tools, it does not seem unreasonable that they are simply in the early stages of developing the necessary abilities to accomplish planned tool use (MacWhinney 69). MacWhinney even admits that in the early stages of human ancestor evolution, “hominid abilities to imitate motor sequences were probably not much more advanced than the abilities we see in chimpanzees” (MacWhinney 69). It seems that other animals may be going down the very early stages of a similar path humans took in the development of complex language.
While I am not suggesting that bears and monkeys will soon have the ability to communicate using complex language systems, like humans, I think that it is wise to realize that humans may not be the only animals with the potential for such advancements. The development of our species to the point where language emerged took millions of years, as well as very specific condition and adaptations. However, there is no reason to rule out the possibility that similar conditions could present themselves sometime in the future, opening up a niche for other animals to evolve in a way similar to humans.
MacWhinney, Brian. “The Gradual Emergences of Language.” The Evolution of Language from Prelanguage. Ed. Talmy Givon and Bertram Malle. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002.
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