Understanding Human Language: An In-Depth Exploration of the Human Facility for Language

By Kendra A. Palmer
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 2/6 |

Around 750,000 years ago is the time when, Calvin claims, there were profound enlargements in the hominid brain. Why then, and what caused it to happen? This is unclear, but conjecture suggests improved hunting techniques as well as the of a proto-. In this case, proto-language can be defined as “just a growing vocabulary and then two words paired for a third meaning” (Calvin, 49). The motivation for the early form of communication probably had much to do with socialization and sexual selection, where “verbal grooming” and even gossip grew to be important. At the same time that Neanderthals were dominant in Europe (around 100,000 to 35,000 BC), a more lightly built Homo sapiens was evolving in Africa and the .

It is suggested that, where other animals and even other species of Homo “knew,” Homo sapiens “knew that they knew.” This reflective consciousness became essential to “social as well as to personal evolution… [providing] an increased capacity for self-determination, reconciliation, cooperation, and creativity” (Elgin, 18). Homo sapiens, around 100,000 years ago, possessed a cranial capacity average of about 1,400 cc (Elgin, 39). This branch of hominids was the one that eventually developed modern language and gained all the advantages involved with rapid speech, and even though that development may have taken some thirty thousand years, by about forty thousand years ago, the fossil record demarcates that modern man had arrived (McCrone, 171). The use of symbols appeared approximately 50,000 years ago among Homo sapiens and, in the words of Richard Leakey, speak “‘of a mental world we readily recognize as our own’” (Calvin, 83). With the influx of modern humans, the blade forms of stone tools proliferated—scrapers, chisels, spear blades, knives, and the like—demonstrating notable creativity, as well as practical ingenuity, in tool-making. This was, most likely, in response to more changes in hunting—a task should not be underestimated in terms of mental and social development (Osborne, 20). It is clear that “man must have been self-conscious and articulate by this time… [man] had made the break with the present tense and lived in a mental world of his own creation” (McCrone, 172). So, in their long history, physically and mentally, humans have essentially “adapted” for conditions that make complex language more feasible.

Using the Advantages of Evolutionary Adaptations

But still, the question remains: how and when did humans begin using fully evolved language?

Greenspan and Shanker contest that individuals must be able to connect and engage with one another and have the ability to form relationships (Greenspan and Shanker, 322, 360). In order to assemble supportive groups with shared goals, these early peoples had to be able to converse more productively. They experienced the desire to express themselves and to talk. They were equipped with adaptations which selected for language, and they built upon it. Then, a sound was paired with a meaning. This involves what is called the “arbitrariness of the sign”— the word cat does not look like a cat, walk like a cat, or meow like a cat, but it carries the meaning of ‘cat’ nevertheless. This is because every speaker has undergone a like act of learning in childhood that associates the sound with the meaning. Due to this uniform memorization, “the members of a language community receive an enormous benefit: the ability to convey a concept from mind to mind virtually instantaneously” (Pinker, 75).

When examining human history, the language community is a natural sort of unit. “Languages, by their nature as means of communication, divide humanity into groups: only through a common language can a group of people act in concert, and therefore have a common history” (Ostler, 7). The most basic way in which a language can come to thrive is called the Farmer’s Approach (Ostler, 19). All the community needs to do is stay united, understand and communicate in the same designated language, and grow in population. This language becomes natural to the defined group. It is then enculturated, learned by the young from transmission of the old, steeped in habit. Steven Pinker claims, “once invented, language would entrench itself… as parents taught their children and children imitated their parents” (19). Use of language, in practice, is persistent over generations.

Trying to determine exactly when humans began using language is extremely difficult, but one method is to date the emergence of certain languages or language families. Proto-Indo-European, the ancestral language of Indo-European (of which English is a part), is thought to have emerged six to eight thousand years ago in the general area of Turkey (Davis, 25). However, some paleolinguists propose that Proto-Indo-European, in its earlier phase, belonged to a more ancient and larger “superfamily” of languages known as Nostratic, believed to be spoken 15,000 years ago by the peoples living between the areas of the Caspian and Black seas. (It should be noted that this puts the emergence of language before the invention of agri, before sedentism and the appearance of the complex society). Even more, Davis indicates, the real date is “likely more than twice as long ago as that… [and] some scientists… think they can push the date for the origin of human language back even further” (Davis, 26). Stanford University geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, for example, believes that tracing the earliest migrations of humans around the world coincides closely with previous work by historical linguists. Provided with recent discoveries of archaic Homo sapiens in the Middle east around 90,000 B.C., Cavalli-Sforza supports the notion that modern humans were speaking some form of real language nearly 100,000 years ago.

Given anthropological and paleolinguistic evidence, it becomes clear that humans have biologically and mentally provided themselves with a way to take communication to a higher, more complicated level.

How Language Works: Functions in The Body and Mind

So then, how do these conditions—the physical changes in body and brain, and the history of use of language, manifest themselves now? Physically, what are the faculties that humans possess so that they are capable of forming various and wide-ranging sounds? There are many more than one might think. In regards to the body, all of what are known as the vocal organs aid in the production of speech. These include, generally, the lungs, mouth, throat, and nose. Inside the mouth, the lips, tongue, teeth, palate, and uvula are all involved. How Language Works, by linguist David Crystal, states that inside the throat, the pharynx (upper part), larynx (lower part), vocal folds, and glottis are engaged in the speech process. The vocal tract, which consists of the pharynx, mouth, and nose, form a system of cavities that can alter their shape, and this is what allows the many different sounds of spoken language to be created. Crystal explains that the lungs produce a stream of air (called pulmonic air), which helps the chest to contract and expand and the ribs to move, causing the diaphragm to move downwards; all of this reduces the air pressure in the lungs (Crystal, 20). But pulmonic air has to be converted into audible vibrations, in the lower region of the vocal tract, the larynx.

Thus, one of the main functions of the larynx is to create a kind of buzzing sound, known as phonation, which is used for most of the consonants and all of the vowels. The larynx is also capable of pitch movements (when the vocal-fold vibration is altered at will), glottal stops (when the vocal folds are held tightly closed), and glottal friction (when the vocal folds are held wide apart). Once the given air stream passes through the larynx, it enters the vocal tract and is manipulated by several mobile vocal organs—the tongue, soft palate, and lips, mostly. This is the point at which articulation is achieved (Crystal, 27). The tongue is able to conform to more shapes and positions than any other vocal organ; it therefore assists in the making of a high number of speech sounds (Crystal, 29). It is the soft palate that, during normal breathing, is lowered to allow air to pass through the nose, and it affects the quality of sounds. The lips are employed for sounds such as “p” and “m” and create the various spreading used with vowels. Resonance is produced through the cavities in the throat, mouth, and nose. When the body exhales, the chest and lungs are then contracted, the ribs lowered, and the diaphragm raised, forcing air out. When one speaks, “the pattern [of the respiratory cycle] changes to one of very rapid inhalation and very slow exhalation... [carrying] much larger amounts of speech than would otherwise be the case” (Crystal, 21). As Crystal clarifies, of course, humans are capable of many other “sound effects,” possibly considered more emotional noises than speech sounds—but these communicate something nonetheless (23).

The physical means for language within the body have been discussed. Now, what of the brain’s role as it relates to the human capability for language? Neurolinguists contend that, in fact, extremely detailed processes trigger speech; although as of now there is no set, detailed model of neurolinguistic operation, it is still possible to speak generally of neurolinguistic processing. It seems that the theory of cerebral localization (the idea that a single area of the brain is related directly to a single behavioral ability), proposed by neurolinguists such as Broca and Wernicke, has some validity. For example, the area in front of the fissure of Rolando is mostly involved in motor functioning, thus significant in speaking and writing. P of the upper temporal lobe (known as Wernicke’s area) plays a major role in the comprehension and production of speech, and the lower back part of the frontal lobe (Broca’s area) is primarily concerned with the encoding of speech. Part of the left parietal region performs tasks related to manual signing. And the area at the back of the occipital lobe is mainly used for the processing of visual input.

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