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Voicebox : Timeline -the evolution of language and speech


Timeline for scientific research on the evolution of language and speech

Key - Most work has been concentrated in three main areas:

scenarios or ‘storylines’ depicting the initial emergence of language among our ancestors  

evidence of how language processes are organized in the human brain  

estimates of the potential of the great apes to learn elements of language, and of the linguistic abilities of our fossil ancestors

An Egyptian papyrus (the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, dated to c.1700 BC but perhaps copied from a 3000 BC original) records diagnostic details of 48 medical cases, including one of a person who suffered localised brain damage and lost the capacity to speak. This is often cited as the first recorded diagnosis of aphasia (loss of speech capacity due to brain damage).
The Greek historian Herodotus (5th Century BC) records a story of one of the Egyptian pharaohs, who conducted an experiment to see which culture and language was the oldest by ordering two children to be raised in linguistic isolation. He wanted to see what words the children would spontaneously produce.
Early European encounters with great apes stimulate speculation about their intelligence and linguistic potential.
The German rationalist philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, in his 1772 essay ‘On the Origin of Language’, argues that humans can adapt to such a wide range of environments because they are able to think reflectively about the world they see (and not respond instinctively). He argues that reflection requires the ability to categorise phenomena and give them names. Language is then simply the external expression of the use of reason.
The French romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his 1781 essay ‘On the Origin of Language’, argues that the first words were used to express our emotions.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, doctors begin to get a better understanding of which parts of the human brain are involved in speech and language processing. Their research is based on studying brain-damaged patients whose brain damage has caused them to lose normal language abilities.
Charles Darwin writes, in 1871, of the possible route by which language might have evolved gradually from the simpler forms of communication seen in other living species of animal.
The German linguist F. Max Muller (lived 1823-1900) derides Darwin’s and other theories which suggest that language could have been derived by gradual evolution from the kinds of vocal signals seen in other animals today.
La Société de Linguistique de Paris (the newly-set up French learned society for the scientific study of languages), founded in 1866, bans discussion of the origin of language on the grounds that this is pure speculation.
In 1891 the Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois finds the first fossils of a human ancestor species in Indonesia, and calls them Pithecanthropus erectus – ‘the ape-man who walked upright’. He cannot tell whether or not this species used language.
A partial skeleton of a Neanderthal is recovered at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, in 1908. A debate ensues – still not resolved – about the linguistic ability of this very close relative of our own species, now of course extinct.
Noam Chomsky, an American linguist (born 1928), argues that humans are born with an innate, or hardwired, knowledge of a universal grammar. He observes that all languages share certain rules and that children learn languages with astonishing speed.
Studies of vervet monkeys in Africa, in which their alarm calls are recorded and played back to them from concealed loudspeakers, show that they are sensitive to acoustic cues signalling different kinds of predator (eagle, leopard, snake).
There are several attempts to train captive great apes to communicate with humans using language, from the 1920s onwards. It emerges that chimpanzees cannot learn to use a spoken vocabulary, and results of sign language experiments are mixed. Later work with a keyboard apparatus shows however that humans and chimpanzees can communicate using words and using some basic grammatical rules for combining them.
Genetic studies of a family whose members display selective deficits in speech articulation leads to the identification (controversially) of a ‘speech and language’ gene. Further studies suggest that this gene evolved into the form found in modern humans some time in the last million years, and a copy of the same form of the gene is recovered from the bones of a Neanderthal.
Bones from the root of the tongues of two extinct hominin species are excavated and show a change from a chimp-like to a human-like form, implying the evolution of greater control of the articulatory apparatus.
It is suggested that human language evolved to enable us to manage large networks of social relationships.

University College London AHRC European Commission AHRC CECD