Human language evolved with a ‘Big Bang’, study says

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – @ParkstBrett

Prevailing theories suggest that human language evolved slowly from a series of simple grunts and noises, to a complex spoken language between 75,000 and 100,000 years ago.

But now, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers believe the rise of complex language took place relatively rapidly, not as a series of gradual changes as has been described previously.

The Big Bang of language

Some scholars have argued that we first started using a kind of “proto-language” before developing a language that included syntax, or rules that organized word and sentence structures. In the new study, researchers said some words show signs that they descended from a syntax-laden system, not just a collection of simple grunts and sounds.

Study author Shigeru Miyagawa, a linguistics professor at MIT, told redOrbit via email that cognitive developments in the brain allowed for the quick rise of complex language.

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“One way to think about this is that the brain, which had been growing ever larger for over a million years, at some point 75,000 to 100,000 years ago, hit a critical point, and all the resources that nature had provided came together in a Big Bang and language emerged pretty much as we know it today,” Miyagawa wrote. “It looks counterintuitive given how enormously complex language is, but when one considers that the brain was getting ready for it for more than million years, it isn’t too far-fetched.”

“This is also around the time that you see other higher-cognitive achievements, such as painted and carved art, refined tools, and sophisticated weapons,” he noted.

Strange apes

In support of their hypothesis, the researchers wrote in their study that even a single word can be “as complex as an entire phrase.”

For example, Miyagawa said, the word “nationalization” starts with “nation,” a noun; adds “-al” to form an adjective; adds “-iz(a)” to create a verb; and ends with “-tion,” to make yet another noun with a completely new meaning. The study authors noted that these same syntax rules can be found in Romance languages that have been previously described as coming from formless proto-language.

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In writing to redOrbit, Miyagawa emphasized that something must have ‘clicked’ in the expanding brains of humans that allowed us to start putting together the complex language were speak, hear and read today.

“Alfred Russel Wallace, cofounder with Darwin of the idea of evolution through natural selection, noted that by natural evolution, we ought have a brain that’s just a bit better than that of the apes,” he wrote. “Yet, what we ended up with is a brain that is way more powerful than it should be if it were just part of natural selection.”

“There are many disagreements about language, but one thing that virtually everyone agrees on is that humans are the sole owners of such a complex and rich system,” Miyagawa added. “There has never been anything like it before and nothing since, except in our species.”

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