Origins of Language – “The Hardest Question in Science”

Origins of Language – “The Hardest Question in Science”

Today in class, I began my lecture series on the origins of language, with three questions in mind:

  1. Where did language come from?
  2. What are the requirements for language?
  3. How do we know so much about our own language without being explicitly taught?

And it occurred to me that for all three of these questions, we can only give partial answers to our students, as we don’t  have enough evidence to fully support one theory over the other.

To address the first question is nearly impossible without a time machine. While that’s a bit hyperbolic, there is some truth to the notion that we have very little to work with in discovering what early human first muttered some word or utterance: no one wrote it down, and I can’t dig in the ground and find the first language ever. We’ve constructed some methods to get fairly close at an answer, from looking at the fossil record for larynx locations in early humans to using the Comparative Method in Linguistics, but none really get us a concrete answer to the question of where did language start?

The second question is also rather complex, since defining what “language” is differs from linguist to linguist. Even if we all agree on one definition, the question then arises of what conditions do we need to start a language, and even more basic, what are the components of the mind and brain that comprise a language? Some effort has been constructed to list off other cognitive faculties that a language might require, for instance deixis (the ability to point to, say, “me” and know what that means in context), and theory of mind (the idea that I know I can think and that others can think as well), but it is not clear how long this list of features needs to be to be the necessary and sufficient conditions to make a language.

Finally, the last question is most easily addressed with a fair amount of confidence, as it speaks to a problem Chomsky coined “Plato’s Problem” or the “Poverty from the Stimulus.” Here, the story comes from Socrates prying from an uneducated boy some basic geometric properties, but asks the basic question, “how do we know so much information without being explicitly taught?” For Socrates, how can an uneducated person deduce geometric relationships, and for the linguist, how do we know when a sentence is acceptable or grammatical when no one sat us down and went through every sentence to show us which were good and which were bad? How do we know, in English, to insert swear words perfectly into other words without much effort? For Socrates, the answer was reincarnation and knowledge being passed on from your ancestors; the modern solution isn’t far off. The modern solution is that we have innate knowledge at birth: we have the capacity to absorb human sounds (or sights) and put meaning and structure to them. We have innate knowledge of the space around us, emotions, language, etc.

Now, some may discredit innate knowledge as reincarnation+pseudoscience, but the evidence shows us that we are not tabula rasa at birth. We are instead equipped with a set of knowledge that we can use as we grow up. We can deduce what “near” means when placing a marble near a box and know that once the marble is inside the box that it is no longer near, even though, arguably no one taught us that. We can figure out how to walk, to talk, to throw objects across the room (performing rather complicated physics) and have a relative knowledge of where it will land, all without explicit conditioning or learning. We can try all day to assume that everything we know is taught to us, but to pursue this endeavor would be to purposefully ignore all the amazing abilities humans have and often take for granted.


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