How were languages made by people?
The emergence of human language
The emergence of human language began much earlier than previously thought
By Harald Gorczytza
The first documented experiment that was supposed to clarify the origin of human language took place in Egypt in the second century BC. Pharaoh Psammetichos let a toddler grow up in isolation to determine which language they would speak their first word in. Around 1500, the Scottish King James IV repeated the attempt by imprisoning two boys. They actually developed a language that only they could understand from sounds and gestures, which, however, to the disappointment of the monarch, did not coincide with the language of heavenly beings he had actually hoped for.
Five hundred years later, things are no longer so cruel when the Bielefeld scientist Horst M. Müller investigates the biological basis of language skills. His subjects only listen to a voice off the tape while their brain waves are recorded. "We want to find out whether linguistic categories, such as the division into nouns, are artificial or whether they have a natural basis in the brain," says Müller, explaining the aim of the experiments. The neurobiologist and linguist assumes that language has developed from other human cognitive abilities in the course of its history. In the beginning there was a simple pre-language that our ancestors gradually refined.
Until the 1950s, language was considered an expression of human intelligence. It was believed that man learns to speak as he learns to play chess. It was not until the US linguist Noam Chomsky objected that language cannot simply be the product of a learning process. Practically everyone, regardless of their origin, can speak. And while most people do not know the rules, as early as three-year-olds are able to formulate an infinite number of grammatically correct sentences. Chomsky therefore concludes that all human beings have an innate organ of language, a "mental grammar", which allows them to learn a language. It only needs to be provided with the rules and vocabulary of the respective mother tongue during childhood.
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Man is the only kind that speaks
In fact, showing how language evolved is not an easy task. Unlike body features, it does not petrify. Any linguistic transitional forms cannot be detected in other species either. There are controversial attempts to prove language in great apes; According to the current state of knowledge, however, the human being is the only speaking species.
Nevertheless, transitional forms or pre-languages can still be reconstructed today. The American Steven Pinker demonstrated this in a vivid way in his book "The Language Instinct" in the mid-1990s. One example is pidgin languages, which often arise when people without a common language are forced to communicate with one another. They are built more simply than normal languages, have no fixed word order and only few grammatical units. They are ambiguous, and a complex issue is difficult or impossible to explain in pidgin language. If one of our ancestors had spoken pidgin, he would have had an evolutionary advantage over speechless conspecifics.
The development of the pre-language and from there to the complete language has hardly developed in the 40,000 years that many textbooks still indicate today. Müller assumes that it took at least a million years from language ability to the first pre-language. Language would not only be a characteristic of the modernhomo sapiensbut a property of different (human) species.
Even the Neanderthals could speak
Recently, researchers from Duke University in the USA showed that the nerve channel to the tongue was about as thick in Neanderthals and other hominids who lived a good three hundred thousand years ago as in humans today, while it is much thinner in great apes. This is an indication of the great mobility of the tongue, which is necessary to produce articulate sounds. In doing so, the researchers do away with the old belief that Neanderthals were wordless fellows who could only make themselves understood with grunts. The width of a nerve canal is also an indication of the maximum age of the language. One of the best preserved fossil ancestors of man, the "Boy of Turkana" lived about 1.6 million years ago on the shores of the African lake of the same name. He could already walk upright, but his spinal cord, in the section that controls the muscles of the chest, was much less developed than in people today. The consequence of this was that he could control his chest and thus the lungs far less precisely than is the case with modern humans. Nevertheless, researchers suspect that the species may already have a pre-language.
The ability to speak requires a range of mental abilities. The "boy from Turkana" and his contemporaries have already made stone tools. This presupposes an idea of the future tool in the toolmaker's brain and requires a certain sequence of actions. Some researchers believe that this action-oriented grammar and pre-language developed in parallel.
The Bielefeld experiments vaguely suggest another possible explanation. "In order to survive, it is advantageous for primates if they can categorize their environment, for example into animate and inanimate, edible and inedible," explains Müller. Together with Sabine Weiss from the Neurophysiological Institute of the University of Vienna, he was able to show that such categorizations can be physiologically proven in the brain. His students react differently depending on whether an abstract term such as satisfaction or a more specific one such as apple is mentioned. In the first case, many areas of the brain are active in them, while abstract concepts only evoke local activity.
Proper names occupy a special position, they evoke the strongest activity. "Proper names are something special," says Müller, "because they allow living beings the important identification of individuals." The cry of its nestling is a specific signal for the seagull in the breeding colony, which is: "my cub". Vervet monkeys, a type of monkey, have different warning calls for different enemies. Depending on whether a leopard or an eagle is approaching, the animals either flee up the trees or hide in the bushes close to the ground. From such a specificsignal apparently at some point our ancestors made something unspecific by using sounds as variables. This could be used to name things or people in their absence.
The Origin of the German language
The Alemanni and their language
All 12 articles for: German language
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Last update: April 16, 2020
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