Origins of Language

On Becoming Human: SAL Kurs Herbst 2008

During the years I studied "language" at university - fifty years ago - I learnt that there was no scientific answer to the question of the Origins of Language, that we would never "know" how language evolved. All attempts to think about this question could only result in hypotheses (and proper scientists do not dabble in hypotheses - they want "facts"). I am not interested in "facts" - I am interested in "ideas", so I began to collect ideas about language-evolution:

John McCrone Going Inside
A Tour round a Single Moment of Consciousness
Faber&Faber 1999
It is obvious that the consciousness of humans is different from that of animals, but the question is, in what way? Humans appear to have all sorts of added extras, such as self-awareness, rational thought, and free will, yet it is hard to tell whether the distinction is one of degree or kind. Is the human mind just a scaled-up chimpanzee brain, or is the gap so great that there can be no comparison between the mental lives of animals and humans? Do animals even have subjective states? About 100 000 years ago, Homo sapiens - true modern humans - appeared on the scene. Homo sapiens was a puny creature compared to the Neanderthals who happened to be the dominant species of hominids at the time, and they did not even measure up in brain size having a cranial capacity of about 1,500 millilitres compared to 1,600 millilitres for the Neanderthals. Yet despite this, Homo sapiens took over the world. The Neanderthals were shoved aside, the last few disappearing about 30,000 years ago while Homo sapiens spread rapidly to fill every corner of the planet.
Development of language: For some reason, in a blink of geological time,
one line of hominids suddenly became symbolically minded and self-aware. The only possible explanation for this overnight change appears to be the development of language - or, more precisely, of articulate, rapidly spoken and grammatical speech. Speech would have emerged out of the extremely close social lives the hominids were leading. Living in a group depends on good communication. Chimps and gorillas may not have a formal language system, but they are expert at reading the moods and intentions of one another from subtle signs such as facial expressions, direction of gaze, general posture, and, of course, grunts, screeches, pants, and other emotional noises.

Ideas about language-evolution: we need to study language as a medium of communication, as a medium of interaction - so we need to study how all living beings interact, coordinate their behaviour (Maturana), and how in animals their brains achieve "understanding" of what goes on in their groups. The central question will then be "semiotic", what is the "meaning" of signs, how can brains interprete signs? We need to study the "social brain". We also have to reflect on communication: Communikation Theory (Niklas Luhman, Dirk Baecker)

Maturana: Der Baum der Erkenntnis Seite 135
: Entstehung der Sprache: Die Einzelheiten der Geschichte struktureller Transformationen der Primaten, die im Verlauf der Evolution zum Homo sapiens führten, kennen wir nicht, und wir werden sie vielleicht nie genau kennen. Unglücklicherweise hinterläßt das soziale und sprachliche Leben keine Fossilien. Aus Veränderungen des Skeletts lässt sich zum Beispiel viel über Veränderungen von Körperhaltung und Bewegung, manipulatorische Fähigkeiten, Gesichtsausdruck, Stimmbildung, Größe und Gestalt des Gehirns schließen. Es ist jedoch nicht leicht, Details der im Lauf der Evolution erhaltenen Lebensmodi zu rekonstruieren, die zur rekursiven Ausdehnung sprachlicher Bereiche führten.Wir können jedoch sagen, daß die Veränderungen bei den frühen Hominiden, die das Erscheinen der Sprache möglich machten, mit ihrer Geschichte als soziale Tiere mit engen affektiven interpersonellen Beziehungen verbunden sein müssen, Beziehungen, die mit dem Sammeln und Teilen der Nahrung zusammenhängen. In dieser Lebensweise finden wir die Koexistenz und Erhaltung scheinbar widersprüchlicher Aktivitäten: lokale interpersonelle Interaktionen in kleinen, engverbundenen Gruppen von Individuen, die ihre Nahrung teilen, sich andererseits aber relativ lange Zeiten voneinander entfernen, um zu sammeln und zu jagen, ohne dabei ihre emotionale Verbundenheit zu verlieren.  Solch eine Lebensweise eröffnet einen Bereich von Möglichkeiten der Variationen in der «Tropholaxis», durch die die Gruppe als Einheit erhalten wird, solange diese Weise zu leben erhalten wird. Die Linguolaxis (sprachliche Tropholaxis) ist äußerst geeignet für solche Variationen. 

The making of the social mind
Robin Dunbar (University of Liverpool)
Social Intelligence
Chris Frith (University College London)
Social Cognition
Chris Gosden (University of Oxford)

The study the "social brain": that was the subject of a conference I read about in my weekly update on news from the world of science - NewScientist.

New Scientist 17.5.08
Conference Cambridge 2007: The Sapient Mind

ARCHAEOLOGY can tell us plenty about how humans looked and the way they lived tens of thousands of years ago. But what about the deeper questions? Could early humans speak, were they capable of self-conscious reflection, did they believe in anything? Such questions might seem to be beyond the scope of science. Not so. Answering them is the focus of a burgeoning field that brings together archaeology and neuroscience. It aims to chart the development of human cognitive powers. This is not easy to do. A skull gives no indication of whether its owner was capable of speech, for example. The task then is to find proxies for key traits and behaviours that have stayed intact over millennia. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this endeavour is teasing out the role of culture as a force in the evolution of our mental skills (see "Biology alone may not have made us human"). For decades, development of the brain has been seen as exclusively biological. But increasingly, that is being challenged.

How culture made your modern mind
14 May 2008 Andy Coghlan
It is one of the hottest questions of our time: how did our cognitive abilities explode, leaving other animals for dust intellectually?
Now a new explanation is emerging. Controversially, it challenges the idea that biology alone is what drove the evolution of intellectual skills. What if we acquired abilities such as the capacity to invent, converse or work in unison as a result of a continual process of cultural cross-fertilisation with the world we inhabit, and through the way we interact with other people and material things?
Not only does this idea help explain how our species blossomed intellectually in the first place but it implies that our brains are continually changing whenever we meet new cultural concepts, objects and technologies, whether they are cellphones or new religions.
After Homo sapiens emerged about 200,000 years ago, it took around 140,000 years before any sign of modern civilisation emerged. So what happened that finally turned Stone Age boneheads into whizz-kids capable of creating stone tools, painting cave art and arranging burial rites for the dead?
A number of the researchers who contributed papers think that up to a certain point in history, biological factors alone controlled our brain's development. Then around 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, the biology and structure of our brains stopped changing and other factors began to take over as the main driver of human development.
For this to happen, however, the biological groundwork needed to be in place, they say. One of those biological foundations may have been the gradual expansion of working memory, which eventually enabled us to retain memories from the past, recognise objects in the present and plan ahead and conceive of a future (see "We're streets ahead").
The second was the emergence of a "theory of mind", which is the realisation that other creatures are intelligent and capable of independent thought and intention. It derives from the activity of "mirror" systems in the brain which enable an observer to feel the experiences of others, and to divine their intentions and motives.

Working Memory
Theory of Mind: index-ToM
Mirror Neurons: Ramachandran
Communication: index- com
Sociality: Robin Dunbar

New Ideas about language-evolution:

Index Evolution of Language: Sprachevolution
Symbolic Mind: McCrone - Merlin Donald - Deacon

Cognitive Science:
Cognitive Linguistics
: Zoltan Kövecses - Gary Marcus - Jerome Feldman - Gilles Fauconnier
Feldman328 ...Our neural theory of language suggests that simulation might well be a cornerstone in the evolution of human language and thought. As we have seen, converging evidence indicates that people understand language and other behaviours at least in part by simulation or imagination. This ability to think about situation is not bound to the here and now (displacement) is also obviously necessary for evaluating alternatives, for planning, and for understanding other minds. We discuss this ability in terms of mental spaces.
I believe there is a plausible story about how a discreet revolutionary change could have given early hominids simulation capability that helped start the process leading to our current linguistic abilities. Mammals in general exhibit at least two kinds of involuntary simulation behaviour - dreams and play. While a cat is dreaming, a centre in the brain stem blocks the motor nerves so that the cat’s dream thoughts are not translated into action. If this brainstem centre is destroyed, the sleeping cat may walk around the room, lick itself, catch in imaginary mice, and otherwise appear to be acting out its dreams. There is a general belief that dreaming is important for memory consolidation in people, and this was also be valuable for other mammals. Similarly, it is obvious that play behaviours in cats and other animals have significant adaptive value.
Given that mammals do exhibit involuntary displacement in dreams, it seems that only one revolutionary adaption is needed to achieve our ability to imagine situations of our choosing. Suppose that the mammalian involuntary simulation mechanisms were augmented by brain circuits that could explicitly control what was being imagined, as we routinely do. This kind of overlaying a less flexible brain system with one that is more amenable to control is the hallmark of brain evolution, and no one it would be surprised to find another instance of this mechanism. Now, hominids who could do detached simulations could relive the past, plan for the future, and be well on their way to simulating other minds. Understanding other minds would then provide a substrate for a richer communication and all the benefits that accrue from the use of mental spaces. One crucial component of mental space reasoning is the ability to map ideas from one mental space to another. This is how we draw lessons from the past or change our plans after thinking about the consequences. People can predict what someone is likely to do based on what she says. So, our general simulation faculty must include the ability to maintain and exploit relational mappings. The learning of grammar could be very nicely modelled as learning relational mappings between regularities of linguistic form and the underlying meaning they convey, and some such mapping abilities seems to be required under any theory of grammar. Even more speculatively, the combined ability to imagine separate scenarios and to map them together is perhaps one of the foundations of many human capabilities, including grammar. This is close to the proposal of cognitive scientists Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner in a recent book „The Way We Think“ (2002). Whatever combination of biological and cultural evolution gave rise to early human language, it is no mystery that it developed rapidly, and, in all cultures, has a vast array of uses in human communication and thought. We would love to know more about how language evolved, but it is unlikely that any theory of language origins would change our basic ideas of who we are and how the world works.

Gilles Fauconnier The Way We Think
Blending: cognitive fluidity - merging mental spaces - metaphorical thinking:
Fifty thousand years ago, more or less, during the Upper Palaeolithic Age, our ancestors began the most spectacular advance in human history. Before that age, human beings were a negligible group of large mammals. After, the human mind was able to take over the world. What happened?
The archaeological record suggests that during the Upper Palaeolithic, humans developed an unprecedented ability to innovate. They acquired a modern human imagination, which gave them the ability to invent new concepts and to assemble new and dynamic mental patterns. The results of this change were awesome: human beings developed art, science, religion, culture, sophisticated tools, and language. How could we have invented these things?
In this book, we focus on conceptual blending, a great mental capacity that, in its most advanced „double-scope“ form, gave our ancestors superiority and, for better and for worse, made is what we are today. We investigate the principles of conceptual blending, it's fascinating dynamics, and its crucial role in how we think and live.

Marco Iacoboni: We humans, however, do pantomime, and indeed our mirror neurons areas are activated by more abstract actions than are those of the monkeys. The several evolutionary steps dividing monkeys from humans can easily account for such difference. A subject for future discussion will be the theory by computational neuroscientists Michael Arbib that mirror neurons at key precursors of a neural systems for language. He proposes that pantomime plays a critical role in the evolutionary progression from the relatively simple mirror neuron system in monkeys to the much more sophisticated neural system that supports the high level of abstraction in human language.


Christine Kenneally
The First Word
The search for the origins of language
Viking 2007

Michael Tomasello
The Cultural Origins of HUMAN COGNITION
Harvard Univ. Press 2000

Language Evolution
Edited by Morten H. Christiansen Simon Kirby
Oxford University Press 2003

James R. Hurford
The Language Mosaic and its Evolution

Hurford Preadaptions

Dunbar Robin

NEW SCIENTIST   21.11.92 

Robin Dunbar
The Human Story A new history of mankind's Evolution
faber and faber 2004

Merlin Donald
Origins of the Modern Mind
Harvard University Press. 1991

Michael Tomasello
Constructing a Language
A Usage-Based Theory of Language Aquisition
Harvard 2003

Charles Whitehead
Evolution of the Human Brain

Journal of Consciousness Studies vol 11, no 12, 2004 pg 80
'Evolution of the Human Brain' —which used physical data to undermine physicalist models. The currently dominant hypothesis of primate brain expansion—the social or 'Machiavellian' intelligence hypothesis—avoids the worst excesses of western individualism, but is still cognocentric, attributing human encephalization to 'intelligence' and language. A better alternative, I suggested, is social mirror theory. The differential pattern of cortical expansions in humans is not consistent with the social intelligence hypothesis, but is consistent with a 'play and display' hypothesis of brain expansion, as predicted by social mirror theory. Furthermore, there were two periods of brain expansion during human evolution, followed by a phase of brain contraction, as predicted by the hypothesis. Cranial cast and archaeological data suggest that song-and-dance display drove the first period of expansion, pretend play the second, and economico­moral culture brought about the final phase of brain contraction.

Gerald M.Edelmann
Basic 2000
pg191 :Language and the Self - ...neural changes that lead to language are behind tbe emergence of higher-order consciousness - aspects of the evolution of speech - narrative capabilities

Gehirn & Geist
Spektrum Magazin für Psychologie und Hirnforschung
Nr. 6/2004

V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard 
Synaesthesia - A Window into Perception, Thought and Language

Heinz von Foerster
Wahrheit ist die Erfindung eines Lügners
Carl Auer 2003

Friederici Angela
Spiegelbild der Sprache - Neurokognition von Musik

Liane M. Gabora
Meme and Variations
A Computational Model of Cultural Evolution

John McCrone
Going Inside
A Tour round a Single Moment of Consciousness
Faber&Faber 1999
There are over 6,ooo dialects and 200 language families in the world today. Superficially, the grammar of each looks very differentwith almost any rule of word order or declension of tense appearing to apply. Yet the first feature shared by every known language is that they all divide the flow of words into sentences, speech modules with a self-contained logic. The second is that these sentences always have the three fundamental components of a subject, a verb, and an object - a doer, an action, and a done to. The story they tell is a straight-line, cause-and-effect tale of who did what to whom. Of course, these three essential components can be arranged in any order. The standard English order of subject-verb-object seems the most sensible because it is what we are accustomed to, but other languages, like Japanese, use subject-object-verb. Instead of saying 'the cat sat on the mat', a Japanese speaker would say 'the cat on the mat sat'. Then some languages, like Gaelic, use a verb-subject-object order, so the sentence would read 'seated was the cat on the mat'. In a few rare cases, the object can even come before the subject. This reverse logic sounds as though it would be difficult to follow, but even to English-speaking ears 'on the mat was sitting the cat' still makes sense. What matters is that it seems to tell us the complete story. The sentence has the three components needed to express a simple linear relationship.

Carl Zimmer
Soul Made Flesh
The Discovery of the Brain - and How it changed the World
Heinemann 2004

James R. Hurford
Language Evolution
Edited by Morten H. Christiansen Simon Kirby
Oxford University Press 2003
The Language Mosaic and its Evolution James R. Hurford
Keywords: Evolutionary linguistics - Linguistic facts reflect acquired states of the brains of speakers - neurogenesis - evolutionary biology - Kauffman (1993; 1995) - Maynard Smith and Szathmary - transition in evolution: increase in complexity - hierarchy of levels of analysis - Ontogenetic plasticity - psychological and social correlates of language - cultural transmission - pre-adaptation - symbolic capacity - Human languages are largely learned systems - Imitation - Complex Concept Formation - Mental Calculation - Pre-Pragmatic Capacities - Mind-reading and manipulation - Cooperation - Elementary Symbolic Capacity - Cultural Evolution of Languages - langue and parole - grammaticalization -

Wolff-Michael Roth
Toward Biologically Plausible Social Theories
Cybernetics And Human Knowing. Vol. 1O, no. 2, pp. 8-28

Gregory Bateson
Suhrkamp 1988
pg. 22 Keywords: Wissenschaft von Geist und Ordnung - daß ein sehr großer Teil der wissenschaftlichen Grundstruktur des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts unangemessen oder irrelevant für die Probleme und Phänomene war, mit denen es Biologen und Verhaltenswissenschaftler zu tun hatten - Kausalketten aufzuzeigen, die auf Kräfte und Einflüsse zurückgeführt werden konnten - Mathematik war überwiegend quantitativ, Betonung von Kräften und Einflüssen - Energie - psychische Energie -
Ursprungs von Ordnung - Die Gesetze der Erhaltung von Materie und Energie bleiben weiterhin getrennt von den Gesetzen der Ordnung, der negativen Entropie und der Information -
Ordnung wird als eine.Sache des Aussortierens und des Teilens gesehen. Aber der wesentliche Begriff bei allem Aussortieren ist, daß jeder Unterschied später einen anderen Unterschied verursachen soll. Wenn wir schwarze Bälle aus weißen aussortieren oder kleine aus großen, soll dem Unterschied zwischen den Bällen ein solcher in ihrer Lokalisierung folgen - die Bälle der einen Klasse in einen Sack, die der anderen in einen anderen. Für eine solche Operation brauchen wir etwas wie ein Sieb, eine Schwelle oder, par excellence, ein Sinnesorgan. Es ist daher verständlich, daß ein wahrnehmendes Einzelwesen erfunden wurde, um diese Funktion auszuüben, eine ansonsten unwahrscheinliche Ordnung zu schaffen. - Eng verknüpft mit dem Sortieren und Teilen ist das Geheimnis der Klassifizierung, dem später unter den aussergewöhnlichen menschlichen Leistungen das Benennen folgt.  - grundlegende Trennung zwischen den Problemen der materiellen Schöpfung und den Problemen von Ordnung und Differenzierung vor - Dichotomie von Form und Substanz - unbewußte Ableitung aus der Relation zwischen Subjekt und Prädikat in der Struktur der primitiven Sprache - geistige Prozesse, Ideen, Kommunikation, Organisation, Differenzierung, Muster und so weiter haben es eher mit Form als mit Substanz zu tun.


Urs Boeschenstein:
Francisco Varela/ Humberto Maturana: 
Der Baum der Erkenntnis Scherz 1987 Seite 223
Das Reich der Sprache
language consists in living together in a flow of coordinations of coordinations of consensual behaviours that arise in the pleasure of the flow of doing things together in recursive interactions. In the origin of humanness the self must have arisen in the same manner that it arises in modern human babies, namely the flow of the coordinations of coordinations of behaviours that bring about the body and its parts as shared objects of inter-objectivity through the mother/child play that calls attention to the proprioceptive sensations that arise through doing things together in coordinations of coordinations of doings. It is because of this that I say that self-consciousness is a recursive operation in languaging that constitutes an open-ended possibility for the continuous arising of new worlds that we may live as we recursively live as self-conscious languaging beings. Humberto Maturana

Zeichentheorie -


Claus Emmeche 
Defining Life as a Semiotic Phenomenon

Phillip Guddemi
Autopeiesis, Semeiosis, and Co-Coupling:
A Relational Language for Describing
Communication and Adaptation

Jesper Hoffmeyer
On the Origin of Agency and Life

Jesper Hoffmeyer
First order cybernetics:         The cybernetics of observed systems. 
Second order cybernetics:       The cybernetics of observing systems. 
The general notion of observing systems awakens the notions of language, culture, and communication. Second-order cybernetics is a non-disciplinary approach which through the concept of self-reference wants to re-explore the meaning of cognition and communication within the sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, information and library science, and in social practices such as design, education, organization, therapy, art, and politics.

Texts for Language Evolution: SAL-Kurs 2008:

Evolution of Language
Cognitive Science
Origins of language:
Frans de Waal: Ape gestures and language evolution
Neanderthal -Language: Wiki

Evolution of Language: Fifth International Conference, 2004
Evolution of Language: Sixth International Conference 2006
Evolution of Language: Seventh International Conference 2008