Communication has always been important throughout the animal kingdom. Practically every species on the planet has developed some way of communicating with each other, whether that is through simple gestures or repetitive calls. However, human beings have developed a system of communication that puts all others to shame. It is capable of conveying an infinite number of messages, thoughts and emotions, and it is more complex than perhaps any concept or system that has ever been developed. We call this miracle “language,” and it’s something that many have taken for granted. Not many people have given thought to how complex human language really is, nor have they thought of how language has evolved throughout human history. Let’s take a brief look at how humans may have first learned to express themselves to each other.
The Beginning of Language
The earliest forms of human language first appeared between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago. Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly how early humans began speaking to each other, but there are two prevalent theories as to how that came about. The most common theory is that language evolved as a result of human adaptation. Early humans were hunter-gatherers who most likely lived together in tribes. They probably needed to share information about hunting conditions, potential dangers and other facts that were essential for their own survival. Other animals species are capable of conveying this information, but they do so in relatively crude ways. As human society became more complex and varied, it was necessary to share more specific information, and the easiest way to do that was through different oral gestures. In other words, early humans learned to speak because they needed to. The other major theory of how language evolved states that language is the result of a spandrel, a nonadaptive cognitive element that develops as a byproduct of other cognitive processes. The theory states that while human brains became larger and more complex, language capability formed as a secondary function. Certain neural structures that were once used for other functions were co-opted for language and other human behaviors.
The Importance of Memes
There is a third theory that attempts to explain the origins of language. While the above theories hypothesize that language developed as an adaptation or a mutation, this third theory states that language may have developed for the sake of memes. Memes are ideas and behaviors that spread throughout a culture and even to other cultures through imitation. As humans began to communicate via a crude “proto-language,” they began to imitate what they had heard from each other, which led to the creation of different memes. They probably tried to duplicate these memes perfectly, and over time the collective consciousness of society gained huge collections of these memes, which in turn became the earliest human languages. Based on this theory, grammatical differences may have arisen out of attempts to alter these memes and create new ones. In the end, it’s impossible to know how the earliest human languages developed, although these theories do provide some insight into how it may have happened. Language is endlessly complex, and it continues to evolve even to this day. No language is completely static, and the way we speak today will no doubt sound primitive and alien to future generations. Hopefully, it will also prove to be equally fascinating to them.