At some point, probably 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, humans began talking to one another in a uniquely complex form. It is easy to imagine this epochal change as cavemen grunting, or hunter-gatherers mumbling and pointing. But in a new paper, an MIT linguist contends that human language likely developed quite rapidly into a sophisticated system: Instead of mumbles and grunts, people deployed syntax and structures resembling the ones we use today.
“The hierarchical complexity found in present-day language is likely to have been present in human language since its emergence,” says Shigeru Miyagawa, Professor of Linguistics and the Kochi Prefecture-John Manjiro Professor in Japanese Language and Culture at MIT, and a co-author of the new paper on the subject.
To be clear, this is not a universally accepted claim: Many scholars believe that humans first started using a kind of “proto-language” — a rudimentary, primitive kind of communication with only a gradual development of words and syntax. But Miyagawa thinks this is not the case. Single words, he believes, bear traces of syntax showing that they must be descended from an older, syntax-laden system, rather than from simple, primal utterances.
It may not be a universally accepted claim but of course it makes sense.
The “mumbles and grunts” claim doesn’t work because it doesn’t lead anywhere.
The bee dance communicates only information. Animals screaming at each other communicate feelings. Human language communicates information and intelligent feelings, including new creation of information.
Mumbles and grunts won’t tell us stuff like “We need 4 by 4s for this job, and hardwood not softwood” or “To no one will we sell, delay or deny right or justice. Magna Carta ” Or “I if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me.” Wake me up when gibbons talk this way.
See also: Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness