The Elements of Evolution (65) Language


Language is a system of symbols (syllables, words) with interrelated meanings (semantics). The structural rule set that establishes context is termed syntax.

Grammar is overarching and regards the proper use of language for a certain culture milieu. Grammar includes semantics, syntax, punctuation, and spelling.

Language facility is innate and communication universal among all life. All life forms have their own languages to communicate with conspecifics. We understand little of the syntactic subtleties of other life.

Human language syntax arose from preexisting systems in other species. ~ Japanese linguist Shigeru Miyagawa et al

The genetic basis for song production in birds, vocalizations in mice, and human speech are the same. Birds learn to sing the same way that babies learn to talk.

Gibbons sing by the same process that humans use to produce speech. Singing gibbons naturally croon with a virtuosity attained only by women opera sopranos.

Humans musicality is closely related to language facility. Both involve melody and measure. Pitch and rhythm are crucial cues to language comprehension.


What we have to do is discard this old idea that apes are simply incapable of doing anything remotely similar to human speech production. ~ American zoologist Rob Shumaker

Tilda is an orangutan born in Borneo in 1965. She was captured young and has spent most of her life among humans. Tilda’s early years were as a circus animal, before finding a home in a zoo.

At some point Tilda began imitating people. She waves her arms and shakes her head the way humans do; and she whistles – something wild orangutans don’t do.

Researchers took an especial interest in Tilda because of her whistling. Then she surprised them with faux speech: gibberish words, though following the patterns and pitches used by humans.


Chimpanzee bonding involves much contact: the time-consuming task of grooming. In 1997, English anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that hominin vocal language arose as a “cheap” means of social grooming. Alas, Dunbar knew too little zoology. Many animals stay in touch with friends at a distance by chatting with them.

Animals respond to each other’s vocalizations to maintain their social bonds. ~ American zoologist Ipek Kulahci

That other animals fulsomely communicate does not counter Dunbar’s conjecture of human chat as cheap grooming. It instead places the evolution of vocalization as an adaptive continuum in human descent.

Amphibians, reptiles, and mammals all have larynges which function to preclude food aspiration and facilitate sound production. Vocalization did become increasingly important in Homo: the modern human larynx adapted as recently as 40,000 years ago to allow faster talking.

The basic syntactical knowledge upon which all human languages are based is inborn. By 3–4 months, infant vocalizations express a full range of emotions. Language learning is a process of vocal attunement and attachment of symbolic meaning to sounds.

People expeditiously bond via vocalization, develop conditional relations, and express hostility. Gossip has long been the lingua franca of sociality.

Language is very much a social tool. Not only does it allow us to exchange information relevant to our ability to survive in a complex, constantly changing social world, but it also allows us to mark other individuals as friend or foe. ~ Robin Dunbar

The relative position of the larynx tends to be lower in men than women. This gives males deeper voices at the expense of the larger range of discrete vowel sounds that females can produce.

People size each other up by the quality of their voices. As with other animals, deep voice exaggerates size.

Like stags, men evolved deeper voices to deter sexual competitors. A confident man expresses his sense of dominance by speaking at a lower pitch. Conversely, submission squeaks.

Low-pitched male voices signal masculinity. Women more easily remember information when told by a man with a deep voice.

The languages developed depended partly on climate. Whereas languages with tonal floridity developed in humid areas, those with simpler tone pitches emerged in drier regions.

Tonal languages, such as Chinese, are only possible with adequate humidity, which keeps the mucous membranes moist, allowing more elasticity. Humidity also improves the ion balance within the mucous membranes of the vocal folds, affording greater precision in pitch oscillation.

Compared to chimps, humans weave language into a more complex social fabric. This is an alloyed advantage. For one, liars have to keep their stories straight. In contrast, chimp deception is simpler and less frequent.