Re: Human Language. (long post)

Michael McBroom (
Wed, 01 Jan 1997 08:39:39 -0500

Thomas Clarke wrote:
> John Waters wrote:
> > If H. erectus could manage without language for nearly two
> > million years of its existence, why did H.s.s need
> > language?
> > Could it be that language wasn't actually needed by the
> > species, but arrived as a result of another long-term
> > evolutionary process?
> I've often wondered about this. I'm not sure if I read the following
> suggestion somewhere or if it just popped into my head one day de nuovo.
> It could be that language is a result of sexual selection.
> Consider how women like to be verbally wooed today.
> If this became the case a few hundred KYA for some group of H. erectus,
> then the stage would be set for sexual selection for (otherwise useless)
> linguistic abilities. Those H.e males who could best vocalize sweet
> nothings to the females would have best reproduction success.
> Before long there would be a H.e (now H.s?) with highly evolved
> ability to sing love songs. These proto-H.s would then have all
> this (otherwise useless) volcalization apparatus and the stage would
> be set for development of language - a behavior that made use of
> anatomical apparatus evolved by sexual selection.
> No doubt H.erectus had some rudimentary vocalization capabilities.
> Giving warning cries and the like, and probably could use hand signals
> in support of hunting and other group activities (as is done today when
> quiet is paramount). Sexual selection would have worked from this
> basis. Hmm. Maybe this had something to do with the ice ages.
> Bundled in furs, the usual visual (and olfactory?) courtship signals
> between hominids would have been obscured. Perhaps the verbal signals
> evolved to take their place.
> Tom Clarke

Fist off, John's original question is based on a somewhat false
premise. While H. erectus almost certainly did not have full-blown
language, he almost certainly did have some sort of "protolanguage"
capability (cf. Bickerton [1990]), which during his 2 million year
existence, no doubt progressed from rudimentary to complex.

Secondly, the human vocal tract, which in its present configuration is
an *absolutely necessary* component for articulate speech, represents
too many hazards and compromises *not* to have had strong selectional

Every time you swallow a mouthful of food, or gulp down a mouthful of
liquid, you run the risk of choking. Every other mammal in existence
has the "standard plan" vocal tract (cf. Philip Lieberman's _The Biology
and Evolution of Language_ [1987 reprint]), which allows one to breath
and swallow at the same time in complete safety. Even newborn human
infants have similarly constructed vocal tracts. By the 3rd month of
life, the human infant's larynx has already begun to descend, however,
exposing it to the risk all mature humans must face.

If it weren't for the powerful selectional advantage that language
provides, this naturally hazardous characteristic of human anatomy would
have been selected out of existence thousands of generations ago. It is
the conviction of many linguists and anthropologists who have
investigated the role language has played in human evolution that the
beginnings of language is the single element which most likely led to
the divergence of Homo from Australopithecus. Far from a useless
feature, it would seem, eh?


Michael McBroom
CSUF Linguistics