Crossing the language threshold was Re: First Language

Ralph T. Edwards (
Tue, 29 Aug 1995 18:14:45 GMT

In article <>, wrote:

> In article <41r4r4$lpm$> Luc Desjardins
> <102333.72@CompuServe.COM> writes:
> >Linguists don't agree about the true origins of langage and what was
> >the first langage. There's a modern theory who claims that langage
> >first appeared in a quick glance. As soon as one realizes that it is
> >possible to "name" one's environment, the acquisition is yet
> >completed (i hope you understand my thoughts despite my bad
> >english). For myself, I think that since "toutes choses etant egales
> >par ailleurs (sorry, no possible translation) " langage aquisition
> >by man works in the same way as for each and every child and
> >therefore, it happens in different areas at the same time. It is now
> >impossible to look further in the origins of langage and there is a
> >wide range of family of langages. This leads me to think that
> >"Indo-Europeen" first appeared at the same time that "sino-tibetain"
> >or "etrusque". There is not one but many first langages.
> Since Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan are, at the oldest, about 6,000 years
> old, and since we hypothesize that the origins of language are more than
> 200,000 years old, your argument is not demonstrated by your choice of
> examples.
> The first issue is whether language *of any kind* originated in one area, or
> in several different areas. If language arose independently among several
> groups of early humans, then obviously those languages are not genetically
> related; if only one early group began using language, then all languages are
> ultimately so related.
> There is a problem, though, with assuming monogenesis even if all modern
> languages are demonstrably related: What if, by historical accident, other
> original families of languages have disappeared? How should we know that
> they ever existed?
> Conversely, suppose that monogenesis *is* how language came about, but over
> the course of 200,000+ years there have been divergences so great that we
> cannot demonstrate the relatedness of all languages. How does this differ
> from the results of polygenesis?
> I think that those who argue monogenesis vs. polygenesis based on modern data
> miss a very big point: Neither position is provable using the data at hand.
> This does not mean that I do not think deep relationship research is not a
> worthwhile task, only that its goals should be the explication of the data at
> hand, not the proof of the unprovable.

The following seems likely to me, but is not provable (and is therefore
not science, but speculation).

The first group of humans to cross the threshold to true language would
come under intense evolutionary pressure to evolve their abilities further,
because they would have significant advantage over competing,
prelingual groups. As a result crossing the language threshold is a
potential speciation event, that is, something that creates a boundary between
one species of premodern humans and another. I seem to recall that there
is fossil evidence that the larynx is undescended in Neanderthals, can
anyone confirm or deny? If so, I would suggest that language acquisition
may be the event that caused the speciation of homo sapiens sapiens.
Since the origin of HS^2 is thought to be circa 200,000 ybp +-???, this seems
at least plausible. (Again if this number has changed recently, please post.)
Keep in mind that the first fossil evidence for modern humans sets a lower
limit on ybp, the upper limit must come from other evidence.

Of course acquisition of language may not be one event, but many, perhaps
nouns first, then adjectives, then verbs, then grammatical relationships.
On the other hand it may be that these events would cascade, so that from
an evolutionary point of view they would occur so rapidly that they
would appear nearly simultaneous. Perhaps when we understand the genetic
code better, and if we can find fossil DNA, this subject may one
day enter the realm of science.

Of course even if language acquisition is the speciation event for modern
humans, it may have occurred in more than one place, and then merged.
Simplicity suggests the contrary to me.

Warning, I've cross posted the above to sci.anthropology.paleo (from sci.lang)
I hope that's not a mistake :-) or :-(.

R.T.Edwards 908 576-3031