If language is an instinct, it must have biological origins – or else we must attribute mystical origins to it. But language is so distinctly human that it is difficult for many to understand how this ability could have evolved. If there is any one thing uniquely human, it is language. So where did language come from? How are we to understand it as an instinctual, evolutionary phenomenon if only humans have it? I begin with the origins of language because some of the answers to these questions will help us to understand the origins of many of the other human universals. “Language paved the way for all the special human abilities that we so value – abilities such as self-awareness, higher emotion, and personal memories” (McCrone, 48). And these are all necessary for the level of culture we humans have developed (Bonner).
The problem appears to lie in the fact that apparently no other living organism currently has anything similar to language – not even our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. When we try to teach chimpanzees sign language, we certainly see in them an ability to think symbolically, to associate hand signals (or colored pieces of tape, or computer keys, or the recognition of human words they cannot produce) with other objects, and an ability to communicate using those symbols (I do no think anyone would deny chimpanzees communicate with each other, as all social species must), but we do not see any sort of grammar or syntax. As Gribbin and Cherfas point out in The Monkey Puzzle, chimpanzees seem to put the adjective before the noun just as often as they put it after the noun - not to mention the many other problems they have with stringing words together in a way we would consider grammatical (217-218). This may not matter among languages, as the example of English and French shows, but it certainly matters within any given language. Still, the use of “words” – even if given to them by humans – is an impressive feat. And if we look to nature, we discover that, to a great extent, other primates do use protowords - vervet monkeys, for example, have three different calls for leopards, eagles, and snakes, each of which results in different actions. Recordings made of these sounds, played back later, result in the same actions by the vervets, even when the predator is not around (Gribbin & Cherfas, 224). Humans still use this communication structure in our imperative “sentences.” If we yell “Look!” that is similar to what vervet monkeys are doing when making the eagle call. So many of the pieces from which language is made are already present in animals – particularly in primates and, especially, apes.
The human brain is designed to pattern communicative sounds onto narrative structures to create the basic structure of true language: the sentence. Each sentence has a subject verbing an object (even when the subject and/or object is only implied). This is how we learn language – through the mapping of specific instructions (words and the specific grammar and syntax of a particular language) upon a loose narrative structure that is genetically encoded for (Wilson calls this an “epigenetic effect,” and Chomsky and Pinker call this specific one “deep grammar”). This facilitates our learning a specific language during certain periods of our lives. The brain is particularly receptive to learning a language during the time of maximum plasticity – prior to puberty. For many years, as the brain continues to grow, soon after birth, and then begins to learn a great deal of what is immediately necessary to survive in its environment, the brain has a great many neurons. During this time, one is most capable of learning, particularly new languages. If one wants a child to truly learn a new language, the language should be taught prior to puberty. The child will be able to develop the language in a complete manner, even to the point of not having an accent. The child will truly know the language. But something happens when we hit puberty. This is the time when we get massive hard-wiring of the brain, including the loss of underused neural connections and a great many brain cells. This loss continues throughout puberty, ending with the end of puberty, when the brain becomes the most hard-wired, particularly in regards to language. During puberty, a child can still learn a second language, but it will be more difficult, and the child will always have an accent. And if the language is learned after puberty, one cannot truly learn a new language – there will be a strong accent, and there will be constant mistakes with grammar, such as the tendency of Russians and Japanese to drop English articles, since their languages do not have articles. What typically happens in these cases is massive memorization – of the particular narrative structure and vocabulary of the new language – rather than the deeper knowledge of the language each native speaker has. The exception is with those who have learned two or more languages when young – where general principles can be unconsciously extracted, and learning of another language is thus made easier – though still not without an accent.
Another element of language, narrative, is found not only in chimpanzees and other primates, but in all animals that hunt or play. Any animal that hunts has to figure out what the next move of the prey is going to be – meaning, they have to plan ahead. If they are planning, they are narrating. It is difficult for us humans, who narrate mostly through language, to think of how a nonlinguistic narrative would go. A lion stalking a wildebeest would be doing something like “wildebeest, need to get closer to run after it, I see the other lions are in place, he is looking away, that’s good. He is looking over here. Stop. Now he’s looking away again. Continue creeping toward the wildebeest,” though without any use of language whatsoever. Anyone who has hunted – or fished – knows you do not have to use language to narrate. Every time I cast a lure, I do not literally go, “push button, pull back rod, stretch out arm and release button, wait for plop of lure into water, reel in lure.” But I must be able to narrate in order to know that by going through this series of activities, that I will get my lure into the water, with the reasonable expectation of catching a fish. I have to believe each action will lead into the next one, that the universe is causal, to even consider doing these actions. And I do these actions, as I said, without using language. I suspect that every hunter would tell you that they do not linguistically narrate their actions when they hunt – they are too intent on paying attention to the prey to have to listen to a bunch of words running through their heads. However, while you do not need language to have narrative, you cannot have language without narrative. It is the very structure upon which language is built, as narrative and language both require the following thought process: subject-action-(object). This is the very nature of what we call a “thought process,” since thinking, as we understand it, and as mammals and birds (and some reptiles and insects – those that engage in hunting) do, it is impossible without narrative.
Ortony, Clore, and Collins, in The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, connects each of these elements to emotions:
there are three major aspects of the world, or changes in the world, upon which one can focus, namely, events, agents, or objects. When one focuses on events one does so because one is interested in their consequences, when one focuses on agents, one does so because of their actions, and when one focuses on objects, one in interested in certain aspects of imputed properties of them qua objects. (18)
They further define events as “simply people’s construals about things that happen, considered independently of any beliefs they may have about actual or possible causes” (18). What we have here is an event-action-verb and subjects and objects (nouns, noun phrases) as agents or objects. Ortony, Clore, and Collins show that we make emotional connections to events, agents, and objects, meaning we connect emotions to narrative, and thus to sentences and the parts of those sentences, subjects, verbs, and objects. We can be pleased or displeased about events, approve or disapprove of agents, and like or dislike objects, with our reactions to events and agents coming from our concern for the consequences they will have on ourselves or on others (19). The connection to art and literature is also made, since for an object, liking and disliking “represent undifferentiated affective and aesthetic reactions to objects, for which love and hate are good examples” (24). This begins to explain how literature, how storytelling, can result in emotional reactions from the audience. And it explains why we cannot have an unemotional response to art or anything in language (including reason, logic, and much thought), since emotions are directly tied into the elements of narrative structure – without which, as grammar, language is impossible.
We have already begun the process of investigating the problem of the origin of language by breaking down what language is (taking an admittedly reductive approach) and then seeing if we can bring those pieces back together. We have already seen that language is narrative. Also, language is communicative, it makes use of symbols (auditory or written), and it has grammar and syntax. Chimpanzees can do the first two (except write and make the full range of human sounds), but not the last two. Certainly it is not fair to expect chimpanzees to make the full range of human sounds, since they do not have the same larynx structure we have. Our larynx has dropped and elongated because of the position of our heads in relation to our throats, giving the larynx room to grow. The larynx’s lowering and lengthening certainly gave us a much wider range of sounds, which increased as it lowered and lengthened. It is more likely the brain followed this movement of the larynx than the other way around, since you could not think of associating certain sounds with certain objects until you were able to make those sounds. A recent Random Sample (Science, 29 June 2001, 2429) gives further evidence to support the evolution of upright stance before the evolution of speech, since “when quadrupeds run they have to take a breath with every step, which makes it impossible to develop the sophisticated respiratory control necessary for speech” (Holden). An upright stance, resulting in both different “respiratory control” and the lowering of the larynx, is necessary for the creation of the large number of sounds necessary to develop a complex language. However, in some Old World primates, there was already a preliminary association of some sounds with some objects preceding the movement of the larynx in our more immediate ancestors. Our ancestors’ brains were already set up to associate sounds with objects, and so, when they were able to make more sounds, they could easily learn to associate them with more objects.
While this gets us to the stage of our teaching chimpanzees to communicate with sign language, since they share with us symbolic thought, it does not get us to syntax and grammar, which, as stated above, are outside the realm of a chimpanzee’s mental abilities. In order to answer the question of how syntax and grammar could have arisen in any way other than a mystical one, we will have to go off on what will appear to be several tangents, which will all be brought together to show how syntax and grammar could have arisen in humans and why it did not arise in chimpanzees and bonobos.
Chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans are all closely related – there is about a 1% genetic difference between each of them, going from chimpanzee to bonobo to human. Genetically, this is a very tiny difference, especially if you consider the fact that most differences in the DNA are found in noncoding sections of the DNA, where mutations are not going to help, harm, or change an organism in any way. So the real differences, in genes, are going to be less than 1%. And if there is about a 1% difference between bonobos and chimpanzees, as there is between humans and bonobos, why do bonobos look so much more like chimpanzees than humans? Between being able to language and the differences in appearance, humans appear the odd species out. How do you get a species as apparently different as humans are in physical appearance and behavior (which are far less than we like to admit) from chimpanzees and bonobos from a common ancestor that probably looked more like a chimpanzee? With the striking similarities between chimpanzees and bonobos, we should be less surprised, then, at our similarities than at our differences. From whence could these differences come?