How old is language?

This morning I listened to the first in a new series of a BBC Radio 4 programme called Fry’s English Delight in which the Stephen Fry discusses the development, design and functions of the mouth. According to an evolutionary biologist interviewed on the programme, the human mouth attained it’s modern form between about 80 and 50 thousand years ago, and this allowed our ancestors to make the full range of sounds used in languages. These dates also fit with some estimates of when first language emerged.

They also mention that art and related activities also start to appear in the archaeological record roughly between those dates. This is not conclusive evidence that language is between 50 and 80 thousand years old – there is some evidence of possibly older artist activity, but is very interesting nonetheless.

This entry was posted in Evolution, Language.

5 Responses to How old is language?

  1. Really interesting. Sounds like a cool program/podcast type thing, I’ll have to listen to it a little later. If it’s anything like some Ted talks I’ll love it.


  2. Loved the podcast. It’s interesting to note that in the UK they have an ongoing project to develop software that will aid in forensic lipreading to determine what people whom we cannot hear are actually saying by studying their facial expressions and movements. This could turn out to be quite a breakthrough for law enforcement.
    I also enjoyed the observations by Nina Conti regarding how a ventriloquist has to unlearn what nature hardwires into us over years, teaching us to physically express what we are saying. As an interpreter I often have the urge to “play out” the testimony I am interpreting to convey the meaning the witness is giving the words but that is a very slippery slope. In my opinion though, we cannot just be a robot and convey words stoically if the true intent behind them is to be brought forth.

    Maria Cristina

  3. Chris Miller says:

    It’s evidence of the age of spoken language, yes, but this doesn’t address the possibility of some kind of gestural language preceding spoken language, something that many people have proposed. The existence of art presupposes a cognitive ability to metaphorically and iconically represent reality by mapping our images of reality onto images we create. This can be done by carving, by painting, and by gesture. And gesture gives you far greater power to reproduce images of reality than speech, where the mapping possibilities are much smaller.

    How spoken language first developed is quite a question in itself. Obviously there are onomatopeia (the limited possibilities offered by the speech apparatus to imitate the reality we perceive), but sign languages show us that many signs are accompanied by different kinds of mouth gestures that themselves are either iconic or that “mirror” the movements of the hands. So one possibility, if you try going into details, is that some of the first “words” came to be as “mirrors” of pre-existing gestures.

    Unfortunately, nobody was around with a video camera at the time…

  4. michael farris says:

    “this doesn’t address the possibility of some kind of gestural language preceding spoken language”

    Yeah, my opinion is that language evolved primarily in the visual-gestural mode and speech developed after and on top of gestural language. Among other things it explains why despite a clear universal human preference for audio-lingual communication when that’s possible communication immediately and spontaneously switches to audio-visual mode when the preferred channel breaks down. There’s no particular reason why human lingual communication should be available in any other channel if audio-lingual communication developed first. Instead it’s possible in another channel and natural full language systems in the visual-gestural channel have a _lot_ in common structurally (again there’s no reason for that to be the case unless it came into being at the base of human evolution).

  5. Eee says:

    Are there not some hypotheses in neurolinguistics that suggest that the speech areas of the cortex evolved (or were repurposed) from cortical areas that were originally used for procedural motor planning for things like throwing? The necessary motor patterning could easily be co-opted in the production of gestures, and then transferred to speech.

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