Some interesting experiments on language evolution are being undertaken in the University of Edinburgh’s Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, and one thing they’ve found is that some aspects of language can develop in an afternoon.
They believe that language evolves culturally through being learned and used by people. They have demonstrated aspects of this process with computer simulations and with an experiment with real people. For the experiment they used pictures of alien fruit with names in a made up language which the participants were asked to memorise. They were then tested on what they could remember and their answers were used with the second group of participants, and so on.
The first participants found it very difficult to learn and remember the words, but with each subsequent ‘generation’ it became easier to learn them and they developed regularities in their structure, and eventually the participants were able to understand words they’d never seen before.
The researchers believe that many aspects of languages can arise through the evolutionary process of cultural transmission and do not need to be genetically encoded – the brain provides scaffolding for language but not necessarily all the specific details.