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November 15, 2011 / johnoliversimon

The Origin of Language

Syntactical language was invented 70,000 years ago by a little girl on the far southern coast of Africa.

There are several claims in the above statement that fly in the face of generations of standard linguistic hypotheses.

I have no doctorate in paleolinguistics. I’m only a poet and translator — what do you  know about language?  — but I keep up with the research, and in the last 44 months I’ve spent a large amount of quality time with an avid language developer, my granddaughter Tesla Rose.

Let’s start with date and place, 70K pre-present in South Africa, about both of which we can be quite precise.

69-77K back, a funny thing happened to us on our way to the internet. Geology and genetic analysis concur that our ancestral line almost went extinct.

A mega-volcano — Toba on the island of Sumatra— super-erupted, creating a ten-year nuclear winter, a thousand-year cooling trend, and arguably extincting straggling hominid bands outside of far southern Africa. Our cousins the Neanderthals, in Europe and the Middle East, and their cousins the Denisovians in Siberia, were less affected, but they, with measurable exceptions, are not ancestral to us.

The remnant bottleneck population of our ancestors, living on seafood in caves on  the South African coast, minused out somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 folks. This community was small enough for a wildfire inno0vation like syntactic language — and brain mutations to support it — to spread evenly throughout.

I draw the analogy to thermal equilibrium before the inflation phase of the Big Bang.

All present-day cultures, no matter how technologically simple or “primitive”, use complex, fluid language, with cases, tenses, moods and clauses expressing hypothesis, probability and relationship in deep and immediate past, present and future depending on who is speaking, to whom speech is addressed, and various degrees of doubt, emphasis and status. All human cultures have poetry.

Complex language, therefore, developed before current humans separated into far-flung tribes. The longest pre-globalization isolation is that of the Australian aborigines, who got to Oz around 40K and ditched their reed boats. They talk as fancy as anybody.

A recent study compares the number of phonemes used in 504 current world languages. Southern African indigenous people like the !Kung use as many as 120 different phonemes (including lots of different clicks). The farther you get from our original homeland of refuge, the more phonemes drop out (while grammar continues to weave equal complexity). English is run of the mill with 42. At the far end of the human diaspora, Hawa’iian gets by with just 13 phonemes, five consonants and eight vowels.

Prior to to our unfortunate-fortunate bottleneck at 70K, cultural change proceeds with more than glacial slowness. Over the millions and hundreds of thousands before that, hand-axes and spear-points evolve very gradually. After that point — energized by true language — we spurt headlong toward modernity in what has been characterized as the Great Leap Forward.

There was certainly a very long pre-syntactic period during which we were just beginning to use words for things. Our distant cousins the bonobo, chimpanzee and gorilla can be taught to do so. Dolphins can successfully learn elements of human syntax. True syntactic language was preceded, historically as well as ontologically, by a very long period of pidgin.

Recapitulating phylogeny, point-and-noun dominates ages one to two of human infancy. At 13 months, Tesla Rose was saying “mama,” “dada,” “ball,” “bye-bye” and “agua.” She supplemented this vocabulary with emphatic squeaks and gestures. There was rarely doubt about what she meant.

Gesture is integral to language. This is ittle discussed. ASL is a very fluid language that goes faster than talking out loud. Everyone talks with their hands, even when they’re walking down the street shouting into cell-phones. My friend Gaby and I rented a rowboat on the Lagunas de Montebello in Chiapas with an Italian girl, Hilaria. When it was her turn to row, Hilaria framed such an interesting sentence with her fingers that she dropped both oars in the lake.

Australopithecus, homo habilis, erectus, heidelbergensis and Neanderthals represent slowly growing repertoires of distinction: colors, numbers, verbs. Probably Lucy, at 4.2M, had a few words, and used them to the point, reinforced with a lot of gesture. I suppose Neanderthals had a few hundred words. Maybe they sang. But something happened down along the coves in Southern Africa that made a dramatic difference. A system of connections evolved. If… then. When. Probably. Always. Never. I wish. Although. Because. Despite. It became possible to measure verbal scenarios against time-frames of agency and draw up contingency plans, to lie, to pray, and to make up poems.


Default thought, that of adult male thinkers, has attributed the innovation of language to alpha-male hunters arguing about which flank to spear the mastodon. This scenario is offhandedly accepted and is obviously wrong.

There is no population more averse to language than adult males. Us guys are the strong, silent type, and we ain’t asking for directions. The hunt, like warfare, functions best in silence, with hand-signals. Girls are more verbal than boys, women than men; language came from the women’s side of the fire. Thus sprach Seinfeld:


ALLISON: (sitting) George. We need to talk.


ALLISON: I really think we need to talk.

GEORGE: (pause) Uh-oh.

From the women, yes. At what age?

There is a language window in human development. Language acquisition starts at birth. By six months babies are babbling only their home-language phonemes. Before a year, they start using simple, isolated words and we’re in Neanderthal territory. At 26 months, Tesla Rose uttered her first complete sentence: I want the ball. That gets a ball faster than pointing and yelling ball! Most kids are talking fluently at three. If they don’t learn language by five or seven, viz. very rare Wolf-girl situations, they never learn it, they are permanently cognitively crippled. Syntactic language was invented in the childhood window.

I say “a girl” but it had to be a cohort of girls, chattering, gossipping, making up their own secret code, turning pidgin into creole. Tt was Greek to the guys, and the grownups had no idea what they were talking about. In the next generation, syntactical mammas talked to their kids, including boys. Syntactical girls wanted to mate with guys who could talk to them. The new fad, the new slang, would have spread through the small human community is very few generations.

Shortly after the 70K bottleneck, humanity leapt from our southern African refuge with lightning speed. By 60K we were in Israel and the neighborhood, where we interbed minimally with Neanderthals while otherwise consigning our beetle-browed cousins to the dustbin of history.

African people have no Neanderthal DNA; everybody else has something on the order of 3-6%. Thanks to slaveowners’ droit du seigneur (think Tom Jefferson and Sally Hemings) and Native Americans’ lack of racism, African-Americans have a lot of ancestry from “everybody else” and so largely share the Neanderthal connection. Melanesians and some folks headed for south India interbred with Denisovians in Southeast Asia. The DNA we took on from our pidgin-speaking relatives seems particularly to strengthen our immune system.

Africa, source of multiple waves of human origin, is more diverse than the rest of the world combined. Nor is it any coincidence that 17 of 20 world records in men’s running, from 100 meters to marathon, are held by African descendants.

By 40K syntactical humans got to Australia and were ethnically cleansing Neanderthals from Europe. The last Neanderthals made their final stand at Gibraltar about 30K. Behind the front, Aurignacian shamans were painting marvellous wildlife scenes in caves. Maybe as early as 30K by boat, and certainly in a massive megafauna hunting party around 11K, humans poured into North and South America.

Lion-man figurine, carved from mammoth ivory, 33,000 years old

With global warming after the Younger Dryas, women in five continents started cultivating wheat, barley, rice, corn, beans, and potatoes, making cities, kingdoms, laws, politics, and religion possible. Written language was invented about 6K to deal with transport and exchange of agricultural products. The rest is history.

Language keeps changing. Kids are always inventing slang. The first recorded use of the verb “to google” dates from 1998, but the adjective “cool” goes back to African roots.

Language evolves at a constant rate, separate populations achieving mutual unintelligibility about a thousand years out; language families can be dated like carbon-14. We know the Romance languages separated from Latin, and each other, about 2K. Proto-Indo-European has a well-established vocabulary going back to about 6K (and was probably spread by the whirlwind movement, out of Central Asian steppe, of the first folks to effectively domesticate horses).

That’s less than 10% of the way to the origin of syntactic language; attempts to trace the putative tree farther back are not convincing. Proto-Nostratic, at 10-12K, has been elaborated as a hypothetical ancestor of Indo-European, Semitic and Dravidian, but there’a a lot of noise in the data. A word list for Proto-Human includes who?, what?,  finger and vagina, but the suggestion for “water” is akwa, which sounds like special pleading. The rising intonation at the end of a question seems to be universal and was probably present from the beginning.

Language is the central human invention, the hive which we are ceselessly elaboratng, even as I speak. Language sprouts meta-languages, of which music and mathematics are the most salient examples. Cyberspace, where you are reading this, is based on AI languages and includes acronyms and emoticons. LOL. If we wetware people are supplanted by cyborgs at the Singularity, I expect the language enterprise to continue and accelerate.

I suspect humanity will not speciate again until another bottleneck reduces us to a fused community. Speciation is extremely likely to occur in the isolate population of a colony on Mars or Enceladus or Tau Ceti. That is, if we ever manage to stir our ass from the muddy ground of self-induced economic dysfunction and fling ourselves back into space.


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