Who invented language?

Well, more specifically, since spoken languages predate written languages, does anyone have any credible ideas on. . .

Whether languages came into being independently ex nihilo after migrations out of Africa, or everything came out of a single unidentifiable primordial mother tongue. That is, whether far-flung tribes developed a spoken language independently and without any knowledge of other tribes?

How long ago it might be reasonably suspected that spoken language goes back?

If anyone has any ideas, how they arrived at those conclusions?

I read an interesting book, ‘The Ape that Spoke’, which hypothesizes that the increasing complexity of language is what drove the evolution of our large brains. The author believed that homo erectus probably had a true language, though not as complex as more modern ones, and that hominids had rudimentary language before then. His arguments made a lot of sense to me, so I would say we’ve had language for at least a million years. There are others who believe that language did not come about until much more recently, 20 or 50 thousand years ago, long after homo sapiens sapiens evolved. That hypothesis doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s supporters have their reasons too.

Basically, nobody knows for sure.

This qualifies as one of the all-time Damn Good Questions in my book. Nobody knows. It may very well be unanswerable (I personally believe it is).

Even with our closest cousins, H. neanderthalensis, we can’t be sure whether they had language or not. They had lots of nerves going to the tongue, more than anyone could possibly need to chew food, but what little we know about the shape of their vocal tracts suggests that they couldn’t make the same range of sounds we can, in particular they couldn’t make all the vowels we can. On the other hand, what did they have those huge brains for, if not for language? On the third hand, maybe that’s a H. sapiens-centered view of the brain. You can go back and forth like this for ages.

Even if we conveniently ignore the question of which hominid species had language, linguists are left with two unlikely scenarios for the origin of language. Either language was invented just once, and all modern languages with their huge variation are descended from one proto-language. This is preposterous. Or a complex invention like language was developed independently in many places, at approximately the same time on an evolutionary time scale. This is also preposterous. Occam’s Razor refuses to cut through this mess.

So… we don’t know whether language was invented once or many times, and we don’t know whether language is unique to H. sapiens or whether other hominid species had language. Given that, we are nowhere close to knowing when and where language originated.

What the others said re no way of knowing but with one addition, languages certainly existed during exit from Africa insofar as H.s. is clearly developed before exit and the first signs of neolithic technological revolution occur in Africa.

What the form etc. was – gotta go with Flodnak’s analysis.

Speaking as a linguist, no, it isn’t. It might be impossible to reconstruct that one original proto-language, but it’s pretty much the basis for most diachronic linguistic study that at one time, it did exist. For all their variation, the world’s languages have quite a bit in common.

Here’s a quote from a Nova episode about the same question as the OP:

Not to pick on flodnak, I only know this stuff because I study it, and it still seems pretty incredible, but also…

At first glance, maybe, but the eye evolved independently in many different species, and it’s quite a complex mechanism.

It is a really, really fascinating question though. The problem is like that of studying dinosaurs and other ancient stuff. Eventually you hit a wall where you can’t gather any more evidence, and you need more evidence to make any more definitive conclusions.


And don’t forget your Burroughs- language is a virus from outer space!

I’m not trying to dispute what you are saying, I was just wondering whether you (A) said neolithic when you meant mesolithic, (B) are using a different definition of neolithic than the one I am familiar with (explained below), or © mean the same thing I do and know about some neolithic culture that I wasn’t aware of.

I was under the impression that homo sapiens was using mesolithic technology when they left Africa, but the jump to neolithic first occurred in Asia, but I’ve always thought of neolithic as being the level where people start using pottery, stone buildings, farming, and primitive metalworking. I know the different tech levels bleed into each other, some mesolithic people have primitive agriculture and/or pottery, but I thought the earliest neolithic cultures came about outside of Africa.

Ooops, I believe I misspoke. Not enough coffee.

No problem, you should have seen my posts a few nights ago, every single one of them had a brain fart of one type or another…I was running on very little sleep. 8^)

Of course, spoken language could be interpreted as meaning “messages carried by sound”. In that case, birds, whales, and insects had that down long before any of us "Homo"s entered the scene. :D:D