Linguistic Evolution: Importance of Language
Evolution is the change in characteristics of an organism from time to time, making the organism more complex as time progresses. It is a slow and natural process. The mutation in the DNA is the cause of evolution. Among the infinite variables that caused the mutation, one of the most important is the surrounding. An organism evolves as per its requirement to adapt to the changes in its surrounding. We, humans, are of species ‘Homo Sapiens’. As far as language is concerned, was it our surroundings that forced us to communicate? What was the need to communicate in the first place? What makes us Sapiens different from all other species?
The only way Sapiens exchanged information back then, was by making sounds and gesturing like other animals. If we look around ourselves, we are the only species able to communicate effectively. But still, other organisms survived. If communication was not evolutionarily required, why do we Sapiens choose to evolve? In this story of evolution comes a period that is popularly known as ‘Cognitive Evolution’ before which Sapiens possessed little to no cognitive functions. It was only after this period that cognitive functions in us improved. It was only after this period that we finally started to communicate with words. Let us understand the need for easy and effective communication.
The Need to Communicate
Today we look upon ourselves as superior beings compared with all other organisms on earth. Lion may be the king of the jungle, but a Sapien can kill the king from a distance without getting into close combat. Though weak, we can subdue such ferocious animals because of our strong cooperation. In Mumbai alone, 1.25 Crore people are living together cooperating. One can easily converse with a stranger and make a new friend. No other animal group is such cooperative in forming large groups. The nearest animal to us are chimpanzees and even they have groups with a maximum of 150 members. On a physical level, cooperation depends on how good we are at describing the events occurring in our surroundings. But there is something that separates us from other species. The difference is that our language is amazingly supple, and hence, we can describe any event in great detail along with the tense of action. This ability was nothing less than a superpower for our ancestors. It is unlikely that any other species including our close genetic cousin ‘Neanderthals’ ever had proper language. Thus, after the Cognitive Evolution, Sapiens could communicate on a whole new level. Now they could inform each other of the whereabouts of any danger around them more effectively. Let us take an example from primeval time. Suppose there is a tiger, near a pond, patiently waiting for bevy deer to attack. In this situation even if the deer spots the tiger, the max it can do is to make a sound which they interpret as a danger. The herd will run for its life randomly and the tiger will definitely catch a few of them. If we put sapiens in the same situation, they could communicate with each other about the exact detail of the movement of the tiger. They could even plan their strategy to hunt the hunter. Studies show that vervet monkeys make three different alarming sounds when spotting the presence of a predator. These sounds are symbolic and are not of much help.
Another theory suggests that our language evolved as a way of gossiping. One should always be aware of the negative people around, like who cheats on whom and who does not have good intentions. The urge to be aware of the dangers from people of our own kind made our language evolve. As a result, we are aware of the negativity around us. Thus for survival, it was our necessity to evolve and improve the medium through which we communicate.
Clearly, whatever we all are today, language has played a very important role. Effective Communication is not the only superpower language gave us, it gave us another superior advantage. It allowed us to communicate on ‘Fictions’. A large number of strangers can cooperate by believing in common myths. Without thinking of ideas it would’ve been impossible to reach where we are today. For example, money is an imaginary concept, which we all agree to accept, and therefore, the whole world works smoothly. Every single operation ranging from finance to politics was once an idea that was improved and evolved. The ability to think fictitiously led to the birth of cultures which was an imaginary concept Sapiens agreed on. Every group of Sapiens had its own culture, which acted as the basis of religion. In my opinion, religion improved the way of living life. Every religion teaches good moral values, which one should implement in their life. Sapiens are cooperative, but there is a risk of someone being disloyal. Religion resolved this and similar problems by establishing an imaginary superior being, who they believed, rewards for being good and punishes otherwise in the afterlife. Thus they could divert their attention to more significant problems.
Origin of Language
So when did human language evolve? Tracing back the archaeological pieces of evidence it is believed that languages might be evolved about 40,000 years ago. This is because the evidence such as cultural artifacts and other primitive art traces 40,000 years back. On comparing Sapiens to Neanderthals we get that Neanderthals had a greater survival advantage. Physically they had a better body and had larger brain sizes. It is believed that they might have been smarter than Sapiens of their age. Still, there was no evidence of any cultural artifacts or arts found around Neanderthals. Sapiens flourished as time passed but they went extinct. There can be many reasons behind their extinction but as Darwin’s theory suggest, Sapiens would have been fitter as they survived.
The contrast between Biological and Linguistic evolution
Biological evolution is easier to trace. The similarities in DNA and RNA across all organisms suggest that at least all current life has a common origin. But that is not the case with linguistic evolution. There are many languages in this modern era. All these languages differ from region to region and have differences in vocabulary and grammar. So it is difficult to say if there was a single origin to language. On the other hand, all languages depend on the combination of sounds to make words. These sounds are found to be common across languages. They also have other prospects in common such as differences in tenses. If we consider a primitive language as the origin of all languages, we can infer that the languages might have changed in grammar and vocabulary due to the differences in their environment. Even we can comment that the cultural differences across regions are due to the changes in the surroundings.
Today we are living peacefully in a world where language is not a barrier. We are leading to a more complex world now, a world with complicated challenges. Trying to improve our position on the “Kardashev scale” by advancing technologically, all starting right from the point of Cognitive evolution, when we realized what we were thinking.
Credits and References-
- “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari.