Linguistics and biology researchers propose a new theory on the deep roots of human speech. “The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language,” Charles Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man” (1871), while contemplating how humans learned to speak. Language, he speculated, might have had its origins in singing, which “might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions.”
Now researchers from MIT, along with a scholar from the University of Tokyo, say that Darwin was on the right path. The balance of evidence, they believe, suggests that human language is a grafting of two communication forms found elsewhere in the animal kingdom: first, the elaborate songs of birds, and second, the more utilitarian, information-bearing types of expression seen in a diversity of other animals.
The idea builds upon Miyagawa’s conclusion, detailed in his previous work, that there are two “layers” in all human languages: an “expression” layer, which involves the changeable organization of sentences, and a “lexical” layer, which relates to the core content of a sentence. His conclusion is based on earlier work by linguists including Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser.
Based on an analysis of animal communication, and using Miyagawa’s framework, the authors say that birdsong closely resembles the expression layer of human sentences — whereas the communicative waggles of bees, or the short, audible messages of primates, are more like the lexical layer. At some point, between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, humans may have merged these two types of expression into a uniquely sophisticated form of language.
To consider the difference between the expression layer and the lexical layer, take a simple sentence: “Todd saw a condor.” We can easily create variations of this, such as, “When did Todd see a condor?” This rearranging of elements takes place in the expression layer and allows us to add complexity and ask questions. But the lexical layer remains the same, since it involves the same core elements: the subject, “Todd,” the verb, “to see,” and the object, “condor.”
Birdsong lacks a lexical structure. Instead, birds sing learned melodies with what Berwick calls a “holistic” structure; the entire song has one meaning, whether about mating, territory or other things. The Bengalese finch, as the authors note, can loop back to parts of previous melodies, allowing for greater variation and communication of more things; a nightingale may be able to recite from 100 to 200 different melodies.
By contrast, other types of animals have bare-bones modes of expression without the same melodic capacity. Bees communicate visually, using precise waggles to indicate sources of foods to their peers; other primates can make a range of sounds, comprising warnings about predators and other messages.
Humans, according to Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya, fruitfully combined these systems. We can communicate essential information, like bees or primates — but like birds, we also have a melodic capacity and an ability to recombine parts of our uttered language. For this reason, our finite vocabularies can generate a seemingly infinite string of words. Indeed, the researchers suggest that humans first had the ability to sing, as Darwin conjectured, and then managed to integrate specific lexical elements into those songs.
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald