We used to think that language was about 50,000 years old and originated in Europe. We were wrong on both counts.
I think the notion that humans are different in kind and not in degree from other animals is as wrong in this context as in most others. Yes, primitive humans needed to communicate where food could be found. Do not hyenas have the same need? Do not many animals need to communicate to hunt in packs? Do not elephant mothers lead their group long distances to find water? Elephants also mourn their dead. My hope is that the day is coming when we feed videos of other animals to AI systems to see if the computers can decode their "languages."
You make me think about things that aren’t exactly political and that’s good for me.
For those of you who may be looking for the books recommended in the episode, they are:
* Language: The Cultural Tool - Everett
* How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention - Everett
* Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans - Bickerton
Personally I believe man created God in our image, but that's a subject for another place. I don't know if we're just bad at language or assume other animals can't have sophisticated communication so we don't pay close attention to their sounds and gestures. Your pet dog knows more human words than you know dog words.
Any chance of some links to the publications mentioned in this episode? Thanks
Cool episode. While the notion of a "big bang" in Europe was plausible 40 or 50 years ago, given the limited evidence, certainly by the end of the 80s, it was a theory no longer compatible with the most complete evidence. Maybe there was some "Eurocentrism" going on, I suspect it's a matter of people blinkered by evidence from the 1940s and 50s. The combination of genetics, linguistics, and archaeology came together in the late 80s and 90s to show a more complete picture. Did the "big bang" theory come from neuropsychologists working from some book from 1966?
Modern humanity, homo sapiens sapiens, first appeared in the fossil record about 120K to 150K years ago. Given our propensity for larger-scale social cooperation, language almost certainly is a defining characteristic of modern humans. That doesn't preclude language in earlier hominid species. Certainly, the fire- and tool-making were there, with more limited evidence for social cooperation. Language is a communication tool. It's not essential for abstract thought, contrary to much confusion emanating form the humanities, where the confusion of language with thought is rampant (thanks to, say, Heidegger).
And Georgia does have some great wine. I think that's where the oldest evidence for wine comes from -- I mean, it's in the Bible, right, Noah planting a vineyard at Mount Ararat and getting drunk? It's not far from Georgia. Must be ;-)
A truly great presentation. Interesting, entertaining, witty - a great way to spend 30 minutes.
Have you discussed the work of Morten Christiansen and Nick Chater in this context? Might be a good complement.
In my imagination, at least, older cave people would have a ‘vocabulary’ of grunts and sound effects and their offspring would master all of that and, then, begin playing amongst themselves, creating new sounds and meanings for games and entertainment. Their sounds and gestures would create generational gaps and evolve, sometimes impacting their elders, often not. The phenomenon continues.
A very interesting topic. Regarding homonids:
We weren't alone, as the article notes, those that no longer exist are still with us, are part of us.
In line with Frank M. Cook's post, other animals may not talk as we do, but they vocalize and those vocalizations carry meaning. The question is therefore, how complex are their communications? As we have enough trouble differentiating different words in human languages that we don't understand we have very little chance of differentiating what may be "words" in animal vocalizations, although researchers have to an extent:
This is something that an unsupervised AI is able to pick out better than humans. What of this nonhuman "speech" research?
Excellent episode. A few years ago, a research article suggested that the first (?) human languages likely included implosives (clicks) in their phonemic inventory, and this was consistent with genetic evidence that anatomically modern humans possibly originated where the Khoi-San languages are spoken today (rather near the South African cave you mentioned, and around the same time — 90,000 years ago or so). I think the idea was that clicks were unlikely to have been invented (as phonemes) more than just once (I’m probably oversimplifying their argument).
There are several problems with these conjectures, to be sure. We’ll never know what any languages sounded like before around six or seven thousand years ago (sorry to, ahem, dik the finger at you, Merritt)…and if you’re right about language having been invented hundreds of thousands (even maybe over a million) years ago, it’s even more a shame that so many, many languages are utterly unrecoverable.