The Origins of Language

The Origins of Language

For two million years, our ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer societies that depended on cooperation. Could this highly social lifestyle explain the origins of language?

The Origins of Spoken Language

Depending on how you define "human", there have been between three and twenty-one species of humans to walk the Earth.

Timeline of Human Evolution

As Homo sapiens we're the only surviving species of hominins.

Modern humans - Homo sapiens - emerged as a species around 300,000 years ago. Fossil and archaeological records show it wasn't long before coordinated groups of hunters could bring down large prey animals with spears.

Such a feat required not just advanced tool-making, but complex social skills too. Hunter-gatherers were able to forward-plan, strategise, and coordinate through common languages.

It's a tentative hypothesis, though. Cavemen didn't convert their language into any written form, nor did they annotate their cave paintings for us to analyse today. But there are lines of indirect evidence that lead us to this conclusion.

Broader evidence exists in two separate areas of the world, where large prey animals were rapidly driven to extinction upon the migration of humans:

In Australia

When the first humans stepped onto Australia 45,000 years ago, the native megafauna were doomed - and not just because of the changing climate.

Over the course of a few thousand years, Homo sapiens hunted almost all the Australian megafauna to extinction. These were beasts they had never encountered before: massive marsupial lions, dragon-like lizards, five-metre snakes, and two-tonne wombats.

Nonetheless, humans reigned supreme. And the best explanation we have for these extraordinary attacks is language. A means to coordinate and strategise in real time, to prey upon the predators themselves.

In North America

Similarly, when humans crossed a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska 16,000 years ago, they thrived by hunting much larger prey animals in groups. The North American mammoths, mastodons, and sabre-toothed cats were soon hunted to extinction.

Homo sapiens possessed a special form of intelligence, unlike that of any other species. Was it the emergence of complex language? Maybe. But what's the earliest direct evidence of our linguistics origins?

The Origins of Written Language

At least 12,000 years ago, after all other species of humans had disappeared, Homo sapiens shifted from a lifestyle of nomadic hunter-gathering to permanently settled farming.

Soon after the last glacial period, plant domestication arose independently in four locations across Asia and South America. This dramatic change in lifestyle had big ripple effects on the evolution of humanity.

Tied to their land for plant cultivation and cattle grazing, society took on entirely new forms. Tribes merged and grew in population, prompting the creation of law, justice, and politics. Individuals took on specific job roles, allowing them to specialise in a single expert craft. Trading became a necessity, so each family could eat more than a single crop. And at the same time, the first evidence of written language emerged.

In his spellbinding book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explains the three factors that drove the creation of written language:

The capacity of our memory is limited. As agricultural societies developed rules for ownership, trading, and taxation, humans began to create written records to keep account and resolve disputes.

Our knowledge dies when we die. Details of land ownership had to be recorded so property could be retained from generation to generation, surpassing the deaths of individuals.

Society needed to maintain botanical, zoological, and topographical information. As new farming technologies and processes emerged, written language was a way to record and share large amounts of technical data.

Setting aside the pictograms discovered at the 11,600-year-old site of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, the best early evidence for written language dates back 5,000 years to the ancient Sumerians.

The Ancient Sumerians

The Sumerians lived in southern Mesopotamia, now present day Iraq. Sumer was not a country, but a region of early city-states, each with its own king. They invented the concept of time, dividing day and night into 12-hour periods, hours into 60 minutes, and minutes into 60 seconds.

The Sumeraisn also developed governments, monuments, and irrigation. And as a result of such cooperation and creativity, this extraordinary society thrived for thousands of years, from 4100 to 1750 BCE.

Illustrated map of Ancient Mesopotamia

The first written language was developed by the Sumerians of Ancient Mesopotamia.

Evidence shows that by 3000 BCE, the Sumerians had developed their own written language. However, it wasn't like the words and sentences you read here. Instead, it was based on pictographs, entirely brief and symbolic.

Early Sumerian script had only two elements:

1. Numbers

Sumerians used a mixture of base-6 and base-10 numeral systems. They had signs for 1, 10, 60, 600, 3,600 and 36,000. The base-6 numbering is why, even today, we divide our days into 24 hours, and circles into 360 degrees.

2. Nouns

Sumerian script was entirely functional at first. The early symbols represented animals, land, crops, dates, and people, and were pressed into clay tablets which served as accounting ledgers.

The oldest written language is Sumerian script pressed into a clay tablet

The oldest evidence of written language is this Sumerian script pressed into a clay tablet.

It's essentially an ancient transaction receipt: "A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months, signed Kushim".

So it's likely written language evolved out of necessity, just like the origins of spoken language. But what about creative language? How did the Sumerians get from this partial script to full script, where they would be able to record the first hero epics and biblical narratives?

Partial Script vs Full Script

Partial script is an excellent form of notation. Scholars believe the Sumerians invented theirs not to mimic spoken language, but to compensate where human memory failed.

In fact, we still use partial script in this way today. Musical notation and physics formulas are good examples.

Sheet Music Illustration

Sheet music is a classic illustration of partial script.

Yet partial scripts are so functionally specific that they can't evolve beyond their technical means. What's more, they're not an intuitive way of thinking. You have to learn the rules of each script individually and then adapt your way of thinking to it.

(This is one reason why Einstein's Theory of Relativity is so special. Being able to think like a physicist is rather uncommon.)

To expand on functionality, the Sumerians developed a written language based on full script. Like modern language, it had the capacity to communicate the wider spectrum of human experience.

Scholars refer to it as cuneiform: a type of full script that allowed the Sumerians to write stories of kings and battles and floods. It evolved rapidly in complexity to convey abstract concepts like gods and immortality.

In fact, these symbols were so versatile and abundant that they could be used to mimic spoken language. But the Sumerians weren't alone in this discovery.

Around the same time, the Egyptians developed their own full script called hieroglyphics. Full scripts were also developed in China (1200 BCE) and in Central America (1000 BCE) soon after.

It was an explosion of written languages, with the capacity to convey original ideas that could also be spoken aloud and therefore understood by anyone.

The significance of this is huge. It brought an entirely new and versatile dimension of written language into play.

Venn diagram showing examples of full script vs partial script

Full script offers far greater creativity than partial script.

But wait a second. What is maths doing there straddling both types of script?

The Origins of Maths

We're going to head over to 9th century India to see how base-10 maths first arose - and how this led to the base-2 language of computers.

The Hindu-Arabic Numerals

Modern maths is a partial script of symbols from 0 to 9, although uniquely for a partial script, some aspects of maths can be spoken aloud, too.

Mathematical numerals originated in India, as you can see from this comparison of digits in different languages.

Comparison of mathematical glyphs from different languages

A comparison of mathematical glyphs from different languages.

Then in 820 BCE, the Persian polymath, Al-Khwarizmi (Latinised as Algoritmi), popularised these Indian numerals in his page-turner on linear and quadratic equations.

The invading Arabs saw the usefulness of the system and spread it throughout the Middle East and Europe on their travels. By the 14th century, Hindu-Arabic numerals had replaced the incumbent Roman numeral system.

This mathematical script—which now dominates all 21st century writing systems—went on to birth another popular script which revolutionised the modern world... Binary code.

The Language of Binary Code

Binary code is a base-2 system, consisting of just two digits: 0 and 1. Computers operate in binary, which means all data and calculations are performed in zeros and ones.

One advantage of binary is that a single digit can represent true (1) or false (0) logic. And when you string them together, multiple digits can represent any integer, like base-10 numbering. It's just a different set of rules.

So how in the name of our robot overlords does binary work?

Explanation of how to count in binary numbers

Counting in binary means forgetting you ever heard of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9.

Future Language

The artificial intelligence that will drive our society in future will think in binary—at least, to start with. Even experts can't predict what future AI will look like or how it will behave, let alone what exotic languages it will develop on its own.

Meanwhile, our human language evolves continuously. In 2020, the Oxford English Dictionary converted colloquial terms like "folically challenged" and "adulting" into formal entries.

This linguistic evolution, by minor mutation or whopping great speciation, is driven by the needs of its speakers. No-one in the world knew what COVID meant in 2019, and now we can't go a single day without hearing it.

All this underpins the very same origins of language in our hunter-gatherer ancestors. There wasn't a single person who sat down one day and devised an entire dictionary from nothing, as my nan adorably once said.

Instead, language is a social construction, born of the need to coordinate, to remember, to inform, and to express ourselves. It's a fluid thing, a cultured thing, and humanity absolutely depends on it.

What would the world be like if a mysterious pandemic robbed humanity of the ability to communicate? Check out Speech Sounds, the Hugo Award winning short story by Octavia Butler written in 1984.

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Becky Casale Author Bio

Becky Casale is the founder, keyboard smasher, and drinks lady at Science Me. She's a BSc undergrad and the mum of two catastrophically awesome critters.

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