History Revisited: The language unfolding

Rudrakshi Shetty, Final Year MBBS, Northern State Medical University, Russia

In the biblical story of Tower of Babel, there only ever existed one language. Until they split into several groups, later unable to understand each other. We don’t know if any one such language actually existed, but we do know that all the languages that exist today can be traced back to a much smaller group of languages. The most beautiful thing about language is that it is always ever growing, ever evolving. There are over 5000 languages, many of which are impenetrable to one another and so the question arises, how did we end up with so many languages? How did it all start?

Truth be told, we don’t know, but we do have a lot of speculations. The thousands of languages around didn’t start from one language, it in fact started from gestures. We observe that quite a lot even now as non-verbal communication which is just as important for self expression as is verbal communication. Going back around 30-40 million years ago, there existed a “mirror system” in the monkey brain which is specifically designed for grasp actions. This part of the brain maps what the monkey sees and projects that as action. We aren’t quite different since its equivalent in humans is the language circuit. If it’s so similar, can we teach apes to speak like us? No, but we have been successful in teaching them to sign. Scientist Emily Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has been successful in establishing a decent communication with Kanzis through lexigrams and computer based keyboards.

The main feature that differentiates us from apes is bipedalism. The upright posture increased scope for more gesture of hands and face, pushing us towards a more sophisticated line of communication. Around 6 million years ago, the “language” that can be described is quite like miming, a little better and more complex than apes, but still quite far from humans. Evolving further, miming became more simplified and arbitrary. It started losing its pictorial component and became more efficient. It turned into something more conventional, decided by people instead of mimicking every action out there. Bipedalism increased, migration started and language evolved faster than ever. As much as language enabled better communication, it also enabled people from keeping others out where only a select few could understand what was being communicated. It soon turned into means of preventing communication, rather than enabling it. At this point, individuals started to lose the gestural component for the second time, and started dedicating that part of our expression entirely through the face, particularly the mouth. The only speculation for this theory is that it took place to free up the hands for work or doing various activities.

       We can’t deny the importance of speech in language but we know well by now that it doesn’t just consist of spoken words. Sign language is purely gestural and it has proven to be just as effective as speech and it uses the brain areas as spoken language does. We slowly started to integrate language with memory. By reading and writing, we can remember things better and go back to it as we like. To establish an effective means of communication despite the distance, radios, televisions, phones came into play. The Internet played a critical role in bridging distance that can expand to miles, but the discovery of cell phones was the ultimate game changer which combined memory, distance and computation.

      More often than not, language is what we want to hear, what we choose to observe and how we wish to comprehend. This is way beyond what words can explain or theories can prove. In the end, language is what we want it to be!


1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780444538 Dihub 0002222via%3

2. https://www.ling upenn.edu/courses/Fall 2003/ling001/language change.html#:-text Generation%20by%20generation%2C%20pronunciations%20evolve becomes%20arbitraril y%20distant%20and%20different

3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10142271/

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