The Origin of Sophisticated Human Language

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

When did complex and sophisticated human language arise? There’s grunting and then there’s what many people would say was a half-language. But when did this thing that we are doing now start? It’s often been thought that Homo sapiens is defined partly by this ability to use complex language, that this is actually more central to what being human is than we might think. It’s been thought that Cro-Magnon men spoke and many would say that Neanderthals could just grunt.

Two women engrossed in a cheerful conversation.
There’s a prevalent theory that claims that a giant leap took place about 50,000 years ago that led to the birth of conceptual sophistication in early humans, which eventually resulted in the origin of sophisticated human language. (Image: Fizkes/Shutterstock)

The Lieberman Hypothesis

For a while, there was an interesting theory that got a certain amount of attention, and justifiably, by Philip Lieberman, who is in the Cognitive and Linguistic Science Department at Brown. Lieberman had the idea that human larynxes sit lower in our throats than in animals and that this allows our oral cavity, from the side, to be longer, which allows us to speak in a sophisticated way in terms of sound production and making a wide range of vowels and consonants.

What made him say that is that apes have higher larynxes, just like dogs do, just like tiny children do—and they can’t talk yet—and Neanderthal larynxes can be shown to have been higher. So, it seems that the larynx came down and allowed us to be able to make this kind of sophisticated sound, even at the expense of danger.

Illustration of human vocal tract, starting with the nasal cavity, lips and tongue, and ending with the larynx and esophagus.
Cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman believes that humans are able to speak in a sophisticated way in terms of sound production and produce a wide range of vowels and consonants because human larynxes sit lower in our throats than in animals. (Image: Arcadian/Public domain)

If you think about it, never does a dog starts choking on its food. Dogs are messy and impulsive, but one thing they don’t do, no matter how happy they are—they wolf down food and there’s no such thing as having to bang your dog on the back and give it the Heimlich maneuver. They don’t choke on food because the larynx is positioned up, so the food slides past the larynx.

With us, the reason that’s a danger is that our larynx is lower. We swallow the food, it might go down the wrong pipe and we could die. Apparently, it could be said that the reason that happened was that it allows us to speak to assist us in thriving as a species.

The fact is that the Lieberman hypothesis—it’s one of those things that is so pleasant, you want it to be true—is unlikely to be based on evidence that has come up since. One of the most difficult things is that the larynx only lowers starting in puberty. Infants can’t talk, but certainly, eight-year-old boys can. So, that suggests that the larynx couldn’t be the whole story.

Then, there are some other things. It’s not absolutely sure that the Neanderthals’ larynxes were that low. That’s the kind of thing you really only get certain suggestions of in a skeleton, as opposed to a corpse. There are other things that suggest that maybe that idea might not be as promising as was once thought. But, you find it often in the literature and it is interesting. Nowadays, there are other ideas as to when language might have started.

Learn more about when language began.

The ‘Big Bang’ Theory

Where a lot of it begins is with the fact that it’s pretty generally agreed that Homo sapiens probably began about 150,000 years ago, which is not that long—not millions—just 150,000. Many have said that there was a Big Bang just 50,000 years ago. If you follow up on the subject you find this again and again, that 50,000 years ago suddenly there is the kind of art that suggests some sort of conceptual sophistication and all sorts of developments that you find that suggest that there was some sort of leap from ‘caveman’ to what we are today.

So, it’s often been thought that during that Big Bang, that must have been when human beings started speaking. That’s been a rather prevalent theory, particularly over the past 15 years, and it’s seductive.

When Homo—as opposed to Homo sapiens—when the genus homo emerged about 2 million years ago, after that 500,000 years ago human brains were already as big as ours. Yet, there was none of this Big Bang. Then, 100,000 years ago Neanderthals’ brains were actually bigger, with it acknowledged that the correlation between brain size and brainpower is approximate; there are things to be seen. Yet, there is no development.

This Big Bang only happened 150,000 years ago. There’s a wonderful quote about this by Derek Bickerton, who has done a lot of very interesting work on language evolution. He notices that there are remains of humans found in caves in Zhoukoudian, China. It starts at 500,000 years ago and goes to 200,000 years ago and there’s no development.

So, the way he describes it is they, “sat for 0.3 million years in the drafty, smoky caves of Zhoukoudian, cooking bats over smoldering embers and waiting for the caves to fill up with their own garbage.” And that is what they did. There was certainly a kind of nobility about that, but still, that’s not the Big Bang. They give no evidence of being sharp and self-destructive as we are.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The ‘Big Bang’ Happened Long Before 50,000 Years Ago

Many people have thought there must be this mutation that happened about 50,000 years ago. You’re going to keep reading that, I’m sure, because 50,000 sits well in the memory and at this point, some people have their careers hinging on this 50,000, but I think that the evidence for that is falling apart.

It’s not that the idea is wrong, but it’s just a little less dramatic. A lot of evidence suggests that humans were sophisticated in the sense that we were, long before 50,000 years ago.

To give a sense of this, these are not just idle dates. 150,000 years ago, that’s when the species arose, so that’s our benchmark. Here we are, so it’s been said that the Big Bang is about here. But there’s evidence that it goes much further back as we discover more and more evidence of early man. There are all sorts of evidence that this sophistication we’re talking about probably happened very gradually, starting 2 million years ago before there were Homo sapiens and gradually came up to this.

Now, there are a lot of people that like gradualism, the idea of it being step-by-step. I think that from what I’ve seen, the evidence suggests there was a certain acceleration at a certain point. Homo sapiens are special. But, there was a sophisticated early man possibly maybe 80,000, maybe 90,000, maybe 100,000 years ago. Findings, particularly in southern Africa, are showing that there were sophisticated pieces of art, for example, long before 50,000 years ago. The bit about 50,000 years ago has always surprised me, actually.

If you just do a little bit of rooting around in the field of human evolution, you find that it’s generally supposed that humans reached Australia and New Guinea 70,000 years ago.

So there’s always this idea that there was this Big Bang that went on in Europe and perhaps the northern reaches of Africa and the Middle East, and then there was all of this sophistication. But, then, on the other hand, all of the people involved, and any reputable social scientist would say that all humans now are the exact species, same genetic specifications, except for small flutters at the edges. That is what people genuinely believe.

But, if the Big Bang happened way over in Europe and its environs, what was going on with all those people down in New Guinea and Australia and all the people in southern Asia and other places that humans are documented to have gotten to by then?

The answer, until then, for many people was just diffusion. Diffusion is often kind of a weasel word in many fields in social science, including in linguistics. How would it have diffused? Diffusion seems to often indicate dilution. How would this perfect, equal degree of sophistication have gotten all over the world? It never seemed to quite make sense.

If the Big Bang were further back, then we’re on better ground. Because then we can have the Big Bang happening in Africa, where it’s now certain that it’s where our species arose. Then, once the species started radiating out of Africa, everybody had that same kit of sophistication to deal with. So, it works better.

Learn more about the case for the world’s first language.

Human Language Emerged in Africa

There is a wonderful new book called The Real Eve: Modern Man’s Journey out of Africa, which is one of the books on this topic that is more readable than many. With many of the books on this, you start to get bogged down in genes with names and plateaus of Iran. This one actually keeps you going, for the most part, and it’s cutting-edge. I highly recommend it. The title The Real Eve is unfortunate because that and the cover make it look like it’s about something very different. But it’s a nice one.

In any case, it seems that human language most likely emerged in Africa and probably with the emergence of Homo sapiens, possibly earlier species of Homo. There is support for this in that there is a gene called the FOXP2 gene and it seems to trace back 100,000 years, which is pretty nice and it’s long before that 50,000-year mark that the Big Bang people specify as being the birth of language.

Common Questions about Birth of Human Language

Q: Where did language originate from?

Human language most likely emerged in Africa and probably with the emergence of Homo sapiens, which was about 150,000 years ago. There is a theory that claims that the origin of sophisticated human language dates back to about 50,000 years ago, but the evidence suggests it happened long before that.

Q: How did language originate in humans?

The sophistication of human thought can be traced back to about 200,000 to 150,000 years ago, which also coincides with the emergence of Homo sapiens. The Neanderthals emerged long before Homo sapiens and were still around when the Homo sapiens emerged, but they didn’t have a language. So, a sort of mutation or a leap of evolution took place around 200,000 to 150,000 years ago, which resulted in the origin of a sophisticated human language.

Q: When did humans start talking?

For the past 15 years or so, it was believed that humans became capable of sophisticated speech sometime around 50,000 years ago. However, recent evidence suggests that humans became capable of speaking in a sophisticated manner much earlier; probably as far back as 150,000 years ago.

Q: Why can humans speak and animals can’t?

Cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman claims that because human larynxes sit lower in our throats than in animals, this allows our oral cavity, from the side, to be longer, which allows us to speak in a sophisticated way in terms of sound production and making a wide range of vowels and consonants.

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