When I was young, they was relatively little work on the evolution of human language. Back in the 19th century the Société Linguistique de Paris banned the topic and that ban seemed in effect. By the 1990s, however, things had changed. The evolution of language was now not only a respectable topic for research, but a popular one.
These days any number of people would like to be recognized as the one who discovered how language came about. But discovering the origin of language is rather different from, for example, discovering the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. Tombs are physical things with definite locations. To a first approximation, you either know it exists and where, or you don’t. If you start digging in a deserted area and find a tomb, then you discovered it. Simple enough.
But language, how does one discover its origins? The big problem, of course, is that we have no direct observations. If we had a time machine then we could gather such observations. We’d know when and where language originated, and perhaps even how.
Of would we? There is the problem of definition. These communication phenomena we’ve observed, language or not? But that’s likely a matter of mere semantics. It doesn’t really matter just which of them we’re going to certify as ‘real’ language. What needs to be explained, explained, is the entire evolutionary run from a point where there is no language to one where, yes, that’s definitely language. And, while having direct observations of that run would certainly help, it won’t tell us everything. It will tell us about the relationship between spoken language and associated behavior and that will be useful. But it won’t tell us what’s happening in the brain.
Still, I’m beginning to think that we may arrive at a consensus account within 20 or 30 years. I’ve given considerably thought to a related question, the origins of music, which I discussed in Beethoven’s Anvil a decade and a half ago. I extended those ideas at bit and had some remarks on language in Synch, Song, and Society, an essay-review of Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals. I have no intention of summarizing those arguments here, but I need to mention that I joined the ancient and venerable parade of those who believe that music, or something like it, not only preceded the emergence of language, but is a necessary precursor.
All of this is a prelude to Dan Everett’s new book, Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious, which I’m currently reading. As the title indicates, it’s not about the origins of language, but the subject does come up, particularly in his discussion of work on the relationship between gesture and language. I find that discussion very encouraging. That, along with what I already know, is what has me thinking that we may arrive at a consensus account in 20 or 30 years.
If so, the account will stretch over many specific disciplines scattered across linguistics, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, biology, and who knows what else. The trick is to pull all that together. That’s something our academic institutions are not suited for. If anything, they work against it.