I'm reading "Introducing Phonetic Science" by Michael Ashby and John Maidment and they say:

Speech is the original channel for which human language evolved and all written languages have (or once had) a spoken form.

This doesn't make much sense to me. Isn't non verbal communication, like those used by other animal species, more original in the evolution of our language that pure sound speech? Is he just being lax in his words?

3 Answers 3


Claims about the evolution of language are all fairly speculative, but the statement is as accurate as any that are made about language. The distinction that you have to attend to is that between human language and generalized communication. Human language is distinct from other systems in being learned and symbolic, which distinguishes it from primate facial gestures which are associated with a limited range of functions. Eventually, humans developed non-auditory means of encoding language symbols: but the auditory channel was the original means of encoding symbols.

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    There is some evidence that sign (or at least gestural) languages predated verbal languages. (See Pollick and de Waal 2007 for example.)
    – arp
    May 31, 2018 at 21:21

No, because we have no evidence of pre-speech language. We have lots of evidence for non verbal communication, but language is narrower than communication - it must have the capacity for abstract propositional idea exchange.

The human brain is capable of using true signed languages, but the oldest sign languages we know of are only a few centuries old. It's possible the first human language was signed rather than spoken, but there's no evidence either way.


Non-verbal communication definitely preceded speech, and some of that could be considered language, but he didn't say all language evolved from speech, but for speech. A broader question is whether auditory communication preceded visual. I do know humans can hear while still in the womb.

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