4

This is a follow up and linked to the question What evolution framework best describes the change between languages over time?

I am interested in knowing how did language originate and how does it survive?

I am aware as to how language changes over time. But how did it actually originated and what were the condition for its survival. For example, one word survives and the other does not. Why is that so?

I am not sure if this question is framed correctly. In case not, please advise.

  • Hi Sudhendu, welcome to SE Linguistics! Your question is really interesting! The best kind of question on SE sites are the ones that are based on some previous research on the topic, such as reading the relevant Wikipedia page on the origin of language. Have you done that? And if yes, could you rephrase your question to make it more specific and focus on (sub)questions that are not sufficiently answered in the Wikipedia article? – robert Aug 28 '13 at 16:09
  • @robert. I have done some background research and in the process of doing it. It is human nature to seek answer the easiest way :) I like your generosity though. You aint like the other SE moderator who bash you up and down for asking question they dont like. I am currently researching more. I will update or add new question as soon as I find more info! – Vicyan Aug 30 '13 at 5:23
  • If I am understanding your line of thinking in your question correctly I would venture the guess that specific answers don't exist. However, I might suggest two books I read that you might enjoy. One is The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. The other is Adam's Tongue by Derek Bickerton. I read both and while some of it just went over my head, I felt enlightened in general about the evolution of language. – user13367 Jun 8 '16 at 14:51
  • 1
    These are deep questions that are the subject of very active research at the moment. If you want to jump into the deep end of the pool, take a look at EvoLang, a biennial conference that brings together the top people in the field. – rmalouf Jun 14 '16 at 19:22
4

The exact origin of language is (and most likely will forever remain) a mystery. That Wikipedia article should give you a quick overview of the various competing theories. To oversimplify, verbal language provided a survival advantage, allowing people to warn each other about danger with enough detail to effectively avoid it, all while keeping hands free for locomotion, fighting, and grabbing. While this explains why language survived, it does not explain how language came to be in the first place. Evolution has no foresight and just because a trait is advantageous doesn't mean evolution will make it happen (how many animals have wheels?).

As for the case of why some languages thrive while others die off quietly, unfortunately the answer is simple socioeconomic and sociopolitical factors combined with sheer luck. Why is English so widely spoken across the world? Because English speaking countries had enough political and economic power and influence to spread it across the world. Why do other languages die? Typically because it is displaced by a more politically/socially powerful one. That or all the speakers simply die out/are killed. So if the survival of a language is based on the speakers' sociopolitical power, what makes one group more powerful than another? I don't know but I highly doubt it has anything to do with language. In the 19th and early 20th centuries people believed that the language one spoke significantly affected their cognitive abilities (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) but these claims have largely been disproven and few linguistics believe in them these days.

The most interesting part of your question is the last bit. If language changes over time, what governs those changes? Why do certain changes stick and others die out? I recently sat in on a lecture about the Low Entropy Conjecture. While I am oversimplifying the issue, Professors Malouf and Ackerman calculated the Shannon Entropy (the measure of uncertainty in Information Theory) of verbal conjugations in various languages and found that in all cases the results were much lower than those expected by chance. Their conjecture basically states that languages change to become less entropic (i.e. less random) over time. Extrapolating from this, any change that is successfully adopted into a language would have to reduce the possibility of misunderstanding. It's a neat idea but it's a very very new area of study.

| improve this answer | |
  • thanks for the answer @acattle. Their conjecture basically states that languages change to become less entropic (i.e. less random) over time. as far as I understand, less entropic means easy to speak or spell or write? So the studies says, with time languages tends to be more easier and understandable?? Does it sounds like a goal of evolution of language? To attend minimum complexity and become easier by time? – Vicyan Aug 28 '13 at 8:48
  • @SudhenduPandey Forget written language for now. There are a ton of factors that makes written language change slower than and differently from spoken language. So does less entropy make a language easier to speak? Well, it depends what you mean. Currently the Low Entropy Conjecture only states that verbal inflection systems become simpler (i.e. easier to guess, easier to learn, easier to use) over time. No studies have tried to apply this to phonology (pronunciation, hearing) yet. In my answer I was extrapolating and making assumptions that might turn out to be wrong – acattle Aug 28 '13 at 14:15
  • @SudhenduPandey You may also be interested in looking into evolutionary linguistics, a very new field of study that tries to figure out what forces/rules/laws govern language change. This is slightly different from Historical Linguistics as it looks more at the underlying mechanism. Unfortunately, I'm not much of an expert in this type of thing. Hopefully someone with some experience can chime in. – acattle Aug 28 '13 at 14:18
  • 1
    Except that it's punctuated evolution; sound changes, like meteor strikes, happen, and they wipe out all the nicely-filled niches. Afterwards it takes a long time for the equilibrium to get optimal again. – jlawler Aug 28 '13 at 16:46
  • @acattle Thanks again. I will surely have a look around. If I may ask one more piece of question (forgive me for my foolishness, but linguistic is not a part of my education, I just happen to be interested in it lately). why does one word is used and not other for a particular thing? I mean for the animal "BEAR" we use BEAR and not "SAER" Is this a authority decision to use a particular word or has it something to do with the animal itself? I hope you understand what I am trying to say. – Vicyan Sep 6 '13 at 5:42
2

Since this question was recently resurrected, I'd like to provide a broader perspective.

The problem is that the question of the evolution of language is often confused between three quite independent (although related) issues.

  1. What is the evolutionary selective advantage of language? Or what evolutionary purpose does language serve?
  2. What is the origin of language? What were the features that were first selected on? What was the first language like? What were the first phases of language like.
  3. What are the mechanisms by which language develops and changes?

There has rightly long been deep seated skepticism in linguistics about questions 1 and 2. It has only been quite recently (maybe last 20 years) that the questions of language evolution in the early stages have been considered to provide serious insights, mostly due to the use of models. However, there is no universally accepted answer to 1 and 2. There is not even universal agreement on whether language is a directly selected feature or an epiphenomenon of other kinds of natural selection resulting in the neural and anatomical features making language possible. It's also not clear whether the early stages of language were more holistic (larger units imbued with complex meanings becoming modern language through articulation and analysis) or very particular (small units with small meanings being synthesized into larger units). It's not even clear if language has a single origin. These questions can likely be never settled completely and often reflect the worldview and current philosophical leanings of their investigators more than comprehensive analysis of extensive evidence.

While the answers to questions 1 and 2 can only be speculative, there is vast literature documenting the answers to question 3. We know a lot about the mechanisms by which language changes at all levels. Phonetics to lexicon or syntax. The process of grammaticalization. The processes of Creolization. The various social aspects of prestige, code switching, and standardization. All of this knowledge is partial and there are no definitive predictive models. But we certainly know where to look for more data.

Looking at the wealth, depth and breadth of the evidence, it makes no sense to ask the fourth popular question. Is language change subject to the evolutionary processes of natural selection? Language (as it is now) is a phenomenon with a strong social dimension and therefore it makes no more (or less) sense to think of it as evolving by natural selection than it does any other social phenomenom (from fashion to war). While models inspired by various selectionist metaphors can certainly be illuminating (e.g. see Dixon's thesis of punctuated equilibria or even Dawkins' memes when applied to the lexicon), they are always very partial and break down when we try to universalize them.

Looking at the existing evidence and future research paradigm it is unlikely that language change needs the metaphor of natural selection to explain what's going on. This is partly because there's so much cultural (Lamarckian) selection involved and partly because the processes of encoding and transmission of the features on which selection could operate are relatively well-known and look nothing like the straightforward digital encoding present in the genes (even when we take the more recent environmental modifications into account). You could certainly look at some of the changing units of language (for instance words or salient phonological features) and study their 'reproductive' success. But that instantly transforms the feature you're studying into an organism and the whole metaphor becomes too circular to explain much of anything.

In short, while I wouldn't go as far as the 19th century French academics who forbade any discussion of language evolution, it is not a question very high on most linguists' minds. All the fundamental questions have been argued to death and few people think a resolution is in sight. Occasionally a fascinating hypothesis comes along that shines a light on other aspects of language (I was quite taken with Dunbar's work and found Dixon's arguments very fruitful), but ultimately it's not a fundamental question of modern linguistics. It sparks popular imagination and individual curiosity of many but we will most likely be left to ponder these dilemmas forever.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.