I read that it is believed that humans have been using language for only about 100k to 200k years. But recent work with various animals such as parrots and domestic dogs and cats has shown at the very least that a dog can recognize many human nouns and some parrot studies seem to show parrots not merely mimicking human language but using it to answer questions about quantity and shape.

I do not think it would be argued that humans before the advent of language lacked any of the abilities of modern parrots or dogs or chimps for that matter. Whether one accepts what animal researchers have asserted, my question is whether their work has influenced thinking about the origin of human language.

1 Answer 1


Linguists are pretty much unpersuaded by dubious claims about parrots and dogs "having language" in some sense. However, there is an actual albeit small influence from evolutionary biology on linguistics. This comes through what is known as the "biolinguistics research program" in generative phonology, and the contributions of W. T. Fitch via The evolution of language. Fitch's contribution is to deconstruct the observation that humans "have language" into much smaller parts, focusing on numerous small evolutionary changes that probably contributed to the current fact that homo sapiens has this particular, unique cognitive ability. His approach, for example, focuses on precursors such as the genetically-endowed (pre-)chimpanzee kin-communication behavior and how it relates to human language.

The fact that some domesticated animals can catch on to some aspects of human language is interesting, but doesn't reveal anything about what earliest forms of "language" would have been like. The difference between human language and chimpanzee communication systems is so extreme that there is no significant shared feature that we can attribute to our last common ancestor, 7 million years ago.

  • I do not know if you are familiar with some of the work with parrots, but Pepperberg has a PHD in physical chemistry -- not a linguist but certainly a scientist and the videos are amazing. I believe it is accepted that the parrot is cognitively similar in many respects to a 5 year old human. I don't want this to be a discussion about parrot intelligence -- not my question, but I encourage you to learn about her work rather than calling it dubious. If you are familiar already and still find it dubious, ok, I am not a linguist but u should not dismiss without knowing about it.
    – releseabe
    Dec 12, 2022 at 6:25
  • Separate from individual species, u do seem to be saying that non-human behavior has been considered by evolutionary linguists. I would like to know though if some linguist did find the work on parrots or dogs important and yet DID NOT think this pushed back the date on the advent of human language. They might, even if parrots were considered to use language, believe that this had no bearing on humans -- maybe parrots even developed language before humans, not that parrots having language a million years ago means humans did also.
    – releseabe
    Dec 12, 2022 at 6:32
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    @releseabe most linguists seem to be of the opinion that non-human animals seem incapable of acquiring the grammar of human languages, although they can learn the meaning of lexical items. This means they can give understandable answers to simple questions (e.g. "how many balls are there?", "is the square round?"), but is not indicative of them being able to use language in the way linguists mean when they talk about the origin of language
    – Tristan
    Dec 12, 2022 at 10:26
  • a lot of specific claims made also run into the Clever Hans effect where the investigator ends up (subconsciously) influencing the behaviour of the animal
    – Tristan
    Dec 12, 2022 at 10:28
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    @releseabe, I am quite familiar with this literature, and that is actually why I advocate that untrained people whose qualification is an advanced degree in something else should at least recruit an actual linguist collaborator before setting out to misunderstand human language. Analogously, I don't claim to know about quantum mechanics, even though I have a Ph D in linguistics.
    – user6726
    Dec 12, 2022 at 16:00

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