What language is for

By Razib Khan | July 15, 2013 1:45 am

In 1866 the French Academy of Sciences banned discussion of the origin of language. The nature of language in an evolutionary context is a big question which just keeps giving. But obviously the French academy thought that it was giving a little too much without resolution. Despite being fascinated with the topic at one point, and reading books such as The Symbolic Species and The Language Instinct, I’ve come away with the opinion that there’s a lot to the evolution of language which is just unknown. A few years ago some researchers were strongly implying that fully fleshed out language is what led to the behavioral revolution of anatomically modern humans ~50,000 years ago (see The Dawn of Human Culture). But now many scholars are arguing that language may be an ancestral character of the descendants of H. erectus.

Of course to gain some clarity on the evolutionary origins of language we need to think deeply about what language is for. The simplest explanation is that language is to communicate. You tell your mother that you are hungry. You communicate with your peers about whatever cooperative task you are engaged in. But a new article in The New York Times highlighting the discovery in the first generation of a new language emphasizes one aspect that I think we often forget:

Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, has been studying the young people’s speech for more than a decade and has concluded that they speak neither a dialect nor the mixture of languages called a creole, but a new language with unique grammatical rules.

The language, called Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is spoken only by people under 35 in Lajamanu, an isolated village of about 700 people in Australia’s Northern Territory. In all, about 350 people speak the language as their native tongue. Dr. O’Shannessy has published several studies of Light Warlpiri, the most recent in the June issue of Language.

“Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive,” said Mary Laughren, a research fellow in linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in the studies. One reason Dr. O’Shannessy’s research is so significant, she said, “is that she has been able to record and document a ‘new’ language in the very early period of its existence.”

Dr. O’Shannessy suggests that subtle forces may be at work. “I think that identity plays a role,” she said. “After children created the new system, it has since become a marker of their identity as being young Warlpiri from the Lajamanu Community.”

Language is to a great extent a hard-to-fake identity marker. Though you may learn a language as an adult with a modicum of fluency, accent and idiom often make plain to genuine ‘native speakers’ that you did not learn the language in childhood. Humans are an extremely social organism for mammals, with elaborated complexity in institutional structures, both explicit and implicit. The data density of linguistic communication facilitates this, but, the identity marker of language may be critical in maintaining group cohesion due to the character of the trait’s relative immunity to ‘cheaters’ being able to infiltrate. The emergence of new languages in such a punctuated fashion does I suspect give us a sense of the fluctuating nature of cultural fission in the prehistoric past. There is much yet to learn about the origins of language by surveying more deeply the variation which is present, and fast vanishing.

  • John McIntire

    interesting thought, but just seems coincidental to me that language happens to be a hard-to-fake identity marker…it’s too much of a “group selectionist” argument for me to choke down

    • razibkhan

      it does get tied up in group selectionist arguments. though i’m not sure it’s necessarily dependent on group selectionism. and, i believe marcus feldman has asserted that there is elevated Fst across language family boundaries due to the breaking of mating networks along those lines.

      • andrew oh-willeke

        All you need to create a hard to fake identity marker is a shibbolith – some sort of enough modest dialectal difference in otherwise mutually intelligible languages that identity is hard to fake. A lot of American English and of London neighborhood dialects developed along these lines – there was pressure for groups sharing a single identity to develop an unfakeable identity.

        The conclusion that the Australian study seems to draw is about why sometimes you get creoles upon language contact, other times you get language death, and in this special case, you get a new language. The creole formation story is well documented: mutual inability to communicate leads to creole which trends towards a lowest common denominator.

        The Australian study in contrast, seems to argue that instances of community-wide bilingualism leads to a mixing of language features from both languages in an innovative way that gives rise to an entirely new language that is not a clear daughter language of one or the other of the languages. In the Australian cases some features draw from the older generation’s language, while some draw from English. This fact pattern is quite similar, for example, to the fact pattern associated with the development of Yiddish.

        The Australian study’s conclusion about the circumstances that were conducive to new language formation seems to congruous with idea that mixed race individuals often give rise to a “new tribe” rather than belonging to one or the other origin races, within their social context.

        • John McIntire

          OK, but it still doesn’t strike me that this [hard-to-fake identity marker] is what language is FOR. Maybe it’s used that way. But who would say that clothes are FOR identity marking, even though they are used this way socially and culturally in some manner. What clothes are for, really, is keeping us warm, covering us up, protecting our skin, hiding our chubby guts, etc. Right?

    • JonFrum

      Agreed – I doubt there’s an evolutionary point to be made here. More just-so story than logical inference.

      • razibkhan

        i keep tell you to actually add value. your plain opinions are generally not that interesting. going to take you off the autoapprove list.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    Isn’t this more what “languages” (plural) are for, rather than what “language” (singular abstract concept) is for?

  • andrew oh-willeke

    You see something less dramatic in isolated immigrant communities in which people who emigrated from their homelands decades earlier are frozen in a dialect of their native language of their homeland that is no longer spoken by any younger native speakers in their homeland due to linguistic drift. There is a loss of dialect identity, not mutual intelligibility. But, the process is somewhat similar.

  • Jennifer Collins

    I recently published an article with a similar topic: language deprivation experiments that were carried out in ancient times with a goal of discovering the origins of human language.. Might be interesting :)

  • Florida_resident

    Dear Mr. Khan:
    1. Standard and sincere blessings to your family.
    2. Any comments on the book “Mating mind” by Jeoffrey Miller,
    where he promotes sexual selection hypothesis
    for evolutionary basis of language ?
    Your F.r.

  • Sandgroper

    Before they began attending kindergarten, my daughter (an only child who then spoke only English) and a close neighbor the same age (who had only a much older brother and spoke only Cantonese) desired strongly to play together, and developed their own language to facilitate/enhance playing. I and the other adults often sat watching them in amazement as they chattered away in something totally unintelligible to anyone but the two of them – it sounded nothing like either English or Cantonese, although I guess it could have borrowed from both (but not in any readily detectable way).

    I really wish now that I had recorded them. Once they began kindergarten together and started learning each other’s languages, they no longer used the language they had created to talk to each other, and by the time they were old enough for me to interrogate them about it, when I mentioned that they had created their own language, they both looked totally mystified – they had no recollection of ever having used any language other than English and Cantonese to talk to each other, and I suppose at the time they may not have been conscious of doing it.

    20 years later, all four parents have clear recollection of them doing this. The two girls (who are still friends) – nothing. If we ever mention it, they just look at each other blankly, puzzled, like “Did we?”


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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