Quite when human language first came about is still something of a mystery. Nevertheless, most scholars agree that the faculty belongs to Homo sapiens alone (as no other animals can be said to have ‘language’ as we would define it), and that therefore language must have emerged between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. Linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett, however, has refuted this assumption, claiming that Homo erectus possessed the language faculty around 1.9 million years ago.

Previously, Noam Chomsky had proposed that a single genetic mutation 50,000 years ago led to human beings developing the ability to “merge”, which allows two linguistic units to be joined into one—for example, “the cat and the mouse” becoming “the cat eats the mouse”. This then allows for even more complex merging and changing of language units, which Chomsky calls “recursion”; this, in his opinion, is the core of the language faculty, and is exclusive to humans.

 But Everett argues that reversion is neither universal in human language nor sufficient for it. For example, he claims that an Amazonian tribe he had lived with and studied, the Pirahã, had no recursion. Rather, he places the development of language in a series of increasingly complex “signs”; from non-arbitrary, non-intentional “indices” such as a hoofprint proving that a horse has been present, to non-arbitrary but intentional “icons” such as the drawing of a hoofprint or a rock resembling a horse to represent a horse, to arbitrary, intentional “symbols” such as the word “horse”, which indicates a horse but sounds nothing like a horse. This system became ever more complex as language evolved. Hence Everett believes that when Homo erectus began using symbols one after the other in comprehensible patterns, this can be thought of as human language, even though they were not using recursion. If Everett is correct and language is much more ancient and primitive, human languages need not be as inherently similar to one another as previously thought, nor are humans necessarily as distinct from other animals as we had assumed.

Applicants for Linguistics may wish to familiarise themselves with different theories on the nature of human language. Which theory makes the most sense to you? What in your opinion is the essence of human language, and what separates it from mere animal communication? Students interested in evolutionary biology and applicants for Anthropology might also want to learn about the evolution of language.

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