The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The Origin of Language

Charles Darwin observed that languages seem to evolve the same way that species evolve. However, just like with species, he failed to explain what the origin of language could be.

Languages indeed evolved just like species, through little "mistakes" that were introduced by each generation.  It is not surprising that the evolutionary trees drawn by biologists (based on DNA similarity) and linguists (based on language similarity) are almost identical. Language may date back to the beginning of mankind.

What is puzzling, then, is not the evolution of modern languages from primordial languages: it is how it came to be that non-linguistic animals evolved into a linguistic animal such as the human being. The real issue is the "evolution of language" from non-language, not the "evolution of languages" from pre-existing  languages, that is puzzling.



A useful cue for research on the origin of language is that makes human language unique. The Indian neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran thinks that there are five unique features of human language: an enormous lexicon; function words (not just sounds to signify an object or an event) such as "if ... then ..."; the capacity to refer to things that don't exist, or that existed in the past or that will exist in the future; the ability to create and understand metaphor and analogy; and its recursive structure (we can say and understand sentences such as "he thought that she thought...").

According to the US linguist Noam Chomsky and the US biologist Marc Hauser ("The faculty of language", 2002), what is unique to human language is only recursion. However, the US linguist Daniel Everett ("Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha", 2005) has shown that recursion is in fact not fundamental to human language.

There isn't yet a plausible explanation for why only humans evolved the sophisticated combinatorial language that they use. Perhaps this is because we are not looking in the right place. Something must have made human language not only necessary but indispensable, and that must be something that has to do with the kind of lives that humans live.

Humans are the only species that does not like to live the way previous generations lived. Children disobey, and teenagers are rebels. In theory, this makes no evolutionary sense: the children despise the knowledge accumulated by the parents. Other species don't exhibit this tendency: the children live the exact same kind of life that their parents lived. The lifestyle of a squirrel is the same as the lifestyle of a squirrel that lived thousands of years ago. On the other hand, the lifestyle of humans changes with every generation.

If there were no history (change in what we do and how we do it), there would be no need for the sophisticated human language. The minds of other species only need a language that communicates what is happening now.

Not only their language but even the "sentences" and the "words" of those "languages" have presumably remained the same throughout the centuries: there is nothing new to talk about.

On the other hand, minds whose lifestyle changes from one generation to the next one (i.e. human minds) need a much broader language, and, more importantly, a language that needs to be flexible: humans don't know what they will be speaking about tomorrow, so their language must already contain tomorrow's language as a possible language.

Minds that continuously change their world need a language that can continuously change, and need a language that is capable of referring to the past. If your world is not your father's world, it takes more than simple present-based language. It takes a language that can describe both your father's world and your world.

Humans need to be able to say things that have never been said before.

Animals only need to be able to repeat the same things that all previous generations have said.

Back to the beginning of the chapter "The History of Language: Why We Speak" | Back to the index of all chapters