Language evolution

We’ll be covering a fair amount of linguistics in days to come on Logarithmic History, both the evolution of language, and historical linguistics (e.g. Indo-European origins).

We already had something to say earlier about the origin of speech sounds. Regarding timing: we can’t yet put very precise dates on when different features of language developed on the way to modern human language ability. Eventually we’ll learn enough about the genetics of language to be more precise. But for now we can make some educated guesses about the stages of language evolution, and somewhat arbitrarily pick dates to talk about them.

If you read much linguistics, you’ll often run across linguists lamenting that they don’t get no respect.* People who don’t know much linguistics (which often includes scientists in other fields) don’t always appreciate that even though linguistics is often pretty low tech (sonograms and neural imaging are optional, not required) it is nonetheless a hard science. Here’s a recent expression of this sentiment from Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist who’s done a lot to present linguistics to the public. Pullum is responding to recent breathless news reports that babblers (they’re birds) have Language. He’s on target in his criticism. But at the same time, although bird song is not language, we’ll see that bird song and human language show some interesting convergent evolution.

 

* Okay, so I just committed a double negative. Yeah, yeah.

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