In this video, I summarize Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and most particularly, Darwin’s writings about how the language capacity evolved. We begin questioning some aspects of this theory, and seeing how complex this subject is. And we end with several of the questions that need to be asked if we wish to understand how language emerged.

Some references used:

– Allan Keith et al., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics, chapter 1 (by Salikoko S. Mufwene), pp.1-41.

– Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech, Vintage, 2017.

– W. Tecumseh Fitch, “Musical Protolanguage: Darwin’s Theory of language evolution revisited”, (2005?)

– W. Tecumseh Fitch, “Descent of the larynx”:…

– David Stove, “Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution”, Encounter Books, 2006.

– Leading Evolutionary Scientists Admit We Have No Evolutionary Explanation of Human Language:…


Hello, and welcome to language with Chu. This time around we’re going to go a little bit into biology. I’m not an expert biologist by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re like me and you studied Linguistics, you probably never had to do any biology course, and that’s a problem, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.

The majority of us have a vague idea of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and in Linguistics it’s pretty much the most common belief (it IS a belief, believe me!) that things happened in evolution the way Darwin described them. So we need to question some of these things in order to understand language in its whole complexity. And I’ll mention other theories with which we’ll see how it applies to biology, and how it applies to language. So, let’s have fun! I promise it’s not going to be hard because I’m not an expert and I just want to give you a global idea, so that YOU think about language in these ways.

So let’s get started:

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You probably already know that Darwin’s theory of evolution is based more or less on trees that look like this, which, by the way, looks very similar to language trees. The tree of evolution was based on what linguists were doing at the time with languages, with families of languages. So it’s kind of…obviously it’s very simplified in this drawing, just to refresh your mind about it. But basically, Darwin had five main ideas or principles to his theory of evolution:

First of all, evolution itself, meaning that species come and go through time and they change within their existence, within generations. Sometimes it could take many, many, many generations to change, but they change, and they multiply. And at some point they diversify into two species, and that has occurred over and over and over again since the Big Bang. So, it started from nothing, practically, a bunch of molecules/proteins got together and then everything came to be, right? That’s the theory. The idea of common descent is that ultimately, every single living organism comes from a common ancestor, or sometimes several, depending on the how they mixed along the line of evolution.

Gradualism is one of the main characteristics of Darwin’s theory, and that is that changes happen in very small incremental stages, one mutation, one random mutation at a time, and it’s not possible according to Darwin for a species to kind of “sprout” out of nowhere. It has to be a very slow and gradual evolution.

And finally, natural selection is this invisible force some people call the “blind watchmaker” because… when you see a watch, you notice that it’s complex and that it has a purpose and a mechanism, but somehow a blind watchmaker decides what each part is going to do, and how to put them all together. Well, according to Darwin, natural selection would be this force that selects the members of a certain species that are more apt to survive and to reproduce. That’s basically Darwin’s theory of evolution, and I hope to show you that it’s not only not possible, but it’s actually a fairy tale.

The main problem with this is that there are many, many missing links, one of the most important ones being the transition from primates to men. And it’s still a dogma nowadays. He wrote in 1861 for the first time, The Origin of the Species and still today, he’s quoted as the truth, basically. But in reality it’s kind of a dogma, and we’ll see why in a minute. So basically that’s it, just to refresh your mind about Darwin.

But let’s move on to language now, just for a minute. What did he say about language? In 1871, he wrote a second book, The Descent of Man, 10 years after his first theory. And supposedly, he was trying to kind of make it tie… to explain how human beings came to be. But it was a quite a stretch, and well, obviously, he said that we came from primates, right?

So, if you look at his theory of how language came to be, he had to say something because people were asking him at the time. What about language? How come? We’re so different from apes that you have to explain how such a change could have occurred. Well, this is his idea:

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First of all, there was some kind of “smart ape” that one day was born, and with a lot more intelligence and with more complex mental abilities. So, for example, maybe abstraction, or the capacity to hold thoughts in his mind for a while, etc. So this was this genius primate ancestor, let’s say. That’s the first stage.

The second stage was that primates, or the ancestor of the human being, started using sounds and singing for courting, for territoriality, to express some emotions… Basically it was to attract a mate, and natural selection made it so that the ones that were the most able to sing and attract a partner survived longer, and continued evolving.

And stage number three from that is that they started adding meaning to those songs that they were singing. That nonsensical (or maybe not nonsensical, but at least purely emotional, instinctive singing) started acquiring meaning. First it was by imitating sounds in nature and imitating sounds in animals, kind of like onomatopoeias, you know? Like “splash”, which sounds kind of like what it does. That was the first stage, and then, little by little, people decided to separate that string of sounds into words and syntax and all the complex grammar that we have today.

That’s basically Darwin’s theory about language, and many, many linguists quote his theory as it being completely rational and plausible. Except that nobody has found…. we don’t have any records of language as it was a hundred and fifty thousand years ago, so it’s all pure guesses, right?

Well, there are some alternatives. For example, some linguists… I believe for example Corballis, he says that evolution would have been even more gradual. There wouldn’t have been a sudden smart ape, but a gradual evolution in humanity that led to having complex thoughts, abstraction, etc. But we still have that missing link that nobody can explain, and nobody explains how it could have been so gradual. I’ll get to that in a minute. Some things that you could theorize were gradual, happen to be necessary all at once. So you couldn’t start with one single mutation or one single change if you want to achieve a specific result. But I’ll get to that later.

Second, for the idea that it was actually selected…. There are other papers, other theories about how it could have been not so much for reproduction, but because human beings started needing to teach their young very early on. [Text on the screen: If it was sexually selected, explain why humans learn language from an early age!] [Kin communication] Human babies are actually not independent like other babies in nature. Animals become independent very quickly, while human babies need a lot of care and attention for the first years of their lives. So maybe people figured out that they needed to teach their young, and what better way to teach their young than through language? And then they started developing.

Another problem with selection for reproduction is that language…. if it was for mating [pair bonding], usually…. think of a peacock. You know, the male peacock has its tail, and the female and the male usually have different traits especially when it comes to singing or dancing and things like that in birds. But in our case, males and females have the same language capacity they speak just as well. So that destroys the idea, because it doesn’t really add much. Many aspects of language don’t add much to our reproductive interests, there’s no reason for it to have evolved if it was just for reproduction or survival. We’ll come to that we go into that in more detail later as well.

And then, finally, for the idea that from strings of words came meaning, there are also several other theories. One was by Otto Jespersen, I think. A famous linguist. He said that actually, it all started…. instead of first a word, a song and imitating the sound of an animal or something, it all started as the full song, and then people attributed meaning to the chunks of that string of sounds. So Darwin would say, no, first we started with grunts and small chunks, small songs, while other people would think it started as a whole song and then they attributed meaning.

But it still doesn’t explain anything if you ask me, because why did the songs come about, and who decided to split them into meaning separately, nouns and verbs and all the complexity of grammars nowadays? And on top of that, the complexity of grammars, whether you’re talking Darwin or any other theory, is so vast and so intricate that it’s very difficult to imagine how it came to be if you follow this progression.

So that’s it for what Darwin has to say about biology, and what Darwin has to say about language. The problem here is that, okay, we have to define some terms before we move on to more biology:

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There’s a confusion between “language evolution”, which is basically Historical Linguistics, and how each language evolved: French from old French, and Latin, English from old English from Germanic, blah blah blah. That’s language evolution. But there’s also “Evolution of Language”. Those terms are kind of interchangeable. I’ll probably mess up too and say “language evolution”, but it doesn’t matter just as long as you know that you have to separate it because it’s going to be a lot more complex on this second little bubble that I’ve got here. That’s about the species (“philogenetic” so, the species).

And there are many questions that linguists ask (or don’t, actually, many times). One is, Is it God or is it Darwin? And I don’t mean… Well, some people would mean “god” as in the Christian god, or the Buddhist religion or whatever. But is there a supreme force that created language all in a package as it is today, or was it a gradual progression like Darwin said? That’s question number one.

Question number two is, was there a monogenesis or polygenesis? Meaning, was there one language in the beginning (this mother tongue that every linguist is looking for, that would have been there at the beginning, and only that language), or did human beings speak many languages and create many languages even from the very beginning? That would give you different families of language and different reasons for why languages are in the end quite similar, even though they may have sprouted from different places. So that’s another question that we’ll explore.

Again, was it gradual or abrupt? This is more in terms of language per se. Did it start with musical sounds, with grunts, gestures, or was it created as we speak today, more or less, (obviously with minor differences)? But that’s not all. There are also more questions.

There’s the question of whether we have a “language organ” or not. That’s a term used by Noam Chomsky, the most famous linguist nowadays. And for now sixty some years, they’ve been trying to look for something in the brain that would explain language. And supposedly, it’s universal, and supposedly we all have it, and one day we’ll discover it in the genes. Except that so far, they haven’t, and the few genes they have discovered are problematic. I’ll talk about that in the future. But anyway, that’s a legitimate question, and it’s a question that goes around in linguistic circles a lot.

Then, there’s how language related to thought in terms of evolution. Did we start thinking first? Did we start by speaking and thinking? Did we have language only because we were able to have abstract thought or not? Etc, etc. There are lots of questions there.

In relationship to communication, is one of the main functions of language to communicate, or to think? How much the motivation to communicate made us have language? Again, lots of questions within that little point.

And then, is it nature or nurture? Meaning, are we born with all our language capacity like Chomsky would say, or is the cultural aspect, us learning when we’re children, more important? There are two camps there, and I think it’s quite a little bit of the one, and quite a little bit of the other one, actually. But we’ll mention that later. And all of that ties up with how we acquire language as children. Is it important? For some linguists, it’s not important. You basically have it, except for a period where if it’s not stimulated, you’ll never learn it. But basically that’s it, otherwise. Culture and teaching and parents and all that, for them are not so important.

So, those are the main questions, and that just covers the ideas behind language evolution and the evolution of the language capacity. As you can see just from this diagram, Darwin kind of falls short, because there’s no writing about, you know, many of these questions in Darwin. In fact, it was very vague at the time. So that’s what we’re going to explore, all these questions in the diagram, going from biology to linguistics back and forth, and see if we can come up with some possible responses. Thanks for watching! See you next time.”