The human language among birds and bees
In 1891, Charles Darwin wrote: “The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language.” He speculated that language, something unique to humans, might have had its origins in singing which “might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions.”
Now researchers from MIT, along with a scholar from the University of Tokyo, confirm that Darwin was on the right path. The balance of evidence, they believe, suggests that human language is a grafting of two communication forms found elsewhere in the animal kingdom: Firstly, the elaborate songs of birds, and second, the more utilitarian, information-bearing types of expressions, seen in many animals particularly in bees.
“It’s this adventitious combination that triggered human language,” says Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics in MIT’s department of linguistics and philosophy. The idea builds upon Miyagawa’s earlier findings that there are two “layers” in all human languages: an “expression” layer, which involves the changeable organisation of sentences, and a “lexical” layer, which relates to the core content of a sentence. Based on an analysis of animal communication, the authors of the study claim that birdsong closely resembles the expression layer of human sentences. The lexical layer is reflected in communicative waggles of bees, or the short, audible messages of primates. Between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, humans may have merged these two types of expressions into a uniquely sophisticated form of language.
“There were these two pre-existing systems,” Miyagawa says, “like apples and oranges that just happened to be put together.” These kinds of adaptations of existing structures are common in natural history, adds Robert Berwick, a co-author of the paper and professor of computational linguistics at MIT. He adds: “When something new evolves, it is often built out of old parts. We see this over and over again in evolution. Old structures can change just a little bit, and acquire radically new functions.”
Because these findings are not proved, the researchers acknowledge that further empirical studies on the subject are needed. Berwick asserts: “But it’s a way to make explicit what Darwin was talking about very vaguely, because we know more about language now.”
“If this is right, then human language has a precursor in nature, in evolution, that we can actually test today,” he says. In such a study bees, birds and other primates could all be sources of insight into the human language.
Through this finding, Miyagawa and other authors hope to spur others to think of the universality of language in evolutionary terms. It is not just a random cultural construct, they say, but based in part on capacities humans share with other species. The uniqueness of human language, according to them, lies in the merging of two independent systems in nature, allowing us to generate unbounded linguistic possibilities, within a constrained system. “Human language is not just freeform, but it is rule-based,” Miyagawa affirms: “If we are right, human language has a very heavy constraint on what it can and cannot do, based on its antecedents in nature.”
The existence, nature and origin of language are intimately linked to our human life. Without the creative and limited language at our disposal, we will not be able to experience and express our identity. Even our concept of and relationship to god is made possible and based on our unique linguistic ability. In this sense, our spiritual yearning and religious openness are the result of language — derived from the capabilities of the bird and bees!
(The writer is a professor of science and religion)
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