Language Evolution

  • Uwe Jürgens
Part of the Readings from the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience book series (REN)


Homo sapiens is the only living species that possesses language in its strict sense—i.e., a learned communication system consisting of arbitrary signs representing the external and internal world, structured according to grammatical rules, and open in the sense that the repertoire can be creatively expanded. Language thus is a relatively recent acquisition in phylogeny. It certainly evolved after separation of the hominid and pongid line in the late Miocene, some 7–8 million years ago. As language primarily is a behavioral, not a morphological, phenomenon, (sign-producing, in principle, can be done in different ways, e.g., vocal or gestural), it is a hopeless enterprise, because of the lack of language-specific morphological remnants, to determine its exact age. Indirect evidence must therefore replace direct determinations. Depending on the cultural level considered to be representative of language capacity, estimates vary by a factor of 30: if manufacturing of reusable tools is taken as the criterion, australopithecines had language 2–3 million years ago; if controlled use of fire, middle Pleistocene Homo erectus would have been the first language-using species about 500,000 years ago; if ritual burials, language would have an age of less than 100,000 years.

Further reading

  1. Jürgens U, Kirzinger A, Cramon D von (1982): The effects of deepreaching lesions in the cortical face area on phonation: A combined case report and experimental monkey study. Cortex 18:125–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Liebermann P (1973): On the evolution of language: A unified view. Cognition 2:59–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Seyfarth RM, Cheney DL (1984): The natural vocalizations of non-human primates. Trends Neurosci 7:66–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Tobias PV (1971): The Brain in Hominid Evolution. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Uwe Jürgens

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