There are many theories on how language came about and they can be divided into two main groups: 1) those who believe that it evolved from the primates to humankind; 2) those who believe that God created humankind with language innate and intact.
As an example of the former, consider Robins Burling (2005), who was, at the time of his book publication, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Michigan.
Burling believes that “our primate cousins” are set apart from humans by the “evolution of the human capacity for language” (p.1). Although there is no evidence that such “early ancestors” had language, Burling contends that over several millions of years of evolution “our bodies diverged from those of chimpanzees”, although he says there is no indication of when people began to talk.
A review of the subject substantiates Burling’s claim: “Reams of nonsense have been written on the subject” (p.4), but it is during “the last hundred thousand years” that the technological changes were in place to provide a cultural context for language. So Burling offers us a time for the origin of language as well.
Burling’s central argument is that comprehension, rather than production, was the driving force for the evolution of the human ability to use language” (p. 4) because “comprehension always surpasses the ability to produce” (p. 6). Anyone who has attempted to learn another language would agree with that point.
Burling’s book is held together by his opinions on evolution, imagination, and observation. Evolution can do anything, even when least expected, and it is only by imagining the scenes on the basis of observing our ape cousins than we can understand language. With this in mind we can see how “Smiles, winks, and words” are precursors to a fully developed language. Therefore, “It is our minds that changed most profoundly as our ability to use language evolved” (p. 47).
Others have written about smiles and laughter and how they corresponded to similar gesture-calls of the apes. Burling follows this, saying “at least some human and ape gesture-calls have been inherited from the common ancestors that we share”. We are not told what features that we inherited, but Burling searches for the cognitive features—the new features of language—that distinguish us “from other primates”. How did such features emerge in the mind of a chimpanzee? Burling is on a search for answers to answer such questions.
Burling recalls how Kenneth Pike (a colleague of Burling’s at Michigan) would do his monolingual demonstrations. “It was a startling demonstration of just how accessible a previously unknown language can be” (p. 65) and “reveals with great clarity just how much we already know before we start to learn a language” (p. 67). Burling believes that it was not “language” that was “in our heads before we began to exchange ideas”, but was some sort of a conceptual system that was refined as features of language were “selected” to help us communicate (p.91).
He follows another linguist, Peirce, who provided a classification of signs. Signs are arbitrary or motivated. If arbitrary the typology leads to symbols, but if motivated there is a two way branching, leading to indices and icons. Icons, in turn, branch to diagrams, metaphors and images and it is the icons that reflect how we understand the world around us.
According to Burling ”Peirce’s Sign Theory, or Semiotic, is an account of signification, representation, reference and meaning. Although sign theories have a long history, Peirce’s accounts are distinctive and innovative for their breadth and complexity, and for capturing the importance of interpretation to signification.”
Burling and others postulate that signs were conventionalized and became a part of the writing system. In fact “Conventionalization is ubiquitous in human language” (p. 118) and, by his account, motivated signs are advantageous over arbitrary ones. Burling believes that, although linguists see arbitrariness as the norm, motivation may represent the remnant of a much earlier form of language (p.121).
Burling also grapples with the problem of how audible language became dominant over visual languages. Here he follows the assumed evolutionary starting point that, because chimpanzees control their hands better than their vocal tracts, language began with gestures. It follows that “Getting the ability to use words may have been the single most important step in the evolution of language” (p.128). Burling, as well as many other linguists, suggests that language speakers began with “content words” and that “function words” are derived from them. But the “earliest word-like vocalizations surely lacked the organized and contrastive phonology of modern languages” (p. 137). However, the fact that human speakers can handle thousands of words suggests some sort of built-in capacity, “The only conceivable way, within a few million years” that our ancestors could have learned to use them is with some sort of built-in storehouse.
Burling also speculates on how syntax came about, disclaiming any late and sudden appearance for it. He believes that the way children develop syntax “would have been possible in evolution too” (p. 145). He dismisses Chomsky’s observation that language may not have arisen due to a specific adaption and follows Pinker and Bloom who say that language is too complex to come about except by linguistic adaptation due to selection. He also dismisses Gould, who postulated a sudden development of language (“punctuated equilibrium”). He examines several other arguments (DNA mutation; a language gene; cranial capacity; the Universal Grammar hypothesis) suggesting a late development of language, but wants none of them. His solution is to combine natural and linguistic selection, satisfying both Chomsky’s innate hypothesis and Pinker and Blooms’ adaptation process that rewards the language learner.
Burling’s outlines a simple beginning to language. First, there had to be enough words to make syntax useful; then words and phrases had to be contracted (“grammaticalization”), where “through hundreds of millennia and thousands of generations, natural selection surely favored listeners who were increasingly adroit at understanding ever more compacted speech” (p. 166). Further evidence of long term development are random changes, from the simple to the more complex, the grammaticalization cycle, linguistic selection, and finally, natural and sexual selection. Therefore, it follows that “The very first language users would have had nothing except single words” (p. 169) and users would have relied on grouping their signs to reflect thoughts. These users “would also contribute to increasingly consistent word order” (p.173) Burling follows Jackendoff’s language development of classes; semantic roles and grammatical functions; affixes and compounds; and finally, reduction and loss of affixes. Burling admits this view of language evolution is speculative but does not want to look for an abrupt step where it all started. Instead there are “forces” (his word) working together that have “resulted in human beings who are capable of the kind of intricacies that we find in the languages that we use today” (p. 180).
Burling also examines what “selective advantages” there were for language to appear as it is today. He looks, for example, at the human remains from the European Upper Paleolithic period (beginning 35,000 years ago), who had a “certain robustness” of bone structure and concludes that such people would “have been able to handle language of the same type and the same degree of complexity” as languages have today (p.182). This is because their intelligence evolved as a means of dealing with other individuals and it did so when the trait under selection was heritable. This conclusion violates the “egalitarian assumptions that linguists usually hold about language” (p. 185). Language competence developed on the basis of the best talkers, usually those who were or are in charge. Burling also takes on the matter of “sexual selection”, attributed to Darwin, as a means to adapt males and females to each other (p. 197). His main illustration comes from the tail of the peacock, with the male dominating, but as Burling notes “ He notes that evolution is not always politically correct” (p. 202).
So, if language evolved and developed over such a long period of time, “What has language done to us?” According to Burling, it has allowed us to form personal relationships, map social divisions in our society, cooperate, as well as compete, encourage loyalty, and even “organize our violence” (p.214). In addition, language gives us names for things, allows new ways of thinking through puzzles, develop consciousness about who we are, describe space, and infer causality. Burling acknowledges, but does not pursue, how cultural differences have impacted language use (Whorf is mentioned, but dismissed). Burling’s conclusion is that “Language is far too complex and far too well designed to have developed in any way except by a long period of selection” (p.225). This process, he claims, follows scientific theory and if it did not accord with the facts, it would be abandoned—unlike religious theories. Consequently, in his view, we don’t need to know the details of how language got started or how it developed in the human species, “but the better we can guess, the better will be our understanding of the talking ape” (p. 233).
Those who believe the theory of evolution explains, or to some degree at least, outlines the human language capacity, will find Burling interesting and entertaining. Others, like me, may find Burling’s whole theory so speculative that it is more satisfying to believe that the Creator gave us the gift of language when he gave us the gift of life.
Kenneth L. Pike, a renowned linguist and a Christian, provides a perspective quite different from that of Burling. He formulates a number of axioms concerning the language of Scripture (1974), as well as number of convictions on how language, thought and the external world operate (1993). His view of language is that humans had language when they were created, otherwise they would not have been able to communicate with God (or with each other). With Pike, everything starts with and is related to the structure of language and its relationship to human behavior (1967).
Pike, therefore, implies that language is innate, it is part of our created nature. It is emic to the individual, that is, it is inside of our language system.
Language, in Pike’s view, can also be studied from the outside (the etics) of a particular system, for example, when linguists analyze the phonological, grammatical, syntactical, and other components of a language. “The emic approach is, on the contrary [to the etic], culturally specific, applied to one language or culture at a time” (Pike 1967:37).
It follows that we can never get into the emic system of any language without examining its etic dimensions and then are we only reconstructing a part of the emic system. Even by examining anthropological, genetic or linguistic evidence, we cannot know exactly what the proto-system looked like.
In regards to language, the Christian can start with Genesis because it is there where God speaks to humans and they answer him—in the same language. Later, when Baalam’s donkey speaks to him (Numbers 22: 28) it is obviously in Baalam’s dialect and its power of speech is given by the Lord. An unusual story, to be sure, but, when necessary, God can have animals speak. However, there is no evidence that God gave primates any innate language ability.
The question of language innateness has been strongly suggested by Chomsky and others. On the other hand, although Chomsky is Stephen Pinker’s hero, he does not accept Chomsky’s dismissal of natural selection as having no substance in language evolution and adheres instead to his own claim that language is an “instinct”. Pinker (1994) also laments that Chomsky sometimes sounds like a “crypto-creationist,” although he is quick to assure his readers that this is not the case (p. 355). Why a “crypto-creationist”? Because Christians also believe that language was innate at creation.
In Pinker’s worldview the autonomy of the person is paramount—there is no need for God, or a god, to give us language. Science is now often viewed as somehow truer than mankind’s inherent view of God himself. Indeed Science (as our cultural god and guardian) has succeeded in casting a personal God out of the objective picture completely. God cannot be acknowledged in any language paradigm because talk about Him is considered subjective and personal.
Nevertheless, when God is left out of the picture, or when he is trivialized as irrelevant to language and speech, we end up with a particular conceptual system that ultimately will not work. All of us need to have some idea of how the contents of our present worldview have been influenced by the thinking of the past. We can then evaluate our present worldview and either improve parts of it or attempt to replace it entirely. If there is “proof” that language evolved—in the sense that primates spoke it first, or even some aspects of language communication—we should be quick to understand and adopt it.
But what constitutes “proof”? For scientists, experiments and measurements are interpreted and are cited to prove something, for example, that humans and primates (or other animals) have certain communication features (some call them language features) that are the same or similar. This comparative method is necessary and revealing, but it does not prove anything about the origin of language or how it “evolved”. Nevertheless, confidence and faith in the scientific method is indispensable in our culture. On the other hand, confidence and faith in God is dismissed out of hand by most scientists.
Accepting a world-view, for example one that believes in God and the supernatural, is what I have chosen—I admit that is is by faith. “To have faith is to be sure of things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1, GNB).
Burling, Robbins. 2005. The talking ape: How language evolved. Oxford University Press.
Hauser, Marc D., Noam Chomsky and W. Tecumseh Fitch. 2002. The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve. Science Vol 298:1569-1579.
Pike, Kenneth L. 1967. Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behavior. The Hague: Mouton & Co.
Pike, Kenneth L. 1993. Talk, thought and thing: The emic road toward conscious knowledge. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Pike, Kenneth L. 1974. The linguist and axioms concerning the language of Scripture. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 26 (June 1974): 47-51.
Pinker, Steven. 1994. The language instinct: How the mind creates language. NY: Williams, Morrow and Company, Inc.
 Many of the chapters in his book are drawn from his earlier works and fieldwork, which spanned over 50 years, mainly in Bangladesh and northeastern India.
 See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce-semiotics/ for an account of Pierces Sign Theory. (Last accessed August 20, 2015.)
 The amount of money and research that goes into trying to find the origin of language and speech is truly amazing. See, for example, Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002).