One species, 6000 languages: The origins of human linguistic creativity

Thanks to Graham Cooper for this review of my Psychology in the Pub talk in Exeter, 26th November 2014, hosted by the South West branch of the British Psychological Society.

“Beginning with a video clip of a baby babbling some nonsense and closing with Dunbar’s social hypothesis, Dr White took the audience on an engaging and humorous evolutionary journey of human linguistic development from our quadrupedal, alinguistic heritage to the more recognisable bipedal, linguistic Homo sapiens. He argues that our ability to speak is down to four elements: breath control, the anatomical make-up of the vocal tract, speech imitation, and social factors. Regarding the first two, these may have occurred by exaptation, i.e. as an evolutionary by-product of the selection for bipedal rather than quadrupedal gait, rather than being specifically selected for. This struck me as a novel and yet convincing argument; the lowered larynx required for complex language is only beneficial after a certain stage of development and could not have been selected for itself.

“Having explained his position on our biological disposition, Dr White moved on to how social factors play a role in the development of language. Referring back to the initial baby clip, the fundamental role of imitation in language development was outlined. Whilst this was identified as an important step in the evolutionary journey, it is not the distinguishing factor; there are many other vocal imitators in the animal kingdom. What does distinguish us, however, is our social situation. The Dunbar hypothesis states that the size of the cortex (which contains neural areas active in human linguistic abilities) correlates to the maximum number of individuals in a social group; Humans have the largest social groups in the animal kingdom (around 150 individuals can be in a group) and hence the largest cortex size. Our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, maintain social contact through grooming. It would be too time-consuming to maintain social contact with 149 others in this way and hence it is argued that language became a useful tool for social communication, being selected for (to return to the evolutionary perspective). Finally the utility of accents and different languages was touched upon; as a way to distinguish between friend and foe (a feature also noted in the animal kingdom).

“Every step of this figurative ‘journey’ was well-explained through use of many (humorous) video-clips and by drawing analogies with other species, such as the giraffe and chimpanzee, resulting in a coherent talk that was easily understood by academic psychologist and lay-person alike. In summary, Dr White provided an excellent and engaging talk on the development of the unique human ability to use language as a communication tool. The mix of evolutionary theory and social psychology was effective in explaining the development of the necessary components for language and I left the talk a little less sceptical and a little more enlightened on this school of thought.”

Graham Cooper
Graham is an honorary psychology assistant (Brain Injury Rehabilitation Trust) and a student in BSc (Hons) Psychology at the University of Bath.
Reproduced from the British Psychological Society South West branch newsletter.

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