Evolution of Language

Advanced Seminar

October 13–17, 1996

Scholars of the origins of language are customarily split into two main camps. “Continuity” theorists believe that there is a continuum of language abilities through the various primate species and that human language evolved out of nonhuman precursors; “discontinuity” theorists hold that language is of recent origin and unique to our species. The latter view has dominated discussions of the topic, but recent studies of nonhuman primates suggest that monkeys and apes have semantic, representational, and possibly symbolic communication. The advanced seminar on “The Evolution of Language: Assessing the Evidence from Nonhuman Primates,” held at SAR in October 1996, was convened to apply an evolutionary perspective to the question of language development.

Seminar chair and former resident scholar Barbara J. King invited the participants, who were drawn from diverse fields ranging from linguistics and archaeology to biology, developmental psychology, and biological anthropology, “to clear the ground for a new synthesis by making explicit a host of previously unacknowledged differences in definitions, assumptions, and criteria for accepting evidence that characterize the various disciplines.” Examining evidence from primatology and paleoanthropology, the group addressed such questions as, What relationship does human language have to the vocal and gestural communication systems of monkeys, apes, and early hominids? Did human language originate out of nonhuman precursors, and if so, which ones? How can questions about the evolution of language be approached, given the difficulties of amassing evidence from subjects who do not speak (monkeys and apes) or who are long dead (hominids)?

The first step was to identify some of the different definitions, assumptions, and criteria for evidence that characterize the various disciplines. Discussions were at times passionate. “Things got a little hot,” King said, “especially between those of us who directly observe monkeys and apes and those who don’t.” Nevertheless, the group agreed that the continuity/discontinuity labels are too restrictive and that future research should examine changes in individual features of language and language use over time. A related topic of discussion concerned the double standard in research on apes and humans, and how systems of measurement help determine not only the questions scholars ask about the origins of language but also their answers.

“Our differences were really evidential, not definitional,” King said. “We disagreed on what we see nonhuman primates as capable of doing and what we see in the archaeological record as evidence for language. Most of us were convinced by the evidence for the existence of precursors to languagelike abilities in monkeys and apes, including the ability to refer to specific items in the environment rather than just communicate arousal level.” Participants were in accord that language is learned rather than instinctive, and that it evolves out of interactions with others.

The advanced seminar’s prolonged interdisciplinary exchange of ideas led to many new insights. “Our goal was not to reach consensus but rather to clear the ground for a new synthesis,” King noted. “We took the points of disagreement that emerged and turned them into research agendas.” Some of the participants have become engaged in collaborative projects with one another as a direct result of the seminar. “By week’s end,” King said, “All of us were equally exhilarated and exhausted.”

Barbara King, Chair Department of Anthropology, College of William and Mary Viewed from Up Close: Monkeys, Apes, and Theories of Language Origins
Robbins Burling Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan Motivation, Conventionization, and Arbitrariness in the Origin of Language
Iain Davidson Department of Archaeology and Paleoanthropology, University of New England, Armidale The Game of the Name: Continuity and Discontinuity in Language Origins
Kathleen Gibson Department of Basic Sciences, University of Texas Health Science Center Language Evolution and Expansions of Multiple Neurological Processing Areas
Dario Maestripieri Department of Psychology and Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, Emory University Primate Social Organization, Vocabulary Size, and Communication Dynamics: A Comparative Study of Macaques
Lorraine McCune Department of Educational Psychology, Rutgers University Children's Transition to Language: A Human Model for Development of the Vocal Repertoire in Other Primate Species?
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh Department of Biology and Language Research Center, Georgia State University Ape Language: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Charles Snowden Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin An Empiricist View of Language Evolution and Development
Talbot J. Taylor Linguistics Program, College of William and Mary Discussant
Sherman Wilcox Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico The Invention and Ritualization of Language

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