When did humans begin to speak, what speech sounds were first uttered, and when has language evolved from those humble beginnings? These questions have long fascinated people, especially in tracing the evolution of modern humans and what sets us apart from other animals. George Poulos has spent most of his academic career studying the phonetic and linguistic structures of African languages. In his latest book, On the Origins of Human Speech and Language, he offers new timelines for the origins of language. We asked him about his findings.
When and where did human speech evolve?
Research conducted for this study indicates that the first speech sounds were uttered around 70,000 years ago, not hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago as is sometimes claimed in the literature.
Although my research was mainly based on phonetic (speech sounds) and linguistic (language) analyses, it also took into account other disciplines, such as paleoanthropology (study of human evolution), archeology ( analysis of fossils and other remains), anatomy (the body) and genetics (the study of genes).
The transformation of Homo sapiens (modern humans) from a “non-speaking” to a “speaking” species occurred around the same time that our hunter-gatherer ancestors migrated out of Africa.
When these early adventurers migrated beyond the African continent, they took with them the greatest gift ever acquired by our species – the ability to produce speech sounds, made possible by the creation of a gene from ” speech”. It was this ability, more than anything else, that catapulted them into a world in which they would dominate all other species.
Which speech sounds came first?
The very first vocal sounds ever produced were not just random involuntary sounds. Underlying these speech sounds was a nascent network that connected certain areas of the brain to different parts of the vocal tract. Various anatomical and environmental factors contributed to Homo sapiens’ ability to produce speech sounds for the very first time.
Another interesting factor was an apparent change in the diet of our early ancestors and the possible effect it might have had on the human brain. The shift to what was essentially a marine diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids occurred when these early humans migrated from the interior to the coasts of the continent.
The vocal apparatus developed gradually over a long period, and the various stages of its development determined the types of sounds that could be produced. At the time of migration “out of Africa”, the only part of the vocal tract that was physiologically developed to produce speech sounds was the buccal cavity (mouth area).
The only speech sound that could be produced entirely in the mouth at the time was the so-called “click” sound. The airflow could be controlled in the mouth. clicks are the only known vocal sounds that behave this way. They still occur today in a few African languages – mainly in the Khoisan languages spoken in parts of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
Clicks occur in less than 1% of the world’s languages. They also occur in a few isolated cases in East Africa and in some South African languages that adopted clicks when they came into contact with Khoisan. Clicks have also been noted in one instance outside the African continent, in an extinct ceremonial language register known as Damin in Australia.
An example of a click speech sound is the so-called “kiss” (or bilabial) click where the lips are brought together and the back part of the tongue is raised against the back of the mouth. The lips are then drawn in slightly and when released a click is produced.
The production of the alveolar click. Courtesy of George Poulos
My research suggests that the “kiss” click was probably the first speech sound ever produced by Homo sapiens. Over time, the different parts of the tongue became more and more manageable, which made it possible to produce other clicking sounds in the mouth as well.
So when did other speech sounds evolve?
This study demonstrates that the production of all other human speech sounds (other consonants, as well as all vowels) began to occur around 50,000 years ago. This depended on the gradual development of a well-proportioned vocal apparatus which included the mouth, the area behind the mouth (the pharynx), the nasal passages and the all-important larynx with its vocal cords. Three airflow mechanisms evolved for the production of all speech sounds, and they evolved gradually in successive stages.
How did humans communicate before clicks?
Prior to this, the only sounds humans could produce were so-called “vocalizations” or vocal calls. These were imitations or mimics of various actions or sounds that humans were exposed to in their environment.
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It can also be involuntary sounds that express various emotions or involuntary sounds made when yawning, sneezing, etc. These should not be confused with the very complex mechanisms involved in producing the speech sounds that form the foundations of what we now recognize as human language.
And the use of a complete grammatical language?
As the different sounds of speech evolved, they combined in various ways to form syllables and words. And these in turn have combined with each other in different ways to generate the structural types of grammatical sentences that characterize modern languages.
The initial ability to produce speech sounds was the spark that led to the gradual evolution of language. Grammatical language did not evolve overnight. There was no “one magic bullet” that generated the language.
The indication is that human language was a rather late acquisition of Homo sapiens. It is argued in this study that language, as we know it today, probably began to emerge around 20,000 years ago.
An elder San paints a child’s face. Hoberman Group/Universal Images via Getty Images
We observed earlier that the first speech sounds were uttered by the ancestors of speakers of the current Khoisan languages. In light of this observation, it would be reasonable to assume that they had a head start in also being the first to speak a grammatical language.
To date, there is no substantial phonetic or linguistic evidence indicating that other species such as Neanderthals could have spoken a grammatical language. They lacked the required vocal tract dimensions for the production of speech sounds, let alone the morphological and syntactic structures required for grammatical language.
Why is all this important?
The utterance of the very first speech sounds around 70,000 years ago was the start of a journey that was to lead to the evolution of human language.
Language has provided the medium of communication that has played a central role in the tremendous developments that have taken place from the earliest known “written” records to which we have access (about 5,500 years ago), to highly technological advances. sophisticated that we are. testify today.
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