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Notes on the evolution of language Notes on the evolution of language
by Joseph Gatt
2021-02-07 10:17:57
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Language evolved in two simultaneous phases: the codes emitted by human beings became more and more complex, and the understanding of those codes became sharper and sharper.

There are basically three ways we can use language. We can use our voice. We can use our bodies. And we can use hand-drawn or computer-drawn codes to emit language. This article is a computer-drawn code.

The fourth form of language we can use is communicating with what some like to call a “sixth sense.” That is with emotions, body temperature, body chemistry.

lang01_400_01So the first form of communication among our human ancestors was probably body chemistry. All animals, and even in some cases plants, can communicate with body chemistry.

That is you emit heat with your body to signal the next kin should keep a distance. Or you emit heat or smell with your body to attract the next kin. Or you emit heat waves or cool waves to signal danger.

To this day, human beings use this “sixth sense” type communication to signal codes to the next kin. You might put perfume on to attract a next kin. Or you might forget to shower to repel your boss or some kind of enemy. You might carefully wash and brush your hair to signal proximity. Or you might make a mess out of your hair to signal repelling.

Makeup kind of works the same way. Most women (and some men) use makeup in ways either to signal proximity, or to repel people, or to signal danger surrounding them.

Deception can also be used among humans and animals. Some animals can attract their preys using pleasant body temperature, only to eat their preys.

So our first form of communication was with emitting smells and body temperature.

Then you had a mixture of body gestures and screams. The pitch of screams can irritate the ears and cause to signal danger, or can be charming and mellifluous to attract mates. Or the scream can be irritating to signal to the next kin to keep a distance.

Body gestures also hint at several things. Our human ancestors used body gestures either to signal that they were about to take violent action. Or that they were about to pet and cuddle. Or to distract attention. Or to signal and point at a certain direction to signal danger.

What is more impressive is that our human ancestors developed an understanding of those codes. That is enough empathy and proximity to the next kin to understand that danger is being signaled, or that there is an attempt at proximity and warmth.

Screams eventually became sounds. The first sounds were probably sounds with no clear meaning. That is, let's imagine the first sounds our human ancestors used were “yes” and “no” and “maybe.” Back then, let's imagine, “yes” could have meant “come closer” and could have also meant “let's play” and could have meant “let's eat ants together” (because our human ancestors did eat ants). “No” could have meant “watch out” and could also have meant “I have the strange feeling that there's a wolf or a panther trying to attack us.” And “maybe” could have meant “don't come closer to me” and could also have meant “leave me alone” and could perhaps have meant “where is everyone?”

Those vague utterances, over thousands of years, became more precise. “Yes” came to mean “yes” and “no” came to mean “no.” And thousands of words were added to the vocabulary. Words like “leaves” and “shoots” and “ants” and “panthers” and “jackals” and “wolves” and “straight” and “left” and “right” and “one” and “many.”

As the years went by, vocabulary became more precise. And our ability to understand vocabulary became more precise. In the last 10,000 years, every generation used approximately 300 new words more than the previous generation did, and ditched 300 or so unique words that the previous generation used.

So our ancestors vocabulary grew in the last 20,000 years, but probably reached a tipping point around 10,000 years ago, and tipped at approximately the knowledge of 10,000 unique words per individual.

To give you an idea, the Hebrew Bible uses 6,259 unique Hebrew words, and about 2,000 or so names of people and prophets.

A good novel today will use anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 unique words.

Then of course, in addition to using body temperature, speech sounds and body language, human beings started communicating in the form of written code.

But the democratization of written code only came at around the 19th century, and before that it was usually the elites of any give society that mastered the written code.

But why did knowledge of unique vocabulary tip at 10,000 words? Probably because we can only handle so much vocabulary to be understood by our next kin. If we use too many unique words, our ability to be understood will be stifled.

Today, communication involves reading four distinct layers. First you have the body temperature layer. Then you have the sign language layer (we all use a little bit of sign language). Then you have to vocabulary and grammar layer. And of course you have the pitch and intonation layer.

Those tones and body temperature can also be conveyed in written speech, albeit more subtly. Written speech has two advantages: it serves for memory (because when we speak our speech gets lost in memory). And it serves to prevent our next kin from responding immediately, which makes it easier to be more assertive or forceful when communicating.

Written communication has one big advantage. Some human beings prefer communicating with emotions and body temperature while others will prefer words and narrative speech. So written communication enables those comfortable with narrative speech to express themselves without being interrupted by the toxic body signals emitted by the next kin.

Then of course you have the social aspects of language. Some like conversation to flow both ways. Other human beings don't have enough empathy to listen to the next kin. Some aim for leadership positions in society, others settle for being followers, others prefer dealing with people on a more equal basis.

This can cause all kinds of conflicts. Those aiming for leadership positions won't be happy with those who want to communicate on an equals basis. Or two people can fight for leadership positions.

So much more could be said. That's all the language for now.

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