As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the most unacknowledged; taken for granted wonders of the natural world. You and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with remarkable precision. No occult designs  here….just access to language.  Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds.  Its one of the reasons you and I can relate to a Mickey Mouse or a Garfield; that lovely lasagna loving feline specimen. Imagine how liberating it is for that pot-bellied furry glutton of a cat to convey that he wants lasagna!

But real cats cant talk; Somewhere; along the course of evolution, our four-legged peers got left behind and therein lies the travesty. The human language is doubtless one of the most distinctive behavioral adaptations on the planet. A book, The Seeds of Speech, by Jean Aitchison speaks thus about the evolution of speech-

‘a deprived physical environment led to more meat-eating and, as a result, a bigger brain.  The enlarged brain led to the premature birth of humans, and in consequence a protracted childhood, during which mothers cooed and crooned to their offspring.  An upright stance altered the shape of the mouth and vocal tract, allowing a range of coherent sounds to be uttered.’

Some scholars assume the development of primitive language-like systems (proto-language) as early as Homo habilis, while others place the development of primitive symbolic communication only with Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago) or Homo heidelbergensis (0.6 million years ago) and the development of language proper with Homo sapiens less than 100,000 years ago.

Aitchisons views find a resonance in Milton, who said “Without meat, it’s unlikely that proto humans could have secured enough energy and nutrition from the plants available in their African environment at that time to evolve into the active, sociable, intelligent creatures they became. Receding forests would have deprived them of the more nutritious leaves and fruits that forest-dwelling primates survive on, said Milton.”

On the flip side, if eating animals was a neccessary catalyst into homo sapien evolution (high-protein based diets were neccessary for us to develop large brains, and therefore great intellect), can you imagine what present day lions will evolve into? Scary thought.

Step-wise details on how we all started to wax eloquent; or rather move from “burr berr blah” to  exquisite poetry is not available (palaeontologists; pls note). Maybe; a better explanation is that the evolution of the human brain and speech is a one in a zillionevolutionary accident that’s rendered us Oscar Wilde, Chaucer, Shakespeare and even J K Rowling?

The mystery is such that in 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris famously banned all discussion of the origin of language, deeming it to be an unanswerable problem. Was Phrygian the worlds first language; was it Hebrew? Will we ever know?

Languages evolved in only one species, in only one way, without precedent, except in the most general sense. Of about 7000 languages that exist in the world, it can be intelligently surmised that certain pervasive discoveries such as electricity, computers, refrigerator, internet and phones spread without linguistic assistance. So language assists but is not the only driver of successful communication!

This evolutionary accident has defined us and is evolving even more with each day. Theres more evolution coming our way!

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