Can you introduce yourself without words?


Home sapiens owe our sense of self to language- and vice versa. Try introducing yourself without using words- only actions and gestures.

Go on, try it.

The human experience of self, a phenomenon we owe to language- and several scholars argue thus- at least in part.

These arguments are within the ambit of cognitive science & suggest that the human sense of self is largely an outgrowth of our linguistic abilities. 

Comments, thoughts welcome on the subject- a detailed post follows.


Of what use would speech be, without the anatomy to hear?


I’ve already shared this as a response to a comment on my blog.  However, some more thoughts came my way in person, notably Mr.Vithal Nadkarni, a mentor, whose vast breadth of reading I someday hope to match at least by half.

There’s very little of original thought on this blog. Maybe less than 10%. It’s a tribute to the work of many greats, who persevered to discover the beauty of how human beings started to speak. It’s also a simpler place for students to make sense of the evolutionary miracle that we are.

Speech could not have existed without hearing. I think this is very basic.

Equally basic is the assumption, that in all evolution form precedes function eg- birds had feathers for millions of years before they realized that they were meant for flight.

It is therefore safe to assume that by the time the cultural setting for language began to be expressed, the structures that permit speech had already been in place for a long time – at least since the emergence prior to 150,000 years ago of Homo sapiens as an anatomical entity.

By logic, the faculty of hearing had to be developed before this- some scholars have suggested that the development of the human ear enabled it to pick up human speech better than the chimpanzee ear. This appears to have happened by 350,000 years ago, according to fossils of human remains found in northern Spain.

Interestingly, after the emergence of homo sapiens, they drove all other ‘homo’ species to extinction. This was about 50000 years ago. The most evolved species before us, the Neanderthals who flourished between 300,000 – 28,000 had relatively advanced communication abilities, but evidence suggests that they may have had a limited vocal range compared to modern humans. They are credited with fine stone art and invention of burials.
Homo sapiens first emerged 150000 yrs  ago, and by 50000 years ago, were the only surviving species. Something drastic happened. One big documented change is climate- but  responding to adversity as group demanded coordination. Language is one of the biggest tools to enable coordination. Home sapiens surely developed the ability for language, which was their biggest competitive advantage in survival.

By then the FOXP2 gene, and the other physical features associated with spoken language, such as the vocal tract, the structure of the brain and the size of the spinal cord, were already in place. It is difficult to put a date to the appearance of the human larynx (paleontologists say thus, because there are no bones just muscle and cartilage associated with the larynx- also called voice box). The vocal cords themselves are no more than infoldings of the larynx. They vibrate, like the strings of a violin, to produce a huge range of sounds in modern humans)

The above, placed in context with the 90,000 year-old double burial from Jebel Qafzeh, Israel (one of the earliest that shows careful placement of the deceased)indicating complex constructs around the ritual of burial that were communicated within a community in some way- suggest that modern speech (as opposed to sound)  is young- and emerged between 90000 and 40000 years ago.



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!