Cavemen DIDN'T grunt: Scientist says early human speech evolved rapidly into complex sentences

  • Complex human conversation began around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago
  • Professor Shigeru Miyagawa notes single words bear traces of syntax 
  • He says this shows the words came from an older, syntax-laden system
  • He believes humans combined an 'expressive' layer of language, as seen in birdsong, with a 'lexical' layer, as seen in monkeys

Scientists believe the first complex conversation between humans took place around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Much of it, they say, involved cavemen grunting, or hunter-gatherers mumbling and pointing, before learning to speak in a detailed way.

But in a new study, one linguist argues that human language developed rapidly with people quickly using complex sentences that sound like our own.

Scientists believe the first complex conversation between humans gradually took place around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Much of it, they believe, still involved cavemen grunting, or hunter-gatherers mumbling and pointing, before learning to speak in a detailed way

Scientists believe the first complex conversation between humans gradually took place around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Much of it, they believe, still involved cavemen grunting, or hunter-gatherers mumbling and pointing, before learning to speak in a detailed way

'The hierarchical complexity found in present-day language is likely to have been present in human language since its emergence,' says Shigeru Miyagawa, Professor of Linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Most scholars believe that humans first started using a 'proto-language', which was a primitive kind of communication with only a gradual development of words and syntax.

But according to Professor Miyagawa, single words bear traces of syntax showing that they must be descended from an older, syntax-laden system, rather than from simple, primal utterances.

'Since we can find syntax within words, there is no reason to consider them as 'linguistic fossils' of a prior, presyntax stage,' he adds.

In a new study, one linguist argues that human language likely developed rapidly with people quickly using complex sentences that sound like our own. Pictured is a reconstruction of of Rhodesian Men. Remains from this species have been dated between 300,000 and 125,000 years ago

In a new study, one linguist argues that human language likely developed rapidly with people quickly using complex sentences that sound like our own. Pictured is a reconstruction of of Rhodesian Men. Remains from this species have been dated between 300,000 and 125,000 years ago

Professor Miyagawa has a different theory about what created human language.

He says humans combined an 'expressive' layer of language, as seen in birdsong, with a 'lexical' layer, as seen in monkeys who utter isolated sounds, such as alarm calls.

The 'integration hypothesis' suggests that whatever first caused them, these layers of language blended rapidly.

In his paper, Professor Miyagawa writes that a single word today can be 'internally complex, often as complex as an entire phrase,' making it less likely that words we use today are descended from a presyntax mode of speech.

'Nationalisation' for example starts with 'nation,' a noun; adds '-al' to create an adjective; adds '-is(a)' to form a verb; and ends with '-tion,' to form another noun, albeit with a new meaning.

'Hierarchical structure is present not only in single words, but also in compounds, which, contrary to the claims of some, are not the structureless fossilised form of a prior stage,' he says.

MAN'S FIRST CONVERSATION WAS ABOUT DIY, CLAIMS STUDY 

The researchers arrived at their conclusions by conducting a series of experiments in teaching students the art of 'Oldowan stone-knapping'

The researchers arrived at their conclusions by conducting a series of experiments in teaching students the art of 'Oldowan stone-knapping'

The very first rudimentary communcation between our ancestors took place much earlier, say one group of scientists.

Earlier this year, researchers argued that cavemen initially began communicating 2.5 to 1.8 million years ago - and they were talking about DIY.

The international study found stone tool-making drove the evolution of language among our human ancestors in the African savannah.

It suggests communication among our earliest ancestors may have been more complex than previously thought, and that tool-making helped drive evolution.

The researchers, who included scientists at the University of Liverpool and St Andrews, arrived at their conclusions by conducting a series of experiments in teaching students the art of 'Oldowan stone-knapping'.

This is when butchering 'flakes' are created by hammering a hard rock against certain volcanic or glassy rocks, like basalt or flint.

Oldowan stone-knapping dates back to the Lower Paleolithic period in eastern Africa, and remained largely unchanged for 700,000 years until more sophisticated Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers were developed.

In testing five different ways to convey Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students, the researchers found that the demonstration that used spoken communication – versus imitation, non-verbal presentations or gestures – yielded the highest volume and quality of flakes.

The same analysis applies to words in Romance languages that have been described elsewhere as remnants of formless proto-languages.

In Italian, 'porta asciuga-mani' - literally 'carry dry-hands,' but today colloquially meaning 'towel holder' - is one such case, where a compound derived from old words has a clear internal structure.

Researchers think the integration hypothesis could generate a productive set of research questions.

Andrea Moro, a professor of linguistics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Pavia, Italy, who edited the paper, calls it a 'very interesting' critique of the idea that human language developed gradually.

However, Professor Moro suggests there is an 'intuitive difference' between cases where words assemble to form either a compound word or a sentence.

He believes it is possible that studies of the concept of 'symmetry-breaking,' a potentially distinctive part of sentence formation, 'may offer new empirical data to test the hypothesis and shed light on the birth of human language.'

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