Where did language come from? The question’s not as old as you may think, and the answer’s not as clear. There are all sorts of theories as to how and why humans developed language and the cognitive capacities that enable its use, and thus far there’s been little to recommend any one postulate over the others. The publication of More than Nature Needs, though, represents a breakthrough that author Derek Bickerton details below.
This year is the ninetieth anniversary of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), the country’s largest association of professional linguists. The event was, naturally, celebrated at the Society’s annual meeting on January 2-5 in Minneapolis with a commemorative symposium. Two issues were significantly absent: how language evolved, and where (if anywhere!) linguistics was going.
Granted, few linguists seemed even aware of language evolution until 1990, when Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom’s seminal paper Natural Language and Natural Selection and my book Language and Species were published. But since then, dozens of books and hundreds of articles on the topic have appeared. However, a substantial majority of them still come from writers in other disciplines, and perhaps that’s the problem. Thinking how language could have evolved entails dealing with data from several other sciences, and from its birth linguistics, balanced uneasily between science and humanities, has always been a somewhat cloistered discipline.
The Linguistic Society of Paris got things off to a bad start in 1866 by banning discussions of language origins from its proceedings. Since then, things have been worsened by the way schools and universities teach linguistics. In America a large majority of linguistics courses are limited to graduate students. Consequently while most college-educated persons have had significant exposure to physics or biology, linguistics remains terra incognita to all but a few. To the layman, a linguist means merely someone proficient in several languages; people at cocktail parties have no notion that to ask a linguist “How many languages do you speak?” is like asking a garage mechanic “How many cars do you own?”
For devotees of the Delphic injunction “Know thyself” (to be read, of course, as “Know what it means to be human” rather than “Know what it means to be Fred or Freda Smith”), these facts are tragic. A large part—maybe even the most crucial part—of being human is having language. Without it, how could we have science or religion, laws or codes of morality? Yet most books and articles on human evolution hardly mention language. Similarly, most books and articles on the evolution of language make no attempt to integrate it in the story of human evolution. As a result, we know more about the origins of the solar system or even the cosmos than we do about how we got language and all our other cognitive capacities. There are theories around, of course. But for most issues in science, there’s one theory that most people accept—the Nebular Hypothesis for the solar system, the Big Bang for the cosmos. For human language and cognition, theories are legion, and they’re all over the map, and it’s hard to see what would make any one of them preferable to others.