There are many things about humans that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
We have large brains, with some 100 billion neurons in the cerebral cortex, where complex thinking takes place.
We can grasp objects in our hands. Other primates have opposable thumbs but ours are long. We still can’t open a new jar of jam with whacking the lid with a can opener, but still.
We can blush! According to LiveScience, this could be an indicator of emotional intelligence. A professor at Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences points out that a prerequisite for embarrassment is to be able to feel how others feel. And in order to do, you need empathy and awareness of the social situation.
And then there’s speech.
Apes have a larynx and vocal tract that are very similar to ours, so why can’t they talk? Again, it’s the brain. Humans have larger “cortical association areas” and “brainstem nuclei” involved in the control of muscles governing vocal production.
But how long have we been speaking? And when we started out, which speech sounds were uttered first? And when did language begin evolving from those first vocalizations?
George Poulos, the author of “On the Origins of Human Speech and Language,” released in 2021, was recently interviewed by phys.org. He asserts that the beginning of human speech is a relatively recent development.
Our first speech, says Poulos, came along 70,000 years ago—not hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, as is sometimes claimed. The development of speech, he says, happened at about the same time that our hunter-gatherer ancestors migrated out of Africa. And speech may have helped Homo sapiens dominate all other species.
Doulos says the first speech sounds may have been enhanced by a move from the interior of Africa to the coastlines and a marine diet rich in fatty acids that could have helped the development of the vocal tract.
Vocal “clicks,” which can still be heard in 1 percent of the languages around the world today, were upgraded to the so-called “kiss” click and soon, the tongue was more and more maneuverable and getting fully involved in making sounds, too. Clicks evolved into something akin to consonants and vowels around 50,000 years ago, says Poulos.
“As the different speech sounds evolved,” says Poulos, “they combined in various ways to form syllables and words. And these in turn combined with each other in different ways to generate the structural types of grammatical sentences that characterize modern languages.”
Human language, he says, probably began to emerge about 20,000 years ago.
Why does it matter?
“Language has provided the medium of communication that has played a pivotal role in the momentous developments that have taken place from the earliest known "written" records that we have access to (some 5,500 years ago), to the highly sophisticated technological advances that we are witnessing today.”
Well, er, said!