Thu, 21 Feb 2013 15:07 CST
Linguistics and biology researchers propose a new theory on the deep roots of human speech.
"The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language," Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man
(1871), while contemplating how humans learned to speak. Language, he speculated, might have had its origins in singing, which "might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions."
Now researchers from MIT, along with a scholar from the University of Tokyo, say that Darwin was on the right path. The balance of evidence, they believe, suggests that human language is a grafting of two communication forms found elsewhere in the animal kingdom: first, the elaborate songs of birds, and second, the more utilitarian, information-bearing types of expression seen in a diversity of other animals.
"It's this adventitious combination that triggered human language," says Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics in MIT's Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, and co-author of a new paper
published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology
The idea builds upon Miyagawa's conclusion, detailed in his previous work, that there are two "layers" in all human languages: an "expression" layer, which involves the changeable organization of sentences, and a "lexical" layer, which relates to the core content of a sentence. His conclusion is based on earlier work by linguists including Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser.