While there is no certain information about the origins of language, the progression of science has allowed us to determine some information to help us piece together this complicated puzzle. It is unlikely that language exist 6 millions years ago. We shared common ancestors with chimpanzees at this point and we know that they do not use language. It is believed that Neanderthals are likely to have had similar language to that of ours today. Our last common ancestor with Neanderthals was roughly half a million years ago so we can estimate that language stemmed roughly from this time.
Later examples of the development of sign language give us an idea of how this may have occurred. In Nicaragua, before 1977, there were no special schools for the deaf community or sign systems. Deaf children would have generally developed a system of communication with their families; however, they were isolated from the rest of the community.
In 1983 though, over 400 deaf children were attending school in the capital city. In order to communicate with each other, they began to create their own language by incorporating some of their home communication signs. Younger students would then learn from older ones. Similar to a child with an ESL background being introduced to and learning to speak English through schooling. What initially would have been a simple language, evolved to become more fluent to produce and more complex in order to convey more meaning. People would have adopted slight variations in sounds and words as well to make the language most efficient for conveying messages.
In a few short years, deaf Nicaraguan school children created a new language. It is likely, through repeated interactions with small communities and between different communities, that language initially evolved in this same way. This process occurring over the course of hundreds of thousands of years would in turn leave us with the thousands of languages we have today.
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This article was written by our Speech Pathologist Ashleigh Fattah who is a Speech Pathology Australia member. If you have speech pathology related questions, make an appointment. We‘ll provide you with simple and effective therapy targeted to your concerns.
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• Goldin-Meadow S, Brentari D, Coppola M, Horton L, & Senghas A. (2015) Watching language grow in the manual modality: Nominals, Predicates, and Handshapes. Cognition, 136: 381–395. pubmed link