The Debate of Language Origins

The origin of language will always continue to be a puzzling question for researchers and linguists. So much is unknown about where language could have originated from resulting in much interpretation and theory. In Ib Ulbaek’s, “The Origin of Language and Cognition,” he discusses the four main theories that dominate this field, those dealing with interpretations on whether language is either innate or learned and whether it is based on a discontinuity approach or rather a continuity approach. ┬áIt will be further detailed what it means to believe in any combination of these approaches as well as which theory Ulbaek and I myself support.

Both a continuity approach and a discontinuity approach exist in the debate of the origin of language. The continuity approach has a Darwinian perspective of language suggesting the potential for language to have evolved from more primitive forms of animal communication. This theory makes a connection between our human language and the rather advanced forms of animal communication such as bird and whale songs and even the complex chirps of crickets. To fully grasp this approach of continuity, we can also consider language as “a topic like echolocation in bats or stereopsis in monkeys” as suggested in an article by Pinker and Bloom which depicted language as a necessity to properly function in life (Pinker, 708). Researchers in the field today try to connect even our most abstract ability of language to Darwin’s theory of evolution. This impresses upon us the idea that language has evolved from precursors within us and without these “hard-wired devices” humans would be without the capabilities of language. However the approach of discontinuity depicts language as too complicated to have ever come from mere animals, expressing that language is unique to humans and far more complex than other forms of communication on Earth. Noam Chomsky defends this position and suggests the concept of a “language organ” (Ulbaek, 30). Yet, rather than accepting that this “organ” could have evolved from pre-existing structures in the body, Chomsky instead suggests that language could be due to a sporadic mutation in our species.

There then is the conflict between whether language is an innate behavior or a learned one. Much evidence supports language as a skill that humans are born with. In an article by Marcus and Fisher, they stated how when chimpanzees are raised in a human environment for years, they still do not acquire human linguistic skills. However, deaf children with limited linguistic input can still create a complex language on their own, clearly not from something they heard, but rather something that is within them, something that they were born with and already understand how to do (Marcus, 1). This is a perfect example of what the innateness of language is by depicting how even without the common idea of spoken language, language can still be created in humans by another method.

However, there is much consideration for language as a learned behavior. This position is filled with both culturists and behaviorists who believe that language is “undeniably learned” (Ulbaek, 31). Culturists prefer to see a separation between the biological functions of the human body and our social interactions. Behaviorists in the same manner emphasize the vast abilities of learning with the use of apes. They believe that because apes do not use language in the wild but are still able to learn and use signs to communicate in a laboratory setting that this demonstrates the learned ability of language, however, deemphasizing how little the apes actually learn.

Ulbaek begins defending his position of continuity and the innateness of language by stating that language came not from animal communication but rather cognition. He emphasizes how language originated from pre-existing structures in the body and believes that all of the cognitive functions that cooperate to create our human language were all established well before language ever arose. Ulbaek emphasizes the evolutionary purposes of language through the Darwinian perspective: how language has both advantages and disadvantages to fitness. He makes a terrific point here, one which I had never considered but completely agree. Language contributes multiple weaknesses to human fitness. For instance, by having and using language, it requires us to have significantly more brain tissue than other species and have changes to our respiratory system in order to utter the sounds we define as language, both of which could hinder us in our athletic abilities due to added mass and potential obstruction to the respiratory system. Language would have also theoretically harmed our level of fitness because it allows us to give away ideas that could give us an edge over our competitors. But rather than give up this ability to better our fitness, humans embraced this ability for its productivity. Language allows us to work cooperatively and ultimately more efficiently. As Ulbaek points out, language does provide fitness to us and our families. From a familial perspective, sharing information amongst family so that the family survives and continues to thrive is in some respects even more important than our individual survival.

Ulbaek’s perspective that language is something that has evolved from animals and is born within us is exactly how I have always felt about this wonderful capability. Taking a scientific approach, I believe that there is no other way that language could have originated but from the evolution of pre-existing structures. It is inconceivable to think that this complex capability, requiring the function of many organs is just due to one freak mutation in our body. Such complexity rarely, if ever, in biology occurs due to mutation. These types of skills are often the results of centuries of slow, constant evolution. A continuity approach is further supported by Pinker who suggests, “Evolutionary theory offers clear criteria for when a trait should be attributed to natural selection: complex design for some function, and the absence of alternative processes capable of explaining such complexity” (Pinker 707). Clearly language possesses both of these characteristics leading us to believe it is indeed a product of evolution.

It is for these same types of scientific perspectives that I believe language is much more innate than learned, though in my opinion, a small portion of language must be learned. Language must be an innate structure for how could we possibly learn how to speak a language and use a language without all of the machinery to do so? On the same token however, there is a portion of language that must be learned. Though a previous example demonstrated how uninfluenced deaf children could spontaneously create a language to communicate, I believe that to be able to function in society, language requires a certain degree of learned skills. These learned skills allow for everyone to communicate together because without these consistencies everyone would have their own individual language and thus our human population could not communicate effectively as a whole.

Language is an abstract capability that humans possess and question daily. It is clear that the origin of language will be debated for centuries to come as the views of continuity and discontinuity are far too contrasting to ever reach a common ground. With this it is important to accept the research that has been done on this topic and develop our own hypotheses based on the world around us that we ourselves perceive.



Marcus, Gary F. and Fisher, Simon E. (2003). FOXP2 in focus: what can genes tell us about speech and language? TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. 1-6.
Pinker, S. (1994). Natural Language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13, 707-784.
Ulbaek, Ib. (1998) The origin of language and cognition. In James R. Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, Chris Knight (eds), Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.




By: Danielle Meyers
Major: Animal Science
Expected Graduation Date: May 2014
Hometown: Deer Park, WA

Being a part of a "hard-science" major, I typically approach liberal arts topics with a very skeptical, scientific view. I initially found this somewhat of a challenge to do with the abstract idea of language origins, but once I discovered how evolution and biology play such a huge role in how we communicate I felt right at home.