Timeline: Evolution of Human Language Research

Finch

hide captionThe Zebra Finch may need a special kind of gene to learn its song.

David Hosking/Frank Lane Picture Agency/Corbis

For centuries, scholars and thinkers have tried to unravel the nature of human language. Our understanding of language has grown immensely, especially in the past 50 years. But there are still huge gaps in our knowledge. Here, a timeline of how experts from fields as diverse as anthropology, neuroscience, genetics, psychology, evolutionary biology, linguistics and artificial intelligence have shaped our thinking about language.

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1770s

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Philosophers were the first to ponder the roots of human language. The radical philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, left, says that use of words for communication stems from a desire to express our emotions. Also in the 1700s, Johann Gottfried von Herder writes two essays arguing that human rationality is the basis for language.

  

Portrait by Maurice-Quentin La Tour/Wikipedia

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1860s

Pierre Paul Broca

Pierre Paul Broca, left, a French doctor, identifies Broca's Area in the brain's left hemisphere, a region he says controls human grammar and speech. Damage to Broca's Area impairs the ability to use words and construct grammatically correct sentences. Later, Karl Wernicke, a German doctor, discovers another area related to language in the left hemisphere. Patients with injuries to Wernicke's Area speak fluently and grammatically, but make little or no sense.

  

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1870s

Charles Darwin

In 1871, Charles Darwin, left, writes about a human "instinct for language" in his book, Descent of Man. He suggests that language evolved from more primal communication abilities in other animals. Scientists strive to understand how and why human language evolved by studying communication in other animals. Researchers note that chimpanzees physically groom each other, while humans "groom with words" when gossiping or making small talk. Both are ways of strengthening social bonds.

  

Portrait: Julia Margaret Cameron

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1950s

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, left, says humans are born with an innate, or hardwired, knowledge of a universal grammar. He observes that all languages share certain rules and that children learn languages with astonishing speed. Researchers continue to ask: Is language a uniquely human skill? And is language capacity a self-contained part of the brain or part of a more complex, integrated system of cognitive skills?

  

Photo: Ingo Wagner/dpa/Corbis

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1980s

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist at Georgia State University, begins to publish research on an ape named Kanzi. Tests show that Kanzi understands not only words but basic grammar — the strongest evidence so far that species other than humans can acquire human language skills.

  

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1994

Steven Pinker

MIT linguist Steven Pinker, left, tries to combine the ideas of Noam Chomsky and Charles Darwin in his book, The Language Instinct. He offers an explanation for how natural selection might have shaped the evolution of human's "innate grammar."

  

Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis

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2001

Stephanie A. White

Teams led by Oxford University geneticist Anthony Monaco and London neuroscientist Faraneh Vargha-Khadem identify a single gene that governs certain aspects of intelligence and language. People with a mutation in this gene struggle to pronounce certain words — or make fine movements of the lip and the tongue — and have trouble with grammar. Within a year, SvAnte Paabo and Wolfgang Enard, at Leipzig's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, find a gene — foxp2 — that is almost identical in all animals. Three years later, Stephanie White, left, and researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles find that in zebra finches, a kind of songbird, this gene is involved in their learned song.

  

Photo courtesy Stephanie White

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2002

In a co-authored paper published in the journal Science, Chomsky says that human language might have evolved from other, simpler forms of communication. The authors propose closer collaborations between linguists, biologists, anthropologists and psychologists to study the evolution and neurology of language.

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