Origin of language

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Even before the theory of evolution made discussion of more animal-like human ancestors commonplace, philosophical and scientific speculation casting doubt on the use of early language has been frequent throughout history. In modern Western Philosophy, speculation by authors such as Thomas Hobbes and later Jean-Jacques Rousseau led to the Académie française declaring the subject off-limits.[citation needed]

The origin of language is of great interest to philosophers because language is such an essential characteristic of human life. In classical Greek philosophy such inquiry was approached by considering the nature of things, in this case human nature. Aristotle, for example, treated humans as creatures with reason and language by their intrinsic nature, related to their natural propensities to be "political," and dwell in city-state communities (Greek: poleis)[1].

Hobbes, followed by John Locke and others, claimed that language is an extension of the "speech" which humans have within themselves, which in a sense takes the classical view that reason is one of the most primary characteristics of human nature. Others have argued the opposite - that reason developed out of the need for more complex communication. Rousseau, despite writing[2] before the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution, claimed that there had once been humans who had no language or reason and who developed language first--rather than reason--the development of which things he explicitly described as a mixed blessing, with many negative characteristics.

Since the arrival of Darwin, the subject has been approached more often by scientists than philosophers. For example, neurologist Terrence Deacon in his Symbolic Species has argued that reason and language "coevolved." Merlin Donald sees language as a later development building upon what he refers to as mimetic culture,[3] emphasizing that this coevolution depended upon the interactions of many individuals. He writes that:

A shared communicative culture, with sharing of mental representations to some degree, must have come first, before language, creating a social environment in which language would have been useful and adaptive.[4]

The specific causes of the natural selection that led to language are however still the subject of much speculation, but a common theme which goes right back to Aristotle is that many theories propose that the gains to be had from language and/or reason were probably mainly in the area of increasingly sophisticated social structures.

In more recent times, a theory of mirror neurons has emerged in relation to language. Ramachandran [5] has gone so far as to claim that "mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments". Mirror neurons are located in the human inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe, and are unique in that they fire when completing an action and also when witnessing an actor performing the same action. Various studies have proposed a theory of mirror neurons related to language development


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