Somewhere in Britain, there is a family where each member has varied speech difficulties. Some members can’t say words like “hippopotamus”, others have trouble reciting words that begin with the same letter. This family, known as the KE family, was subject to research by Oxford University in the early 2000’s to find that they had a rare gene mutation. The subtle mutation took place in the FOXP2 gene, where only one nucleotide was misplaced. However, this research has opened up the world to the search for the so called “language gene” in our bodies.
For a while, scientists thought that the FOXP2 gene was the “language gene” in our bodies. But further tests show that the gene has much broader capabilities in humans and other animals, such as mice. This evidence suggests that there is no one language gene but instead it relies on a much broader neural support system. With the existence of a language gene being much less concrete, understanding where language originates from becomes much more difficult. A 2010 study by neuroscientist Aldo Faisal showed that what led humans from making stone flakes to axes was a shift in cognitive capacity, not an improvement in physical coordination. Researchers believe that as toolmaking became more common in the world, humans may have acquired the mental capacity for language. Liverpool archaeologist Natalie Uomini says: “A lot of people would say that toolmaking came [before language], I would just say that they co-evolved.”
Liverpool archeologist Simon Kirby takes a different perspective on the origin of language, arguing that the human brain alone is not enough to explain language and that we must look at the evolution of human culture as well. Through several experiments with fictional languages, Kirby has found that as a language passes from one person to the next, it develops a unique structure and evolves in such a way that participants could guess words that they weren’t even trained to know. This shows that there is a lot more than just brain function in the evolution language. There is a huge social component, and this makes the discovery of language’s origin even messier than originally thought.
The fact that such an integral part of our society is still relatively unknown biologically is fascinating, and many breakthroughs in this topic have been made within the last 5 years. What’s fascinating about the search for language is that it shows that as modern science progresses, we may not find the answer to the question that we asked, but instead find a whole new set of questions that we would never have thought to ask. What do you think about the origin language? Did it come to fruition before or after toolmaking? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below, thanks for reading!