The Origin of Language
|Figure 1. Peter Breugel (1525-1569); oil painting (1563) of the Tower of Babel—the historical event during which God confused the human language.|
This depiction of the origin of languages coincides with the present status of these languages. The available linguistic evidence does not support the model postulated by evolutionary sources for the origin of languages. Many evolutionary linguists believe that all human languages have descended from a single, primitive language, which itself evolved from the grunts and noises of the lower animals. The single most influential ‘hopeful monster’ theory of the evolution of human language was proposed by the famous linguist from MIT, Noam Chomsky, and has since been echoed by numerous linguists, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists. Chomsky argued that the innate ability of children to acquire the grammar necessary for a language can be explained only if one assumes that all grammars are variations of a single, generic ‘universal grammar’, and that all human brains come ‘with a built-in language organ that contains this language blueprint’.
Explaining this ‘innate ability’, a ‘universal grammar’, and the ‘built-in language organ’ of humans has proven to be, well, impossible! Steven Pinker, the eminent psychologist also of MIT, candidly lamented this very fact in his best-selling book, How the Mind Works. In addressing the failure of ‘our species’ ’ scientists to solve these types of plaguing, perennial problems, he wrote:
‘The species’ best minds have flung themselves at the puzzles for millennia but have made no progress in solving them. Another is that they have a different character from even the most challenging problems of science. Problems such as how a child learns language or how a fertilized egg becomes an organism are horrendous in practice and may never be solved completely.’ [emphasis added].
However, the existing state of human language nevertheless suggests that the variety of dialects and sub-languages has developed from a relatively few (perhaps even less than twenty) languages. These original ‘proto-languages’—from which all others allegedly have developed—were distinct within themselves, with no previous ancestral language. Creationist Carl Wieland rightly remarked: ‘The evidence is wonderfully consistent with the notion that a small number of languages, separately created at Babel, has diversified into the huge variety of languages we have today’.
In contemplating how language arose, evolutionists frequently link the development of the brain to the appearance of languages. But when one considers that more than 6,000 languages exist, it is incomprehensible to suggest that the invention of language could be viewed as some sort of simple, clear-cut addition to human physiology made possible by an enlarged brain unique to Homo sapiens. Terrance Deacon commented on the intricacy of evolving a language when he wrote:
‘For a language feature to have such an impact on brain evolution that all members of the species come to share it, it must remain invariable across even the most drastic language change possible’ [emphasis in original).
|Figure 2. Left hemisphere of human brain with language centers—Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area—highlighted.|
The complexity underlying speech first revealed itself in patients who were suffering various communication problems. Researchers began noticing analogous responses among patients with similar injuries. The ancient Greeks noticed that brain damage could cause the loss of the ability to speak (a condition known as aphasia). Centuries later, in 1836, Marc Dax described a group of patients that could not speak normally. Dax reported that all of these patients experienced damage to the left hemisphere of their brain. In 1861, Paul Broca described a patient who could utter only a single word—‘tan’. When this patient died, Broca examined his brain and observed significant damage to the left frontal cortex, which has since become known anatomically as ‘Broca’s area’ (see Figure 2). While patients with damage to Broca’s area can understand language, they generally are unable to produce speech because words are not formed properly, thus slurring their speech.
In 1876, Carl Wernicke discovered that language problems also could result from damage to another section of the brain. This area, later termed ‘Wernicke’s area’, is located in the posterior part of the temporal lobe (see Figure 2). Damage to Wernicke’s area results in a loss of the ability to understand language. Thus, patients can continue to speak, but the words are put together in such a way that they make no sense. Interestingly, in most people (approximately 97%) both Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are found only in the left hemisphere, which explains the language deficits observed in patients with brain damage to the left side of the brain. Evolutionists freely acknowledge that:
‘The relationship between brain size and language is unclear. Possibly, increased social interaction combined with tactical deception gave the brain an initial impetus. Better nourishment due to meat-eating may also have played a part. Then brain size and language possibly increased together.’
But, the human brain is not simply larger. The connections are vastly different as well. As Deacon admitted: ‘Looking more closely, we will discover that a radical re-engineering of the whole brain has taken place, and on a scale that is unprecedented’. In order to speak a word that has been read, information is obtained from the eyes and travels to the visual cortex. From the primary visual cortex, information is transmitted to the posterior speech area (which includes Wernicke’s area). From there, information travels to Broca’s area, and then to the primary motor cortex to provide the necessary muscle contractions to produce the sound. To speak a word that has been heard, we must invoke the primary auditory cortex, not the visual cortex. Deacon commented on this complex neuronal network—which does not occur in animals—when he wrote:
‘Many a treatise on grammatical theory has failed to provide an adequate accounting of the implicit knowledge that even a four-year-old appears to possess about her newly acquired language.’
|Figure 3. Posterior view of the larynx opening into the pharynx (‘tube within a tube’).|
The specific mechanics involved in speaking have anatomical requirements that are found primarily in humans (the exception being angels—1 Cor. 13:1; Rev. 5:2; and also birds—although they produce sound differently). There is no animal living presently, nor has one been observed in the fossil record, that possesses anything close to the ‘voice box’ (as we commonly call it) present in humans. As information scientist Werner Gitt observed in his fascinating book, The Wonder of Man:
‘Only man has the gift of speech, a characteristic otherwise only possessed by God. This separates us clearly from the animal kingdom ... In addition to the necessary “software” for speech, we have also been provided with the required “hardware”.’
Furthermore, the complete lack of any ‘transitional’ animal form (with the requisite speech hardware) in the fossil record poses a significant continuity problem for evolutionists. As Deacon noted:
‘This lack of precedent makes language a problem for biologists. Evolutionary explanations are about biological continuity, so a lack of continuity limits the use of the comparative method in several important ways. We can’t ask, “What ecological variable correlates with increasing language use in a sample species?” Nor can we investigate the ‘neurological correlates of increased language complexity.’ There is no range of species to include in our analysis.’>
|Figure 4. The complex design and multiple components necessary for speech argue strongly against an evolutionary origin.|
To simplify the anatomy required for human speech by using an analogy, think of a small tube resting inside a larger tube (see Figure 3). The inner tube consists of the trachea going down to the lungs, and the larynx (which houses the voice box). At the larynx, the inner tube opens out to the larger tube, which is known as the pharynx. It not only carries sound up to the mouth, but it also carries food and water from the mouth down to the stomach. A rather simplistic description of how humans utter sounds in speech can be characterized by the control of air generated by the lungs, flowing through the vocal tract, vibrating over the vocal cord, filtered by facial muscle activity, and released out of the mouth and nose. Just as sound is generated from blowing air across the narrow mouth of a bottle, air is passed over the vocal cords, which can be tightened or relaxed to produce various resonances.
The physiological components necessary can be divided into: (1) supralaryngeal vocal tract; (2) larynx; and (3) subglottal system (see Figure 4). In 1848, Johannes Muller demonstrated that human speech involved the modulation of acoustic energy by the airway above the larynx (referred to as the supralaryngeal tract). Sound energy for speech is generated in the larynx at the vocal folds. The subglottal system—which consists of the lungs, trachea, and their associated muscles—provides the necessary power for speech production. The lungs produce the initial air pressure that is essential for the speech signal; the pharyngeal cavity, oral cavity, and nasal cavity shape the final output sound that is perceived as speech. This is the primary anatomy used in common speech, aside from those sounds produced by varying the air pressure in the pharynx or constricting parts of the oral cavity.
Imagine the conundrum in which evolutionists find themselves when it comes to speech and language. The animal that comes closest to producing anything that even vaguely resembles human speech is not another primate, but rather a bird. Deacon observed:
‘In fact, most birds easily outshine any mammal in vocal skills, and though dogs, cats, horses, and monkeys are remarkably capable learners in many domains, vocalization is not one of them. Our remarkable vocal abilities are not part of a trend, but an exception.’
For instance, a famous African gray parrot in England named Toto can pronounce words so clearly that he sounds rather human. Like humans, birds can produce fluent, complex sounds. We both share a double-barreled, double-layered system involving tunes and dialects—a system controlled by the left side of our brains. And just like young children, juvenile birds experience a period termed ‘sub-song’ where they twitter in what resembles the babbling of a young child learning to speak. Yet Toto does not have a ‘language’ as humans understand it. Humans use language for many more purposes than birds use song. Consider, too, that it is mostly male birds that sing. Females remain songless unless they are injected with the male hormone testosterone. Also consider that humans frequently communicate intimately between two or three people, while bird communication is a fairly long-distance affair.
One of the big ‘success’ stories in looking at the human-like qualities of non-human primates is a male bonobo chimpanzee known as Kanzi.  Kanzi was born 28 October 1990, and began his long journey to learn to ‘speak’ as a result of the training provided for his mother, Matata, via a ‘talking’ keyboard. Matata never did master the keyboard, but Kanzi did. Through many years of intense training and close social contact with humans, this remarkable animal attained the language abilities of an average two-year-old human. By age ten, he had a vocabulary (via the keyboard) of some two hundred words. In fact, Kanzi was able to go beyond the mere parroting or ‘aping’ of humans; he actually could communicate his wants and needs, express feelings, and use tools. Inasmuch as Kanzi could accomplish such things, does this prove that chimps are merely hairy, child-like versions of humans?
Hardly. To use the words of the famous American news commentator, Paul Harvey, someone needs to tell ‘the rest of the story’. For example, in their 2002 volume, Up from Dragons, John Skoyles and Dorion Sagan discussed Kanzi at great length. Among other things, they wrote:
‘Kanzi shows that while chimps may have the potential to learn language, they require a “gifted” environment to do so. Kanzi was surrounded by intelligent apes with Ph.D.s [i.e., humans-BH/BT/DM] who spoke to him and gave him a stream of rich interactions. They gave Kanzi’s brain a world in which it could play at developing its ability to communicate ... Therefore, as much as in his brain, Kanzi’s skill lies in the environment that helped shape it’ [emphasis added].
Kanzi does not possess the anatomical equipment required for speech. In fact, aside from parrots mimicking ability, no other animals are anatomically equipped for speech. As Skoyles and Sagan went on to note: ‘Chimps lack the vocal abilities needed for making speech sounds—speech requires a skilled coordination between breathing and making movements with the larynx that chimps lack’. Humans, however, do possess the anatomical equipment required for speech.
As Skoyles and Sagan candidly admitted, Kanzi’s skill was ‘in the environment that helped shape it’. That is precisely what Herb Terrace discovered with his own chimp, Nim Chimsky (sarcastically named after MIT scientist Noam Chomsky). Such an assessment always will be true of ‘talking animals’. But it is not always true of humans! Consider the following case in point.
As we mentioned earlier, the eminent linguist Noam Chomsky has championed the idea that humans are born with a built-in ‘universal grammar’—a series of biological switches for complex language that is set in place in the early years of childhood. This, he believes, is why children can grasp elaborate language rules, even at an early age—without adults to teach them. Chomsky noted:
‘The rate of vocabulary acquisition is so high at certain stages in life, and the precision and delicacy of the concepts acquired so remarkable, that it seems necessary to conclude that in some manner the conceptual system with which lexical items are connected is already in place.’
John W. Oller and John L. Omdahl went on to comment:
‘In other words, the conceptual system is not really constructed in the child’s mind as if out of nothing, but must be, in an important sense, known before the fact. The whole system must be in place before it can be employed to interpret experience’ [emp. in orig.].
Powerful support for Chomsky’s theory emerged from a decade-long study of 500 deaf children in Managua, Nicaragua, which was reported in the December 1995 issue of Scientific American. These children started attending special schools in 1979, but none used or was taught a formal sign language. Within a few years the children began to develop their own basic ‘pidgin’ sign language. This quickly was modified by younger children entering school, with the current version taking on a complex and consistent grammar. If Chomsky is correct, where, then, did humans get their innate ability for language? Chomsky himself will not even hazard a guess. In his opinion, ‘very few people are concerned with the origin of language because most consider it a hopeless question’. The development of language, he admits, is a ‘mystery’. The fundamental failing of naturalistic theories is that they are inadequate to explain the origins of something so complex and information-rich as human language, which itself is a gift of God and part of man’s having been created ‘in His image’.
The fact is, no animal is capable of speaking in the manner in which people can speak. Speech is a peculiarly human trait. Steven Pinker, director of MIT’s Center of Cognitive Neuroscience, stated in The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind:
‘As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with remarkable precision. I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science; even in the depictions of believers, these are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. That ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is ... [H]uman language is based on a very different design ... Even the seat of human language in the brain is special ... ’ [emphasis added].
Without detracting anything from primates like Kanzi and Washoe, fundamental differences between animals and humans nevertheless remain. Unlike human children, animals: (1) do not have a special region in the brain devoted to language; (2) possess a much smaller brain overall; and (3) lack the anatomy to speak the words they may think. In summary, humans have an innate, built-in, hard-wired ability to acquire and communicate complex language from the moment of their birth. Animals do not. Admittedly, animals do possess a measure of understanding. They can learn to respond to commands and signs, and in some instances even can be trained to use minimal portions of human sign language. As Oller and Omdahl pointed out: ‘One of the most remarkable missing elements in the pseudolinguistic behavior of the trained apes is that they don’t ask questions. They simply don’t seem to be able to understand what a question is.’ Thus, even though apes, dogs, and birds can be trained to do certain things and can convey ideas of danger, food, etc., they still cannot reason with others so as to have true mental communion. Why? The intelligence of animals is, quite bluntly, unlike that of humankind.
The issue is not ‘can animals think?’ but rather ‘can they think the way humans do?’ The answer, obviously, is a resounding ‘No!’ Although animal trainers and investigators since the seventeenth century have tried to teach chimpanzees to talk, no chimpanzee has ever managed it. A chimpanzee’s sound-producing anatomy is simply too different from that of humans. Chimpanzees might be able to produce a muffled approximation of human speech—if their brains could plan and execute the necessary articulate maneuvers. But to do this, they would have to have our brains, which they obviously do not.
No known language in the whole of human history can be considered ‘primitive’ in any sense of the word. In her book, What is Linguistics? Suzette Elgin wrote:
‘the most ancient languages for which we have written texts—Sanskrit for example—are often far more intricate and complicated in their grammatical forms than many other contemporary languages.’
|Figure 5. The most ancient languages for which we have written texts are often far more intricate and complicated in their grammatical forms than many contemporary languages.|
The late Lewis Thomas, a distinguished physician, scientist, and longtime director and chancellor of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, acknowledged: ‘ ...Language is so incomprehensible a problem that the language we use for discussing the matter is itself becoming incomprehensible’. It appears that, from the beginning, human communication was designed with a tremendous amount of complexity and forethought, and has allowed us to communicate not only with one another, but also with the Designer of language.
In a paper titled ‘Evolution of Universal Grammar’ that appeared in the January 2001 issue of Science, M.A. Nowak and his colleagues attempted to discount the gulf that separates human and animals. This paper, which was a continuation of a 1999 paper titled ‘The Evolution of Language’, used mathematical calculations in an effort to predict the evolution of grammar and the rules surrounding it. While Nowak and his team inferred that the evolution of universal grammar can occur via natural selection, they freely admitted that ‘the question concerning why only humans evolved language is hard to answer’ [emphasis added]. Hard to answer indeed! The mathematical models presented in these papers do not tell us anything about the origination of the multitude of languages used in the world today. If man truly did evolve from an ape-like ancestor, how did the phonologic [the branch of linguistics that deals with the sounds of speech and their production] component of our languages become so diverse and variegated? Nowak’s paper also did not clarify the origination of written languages, or describe how the language process was initiated in the first humans, considering we know today that parents teach languages to their offspring.
Also, consider that when language first appears on the scene, it already is fully developed and very complex. The late Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson described it this way:
‘Even the peoples with least complex cultures have highly sophisticated languages, with complex grammar and large vocabularies, capable of naming and discussing anything that occurs in the sphere occupied by their speakers. The oldest language that can be reconstructed is already modern, sophisticated, complete from an evolutionary point of view.’
Chomsky summed it up well when he stated:
‘Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world ... There is no reason to suppose that the ‘gaps’ are bridgeable. There is no more of a basis for assuming an evolutionary development from breathing to walking.’
The fact of the matter is that language is quintessentially a human trait. All attempts to shed light on the evolution of human language have failed—due to the lack of knowledge regarding the origin of any language, and due to the lack of an animal that possesses any ‘transitional’ form of communication. This leaves evolutionists with a huge gulf to bridge between humans with their innate communication abilities, and the grunts, barks, or chatterings of animals. As noted:
‘By the age of six, the average child has learned to use and understand about 13,000 words; by eighteen it will have a working vocabulary of 60,000 words. That means it has been learning an average of ten new words a day since its first birthday, the equivalent of a new word every 90 minutes of its waking life’ [emp. in orig.].
‘So this is the real mystery. Even under these loosened criteria, there are no simple languages used among other species, though there are many other equally or more complicated modes of communication. Why not? And the problem is even more counterintuitive when we consider the almost insurmountable difficulties of teaching language to other species. This is surprising, because there are many clever species. Though researchers report that language-like communication has been taught to nonhuman species, even the best results are not above legitimate challenges, and the fact that it is difficult to prove whether or not some of these efforts have succeeded attests to the rather limited scope of the resulting behaviors, as well as to deep disagreements about what exactly constitutes language-like behavior.’
Another scholar who recognized this chasm between humans and animals commented:
‘The very fact ... that human animals are ready to engage in a great ‘garrulity’ over the merits and demerits of essentially unprovable hypotheses, is an exciting testimony to the gap between humans and other animals.’
Gap indeed! Humans are capable of communicating in human language because God created them with the ability to do so! The Bible still offers the only plausible explanation for the origin of human language when it records: ‘Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;” ... So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).
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Brad Harrub is a graduate of Kentucky Wesleyan College, where he earned a B.S. degree in biology. He also earned a Ph.D. in neurobiology and anatomy from the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee in Memphis. He is a member of the Society for Neuroscience, and was listed in the 2001-2002 edition of Who’s Who Among Scientists and Researchers. He was an invited speaker to the 2003 International Conference on Creationism. He currently serves as the Director of Scientific Information at Apologetics Press, and as associate editor of Reason & Revelation. [RETURN TO TEXT]
Bert Thompson is a graduate of Abilene Christian University, where he earned a B.S. degree in biology. He also is a graduate of Texas A&M University, where he earned both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in microbiology. Dr. Thompson is a former professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M, where he taught for several years. While at Texas A&M, he served as Coordinator of the Cooperative Education Program in Biomedical Science. Currently, Dr. Thompson is the Executive Director of Apologetics Press and editor of Reason & Revelation. [RETURN TO TEXT]
Dave Miller is a graduate of Lubbock Christian University, where he earned a B.A. degree in speech and Bible. He earned his M.A. degree in speech communication from Texas Tech University, and his M.Th. and M.A.R. from the Harding Graduate School of Religion. He also is a graduate of Southern Illinois University, where he earned his Ph.D. in speech communication. He currently serves as the chairman of New Testament Studies at Apologetics Press. [RETURN TO TEXT]