The Origin of Language

2004-12-26

For some light reading in between all the other books I've been absorbing, I've been perusing again Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. In her essay "Abstractions from Abstractions", I was surprised to read the following:

The first concepts a child forms are concepts of perceptual entities; the first words he learns are words designating them. Even though a child does not have to perform the feat of genius performed by some mind or minds in the prehistorical infancy of the human race: the invention of language -- every child has to perform independently the feat of grasping the nature of languuage, the process of symbolizing concepts by means of words.

What is shocking about this passage is Rand's offhand reference to the invention of language by some individual genius or small group of such individuals. It's long been clear to me that Rand was quite uncomfortable with the notion of evolution (since she preferred to think that each good thing flowed from the creative power of some one person, or failing that a group of people). But to think that language was invented seems exceedingly odd. Contrast Rand's unjustified assertion with the following passage in Genes, People, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (pp. 174-175):

While language itself is a cultural creation, it requires a precise anatomical and neurological foundation. This development probably came very gradually and progressively. Homo Habilis may have been able to speak in some fashion even two million years ago. Phillip Tobias noticed a larger cavity next to the left cerebral hemisphere in six habilis skulls analyzed. It is here that a cerebral protuberance exists which is known to be one of the neurological centers for speech -- Broca's area. Tobias's observation suggests that this center had already achieved a certain degree of development in the first species that we place in the genus Homo.


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