On the origin of language and human evolution

A rather risky preprint at BioRxiv, Language evolution to revolution: the jump from finite communication system with many words to infinite recursive language was associated with acquisition of mental synthesis, by Andrey Vyshedskiy (2017).


There is overwhelming archeological and genetic evidence that modern speech apparatus was acquired by hominins by 600,000 years ago. There is also widespread agreement that behavioral modernity arose around 100,000 years ago. We attempted to answer three crucial questions: (1) what triggered the acquisition of behavioral modernity 100,000 years ago, (2) why there was a long gap between acquisition of modern speech apparatus and behavioral modernity, and (3) what role language might have played in the process. We conclude that the communication system of hominins prior to 100,000 years ago was finite and not-recursive. It may have had thousands of words but was lacking flexible syntax, spatial prepositions, verb tenses, and other features that enable modern recursive language to communicate an infinite number of ideas. We argue that a synergistic confluence of a genetic mutation that dramatically slowed down the prefrontal cortex (PFC) development in monozygotic twins and their spontaneous invention of recursive elements of language, such as spatial prepositions 100,000 years ago resulted in acquisition of special type of PFC-driven constructive imagination (called mental synthesis) and converted the finite communication system of their parents into infinite recursive language.

I recalled an old reference from The Seeds of Speech: Language Origin and Evolution, by Aitchison, J., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2000):

In 1866, a ban on the topic was incorporated into the founding statutes of the Linguistic Society of Paris, perhaps the foremost academic linguistic institution of the time:

“The Society does not accept papers on either the origin of language or the invention of a universal language.”

That is an amazingly old comparison of what linguists considered unscientific: pseudo-historic theories based on religious texts (i.e. “the origin of language“), and pseudo-scientific papers designed to promote personal inventions (and thus intricately linked with a strong bias and incorrect design and execution of research studies).

While the old rejection of articles on the origin of language was based on their inevitable religious undertones, it seems we may coming back to a time for speculative studies on the origin of language, now also based on genetics.

Featured image: from Review article on the origin of modern humans: the multiple-dispersal model and Late Pleistocene Asia


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