On the origin of speaking

Last Thursday marked the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin: an event that did not go uncelebrated at Emphasis HQ. And even as we hung the streamers and tied up the balloons we were silently thanking the birthday boy for explaining the opposable thumbs that allowed us to do it.

I mean, of course, his theory of natural selection: that particular cause of evolution that pits genes in competition with each other so that organisms can win the reproduction war, becoming increasingly sophisticated in tiny increments along the way.

The roots and evolution of language have proved trickier to reconcile with Darwin’s magnum opus.   The fact that humans happily chat away from an early age while chimps – our closest relatives in the animal kingdom – stay stoically silent has led to doubts on the subject.

Possible suggestions for our capacity for communication are as varied as Divine bestowment or a coincidental by-product of some other adaptation process. (For example, bones are white not for aesthetic reasons but because they are strengthened with calcium. Which is white.)

But there’s hope yet for hard-line Darwinist linguists. Steven Pinker suggests humans have a ‘language instinct’, * which has been gradually honed for 200,000 years: this explains why children begin to pick up pretty complex grammar before they even go to school; why every community and tribe ever discovered has a stable language with regulated grammar and syntax; and why even people deaf from birth include these features in their sign language. And we can’t possibly learn it by rote since it is virtually limitless: we can use it to form endlessly innovative combinations of words.

There’s no reason to expect chimps to have this innate ability (tea adverts aside) because we are not descended from them directly: we share a common (extinct) ancestor. Developing our brains in this unique way is no odder, Pinker points out, than an elephant developing a trunk.

In business, out-performing your rivals is still vital for survival. So we’re here to help your writing evolve: we like to think of ourselves as the winning gene. And – hopefully – that Darwin would be proud.

* For more on this see Steven Pinker The Language Instinct (Penguin Books Ltd 1994)

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