13 Things About Language That Will Leave You Speechless

Without language, we would ~literally~ be reinventing the wheel ALL THE DAMN TIME.

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Mark Pagel, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist who has made a career of applying the mathematical tools of his trade to the evolution of language and human culture. BuzzFeed Science spoke with Pagel about his thoughts on the origin and evolution of that distinctly human trait, and the conversation was cool as hell. Here are some of the cool things he talked about:

1. Language may have been around as long as modern humans have been around.

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There is plenty of debate on this point. Some people argue that language may have only come around in the last 40–50,000 years (even though modern humans have been around for over 100,000 years). At the very least, that is when a great deal of cultural advances seemed to be taking place.

Pagel disagrees, though, and he uses a group of humans known as the San people to make that point. Genetic studies reveal that they were likely the first group to split from the original population of modern humans nearly 100,000 years ago — near the origin of our species. If both populations of humans have language, he said, then language must have existed before the split.

2. Homo erectus used the same tool for like 40,000 generations because that's as good as they could manage without language.

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Homo erectus, an extremely long-lived species of early human, made the same handaxe for 40,000 generations. For context, modern humans haven't lived through anywhere near 40,000 generations throughout our whole evolutionary history. What's remarkable about that, Pagel said, is that it's the opposite of what you would expect of a species that had language.

3. Without language, we would have to reinvent culture with every generation.

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One of the most powerful advantages of language is that it means we can build off of past developments without having to reinvent the wheel (so to speak, but also maybe IRL, too). For example, Pagel said, if a human moves into a new environment and figures out the lay of the land, he or she would be unable to communicate those advances to anyone else who may join them later. "You're going to show up and you're going to have to start from scratch, reinvent the culture that maybe I've invented over the previous year," he said.

4. Language allowed us to haggle with each other, which is a super-important aspect of developing an honest-to-god society.

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Pagel thinks that language arose, at least in part, so that division of labor could occur and that basic social structures could develop. For example, he imagined that one person might be A+ at making handaxes and another a master basket weaver — if they each want what the other can make, they have to figure out what their products are worth.

5. There aren’t that many sounds available for humans to use.

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Pagel said as a rough estimate that there are probably only about 40 to 60 sounds available for humans to use in communication (though this is controversial and depends largely on how one defines a unique sound). That’s because we all have the same tools to make noises — vocal chords, mouth, etc. "I could take any human being anywhere in the world and if I raised them in my language, they would have the same sounds as me," he said.

6. Every language ever may have originated from a single “mother tongue.”

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There have been a number of studies that have attempted to make this point using things like geographic patterns in the number of sounds different languages have. Pagel thinks you don't even need that level of work to come to the same conclusion.

He thinks that a single origin of language is the most likely explanation because all humans speak and speak equally well. "Any other explanation for why we all speak, and speak equally well, has to say that exactly the same highly complicated system evolved repeatedly, and that seems unlikely," he said.

7. Language does change fairly rapidly, but it’s not a problem because you only really ever talk to someone two, maybe three, generations removed from you.

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One of the most important features of language is that it is so good at transmitting information between generations. But it’s also true that language does change fairly quickly. This isn’t a big deal though if you think about it. Humans rarely talk to someone more than three generations removed from themselves.

Pagel looks at the evolution of English to make that point. If you go 500 years back, you are getting into Shakespearian language, which is notably different sounding. If you go back even further, you are getting into Chaucer, which is even harder to read.

8. In fact, languages take about 500 years of separation to become unintelligible to each other.

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“If two languages are separated from each other by about 500 years,” Pagel said, “they start to become mutually unintelligible.” Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales nearly 600 years ago —in a form of English. Here’s an excerpt of that story in its original form:

“Amorwe, whan that day bigan to sprynge, Up roos oure Hoost, and was oure aller cok, And gadrede us to gidre alle in a flok, And forth we riden, a litel moore than paas unto the wateryng of Seint Thomas.”

Pretty foreign-sounding for a language still around today...

9. There are at least 7,000 languages alive today, and there have perhaps been as many as 140,000 languages spoken throughout humanity's existence.

David Hawgood / Via geograph.org.uk

There are about 7,000 languages alive today, but only 10 languages account for around 50% of the world's speakers. Pagel said this is only a tiny fraction of the number of languages that have probably existed.

"You can do some simple calculations and try to estimate how many languages there have ever been spoken in the history of the world," he said. Depending on when you think humans started speaking, Pagel said, "we might have had something around the order of 130,000 or 140,000 languages in our history."

10. We may, one day, return to having all of humanity speaking a single language.

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"I argue that, on kind of evolutionary principles, it's inevitable that we will at some time in the future have a single world language," Pagel said. UNESCO estimates that half of the languages spoken today may be extinct by the end of the century.

11. We will probably never know most of language’s evolution.

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Pagel thinks it is going to be hard, if not impossible, for us to really know anything about the relationships of languages more than 10,000 years in the past. While we can group languages (into things like Indo-European, for example), he said that understanding the relationships and history that lead to those groups is "a question that probably will elude us." It's kind of like looking at the top of a complex evolutionary tree, but with the bottom 90% cut off.

12. We might be able to use genetic information to suss out parts of that evolutionary tree.

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Because sequencing the human genome is becoming so easy, Pagel said, "What will probably happen is that over the next probably 10 to 20 years … we'll probably be able to reconstruct an exceedingly accurate picture of how people occupied the world." That could help fill in some holes in our understanding of language since there wasn't really a way for language to be transmitted across large distances back in the day.

13. Sadly, though, we will probably never know what the first word was.

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Pagel considers this question to be "amusing dinnertime speculation." One line of thought is that the word would have had something to do with the relationship between parent and child because we are so "hopelessly dependant" on our parents at a young age. Another line of thought, Pagel said, was the notion that the first word would have been a simple call to get another person's attention. "You can imagine that you and I are out on the savannah and we're trying to hunt and some kind of proto-thought pops into your mind that we should be killing that wildebeest over there. You want to get my attention, so you kind of go, 'Uh, uh, uh.' There's the first word and it's, 'Hey, you!'"

Either way, Pagel is pretty sure that the first words were social in nature. "The first word wasn't some abstract thing about the soul or the space-time continua," he said.

Science Writer, Fossil Beastmaster

Contact Alex Kasprak at alex.kasprak@buzzfeed.com.

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