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.
2. Homo erectus used the same tool for like 40,000 generations because that's as good as they could manage without language.
3. Without language, we would have to reinvent culture with every generation.
4. Language allowed us to haggle with each other, which is a super-important aspect of developing an honest-to-god society.
5. There aren’t that many sounds available for humans to use.
6. Every language ever may have originated from a single “mother tongue.”
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.
8. In fact, languages take about 500 years of separation to become unintelligible to each other.
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.
10. We may, one day, return to having all of humanity speaking a single language.
11. We will probably never know most of language’s evolution.
12. We might be able to use genetic information to suss out parts of that evolutionary tree.
13. Sadly, though, we will probably never know what the first word was.
Language. Bringing people together since, like, 100,000 B.C.
Science Writer, Fossil Beastmaster
Contact Alex Kasprak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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