The Why and When of Speech

By Dr Rajagopal Soondron

We humans have the bad habit of taking things for granted. Such is the case with our marvellous faculties, like our sight that should elicit in us the greatest awe and wonder but go almost unnoticed. Similarly, our power to open our mouth, to modulate and polarize our exhalation breath so as to produce a panoply of sounds which would express to someone else our deepest feelings, thoughts and abstract thinking remain unappreciated. A particular sound and pitch accompanied by different facial expressions convey different meanings to other’s cognitive, mental pathways; this remains a marvel.

Nowadays some experts like linguists, cognitive scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists have been racking their brains to discover when and why did our ancestors start talking. Unfortunately, the latter’s voice did not fossilize… hence the difficulty; but those experts have had their own theories over time and they now feel that they do have a possible answer.

Down the ages

Though the oldest stone stool dates to some 3.3 million years ago, and that our ancestors’ cousin Homo Erectus did hunt in group with skilful strategy, and ambush hunting started about one million years ago, yet we are told that they did not have the necessary anatomical vocal apparatus to produce meaningful sounds. Was their larynx still lying too low, as in the gorillas, with whom they had similar air sac in their throat to produce bombing sounds? Voice production seems to have been associated with a migration of that voice box upwards nearer to the head with the ability to go through the acid test – producing vowels – which these ancestors could perform.

Our immediate ancestor, the Homo hidelbergensis, who was to give rise to both the Homo sapiens and Neanderthal, appeared some 700 000 years ago, and by 400 000 years our species split from the Neanderthal. But the experts have noted that by then both species had lost the air sac and acquired the necessary centre in the brain to control the chest muscles and the diaphragm for finer breath control, plus the necessary neurons to control the voice box, through the FOX p2 gene. The latter, discovered in an English family who could not talk properly, was quoted by the lay press as the language gene; but that was an exaggeration. That gene is necessary for influencing “the brain wiring and plasticity in areas controlling speech”. Also present in other mammals, it became more refined in humans and prepared us for finer facial r expressions.

But many other factors are involved in speech production. Even the nerve distribution to the inner ear has to be highly tuned to regulate the fine appreciation between pitch and tempo so that speech and the hearing of what we are saying go hand in hand; this would allow our brain to make immediate correction and adjustment so that the right tone, pitch, and modulations are applied to render the best meaning and expression to our speech.

 All this adjustment came with gradual evolution of the human anatomy and physiology. These structural, physical and social influences played a great part into the production of the voice.

By 300 000 years ago Homo Sapiens had already made himself different and language had become part of his armamentarium to take off culturally, socially and to enter into complex technical adventures. Pigment use for ornamentation by 120 000 years ago made us realize that our ancestors had entered into the symbolic culture.

By 40 000 yrs ago came an explosion of artistic cave drawings and symbolic culture — ‘demonstrating the abstract thinking that language requires’; to many it was the beginning of “cultural revolution” of Homo Sapiens. But as this occurred everywhere in the world, speech development could not have been mere coincidence. Our ancestor’s language ability started long before they left Africa.

It was just the beginning of a wonderful march towards greater expression. By 10 000 years ago agricultural activities started and only 5000 years ago we invented the script.

All these milestones in our evolution could only have been possible with the coming of speech to our tribe – the Homo Sapiens.

Why?

If the timing of our voice production could be pinned to a particular era, there remained the why of it? What was the motivation to do it?

The experts are suggesting three possible theories, and finally they feel it was an interplay of these three factors that gave the necessary impulse to make the great leap forward.

Charles Darwin had proposed the musical Protolanguage formula, just as many animals found a greater advantage if they could impress their mate by producing more sophisticated guttural noise for sexual attraction. Many modern experts are dubious about that proposition though they agree that the power to produce more coordinated sounds to rally other mates together, to frighten the predators or opponents away would be a more acceptable theory. Later that would become more melodious, and that’s where singing, predating language by thousands of years, became more popular. As our ancestors became more sensitive, did they vocalize out a string of sounds to pacify their weeping babies?

As they went to hunt or fight their enemies, they discovered that some sounds could become meaningful to convey their ideas, fear or strategy in their fight for survival. Similar feelings would later be transmitted to younger generations, thereby imparting meaning to ideas and actions. Words and grunting sounds would assume more significance.

Another theory to unravel the mystery of speech is that of a gestural protolanguage whereby our ancestors started using bodily expressions to start conveying some meaning to actual happenings. Using the hands started to assume importance as they could express themselves, their frustrations and imminence of danger. Even today blind or near deaf modern beings still revert back to body movements to express themselves; so do patients who lose partly their speech through brain injury. But how did our ancestors express their abstract thinking by their hands? It’s difficult to accept that that could be the only source of our speech formation process.

The third theory suggests that mimicry played a potent factor inducing our ancestors to express their inner feelings. Imitating other mammals or birds to form a sort of chain reaction among groups of humans, to form a common bonding, to hunt, to fight, to scarce away the predators became popular in the savannah as our ancestors left the safety of the trees. By cooperating with others through a common sound and voice to produce known and familiar sounds brought those ancestors nearer. It made them feel safe, and created a sense of belonging. All that stimulated more internal endorphins and helped in a feel-good mood, binding the tribe further. And the more mimicry and singing, the more vocalizations took place to produce a safety belt.

So, the present concept agreeable to most experts is that all those singing, gestural and mimicry protolanguages went hand in hand, each developing at its own pace, concurrently, simultaneously or overlapping with each other to stimulate our ancestors in finding meaning in their vocalization. As they used their hands to impress their feelings and intentions, and mimicked other animals to convey those meanings and went into a chorus form of slightly melodious singing, they discovered a new means of communication. And during the hundreds of thousands of years they perfected their voices and their lexicon, they came up with a language that helped the tribe towards further cohesion, safety and comfort, lending support to the finding that both speech and music do overlap in the active brain region they light up on modern investigations.

Thus the present theories seem to have explained not only the origin of language but also of music.

No wonder we still find the potent meaning of language in our modern world, where there are some 7000 dialects. It has become synonymous to racial, linguistic, and ethnic groups. Offending the language of an individual is equivalent to offending his tribe and his raison d’être.

Soon in many stadiums across our island we will hear the Mauritian tribe giving vent to their voice through songs, patriotic renditions and music – to encourage their teams to face the “danger” from the opponents, to try to fly higher and reach the highest podium, to tell to the others of their superiority in the games. The other opponents will do the same.

But there is nothing new under the sun. Our fantastic story had begun in the African jungle hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Still, the war cry is out “Alé Moris”.


* Published in print edition on 19 July 2019

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