Clues to language’s origins found in children’s chatter


It might not be obvious, but we can learn a lot from the process of an infant learning language - even their early babbling - because it is similar to how early humans learned language. George Thomas will talk about the origins of language Thursday night at the McMaster Innovation Park.

We can learn a lot about human history by listening to the babbles made by toddlers.

That’s because the process of children learning how to communicate is the closest we have to rewinding history back to a time before established language.

“Obviously we can’t reproduce a language as it once was thousands of years ago,” says George Thomas, a McMaster professor emeritus of linguistics, “but we can get some clues about the nature of language from the steps children take to learn it.”

From their first sounds through their first words, the process is a reproduction of the same evolutionary steps taken by early humans, and studying it is just one of the ways linguists shine light on the most likely origins of language.

It’s a topic Thomas will discuss Thursday evening as part of the first in a series of lectures called Language Matters.

Organized by the Department of Linguistics and Languages, the series will deal with the contributions of linguistics to understanding all the forms of communication in society.

Thomas says that although there are roughly 6,000 different languages in the world today, language can actually be considered something that unites us all.

“We now know that modern human beings left Africa between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. Those people brought us all the languages of the world,” says Thomas. “Both as human beings and as speakers of language, we all come from the same place.”

Thomas points to common traits, such as hierarchical grammar, that nearly all languages share.

“It’s not just a matter of threading one word after another, like beads on a string,” he says. “Everything carefully interlocks, and some things control other things in a sentence. That’s the earmark of human language.”

He says this could have only occurred after humans reached “a huge amount of intelligence.”

All of the world’s languages may ultimately be related, but Thomas says some of the most interesting dialects are those used by some of the globe’s most isolated tribes, found in places like the Amazon River basin and Papua New Guinea.

“There’s good reason for that; these languages haven’t been in contact with any other languages, so they haven’t been changed, they haven’t been touched by globalization.”

“On the Origin of Language”, the first in the Language Matters series of lectures, goes Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. at McMaster Innovation Park’s Atrium building, Room 1 C and D.