How humans evolved language

How humans evolved language

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Thanks to the field of linguistics we know much about the development of the 5,000 plus languages in existence today. We can describe their grammar and pronunciation and see how their spoken and written forms have changed over time. For example, we understand the origins of the Indo-European group of languages, which includes Norwegian, Hindi and English, and can trace them back to tribes in eastern Europe in about 3000 BC.

So, we have mapped out a great deal of the history of language, but there are still areas we know little about. Experts are beginning to look to the field of evolutionary biology to find out how the human species developed to be able to use language. So far, there are far more questions and half-theories than answers.


We know that human language is far more complex than that of even our nearest and most intelligent relatives like chimpanzees. We can express complex thoughts, convey subtle emotions and communicate about abstract concepts such as past and future. And we do this following a set of structural rules, known as grammar. Do only humans use an innate system of rules to govern the order of words? Perhaps not, as some research may suggest dolphins share this capability because they are able to recognise when these rules are broken.


If we want to know where our capability for complex language came from, we need to look at how our brains are different from other animals. This relates to more than just brain size; it is important what other things our brains can do and when and why they evolved that way. And for this there are very few physical clues; artefacts left by our ancestors don't tell us what speech they were capable of making. One thing we can see in the remains of early humans, however, is the development of the mouth, throat and tongue. By about 100,000 years ago, humans had evolved the ability to create complex sounds. Before that, evolutionary biologists can only guess whether or not early humans communicated using more basic sounds.


Another question is, what is it about human brains that allowed language to evolve in a way that it did not in other primates? At some point, our brains became able to make our mouths produce vowel and consonant sounds, and we developed the capacity to invent words to name things around us. These were the basic ingredients for complex language. The next change would have been to put those words into sentences, similar to the 'protolanguage' children use when they first learn to speak. No one knows if the next step – adding grammar to signal past, present and future, for example, or plurals and relative clauses – required a further development in the human brain or was simply a response to our increasingly civilised way of living together.

Between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, though, we start to see the evidence of early human civilisation, through cave paintings for example; no one knows the connection between this and language. Brains didn't suddenly get bigger, yet humans did become more complex and more intelligent. Was it using language that caused their brains to develop? Or did their more complex brains start producing language?


More questions lie in looking at the influence of genetics on brain and language development. Are there genes that mutated and gave us language ability? Researchers have found a gene mutation that occurred between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, which seems to have a connection with speaking and how our brains control our mouths and face. Monkeys have a similar gene, but it did not undergo this mutation. It's too early to say how much influence genes have on language, but one day the answers might be found in our DNA.

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Submitted by sabilaferisya on Sun, 05/05/2024 - 13:22


As far as I can tell, dolphins and monkeys have their own complexity with its own language that cannot entirely compared to the human language. From what I have read, dolphins communicate through sounds like clicks or whistles while monkeys use smells, touching, and visual messages. What makes them complex is that they have their own uniqueness of communication that can only be understood with their own species. Unlike human, these animals completely rely on sounds and touching while humans can communicate each other with sounds that have their own rules of structure such as grammar.

Submitted by jmajo on Fri, 15/12/2023 - 14:04


I think monkeys and dolphins do have complex language compared to other species of animals, but not as complex as the human language, althought and despite all the studies it might exist in that matter, I doubt we would be able to fully understand the language of those animals to affirm their language is less complex rather than more complex than ours.

Hi team, I've got a doubt, it is allowed to write the words "althought and despite" to express an alternative affirmation or they should be separate in different sentences.

Thanks for the lesson.
Great site!

Hello jmajo,

It's unusual to use the two words together like this but it's not impossible. They have slightly different meanings so you could put them together as a rhetorical device, I suppose.

If this is something you're planning to use then make sure you proofread it first - there are some errors in the paragraph.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by livguimaraes on Tue, 14/11/2023 - 12:53


Do you think monkeys and dolphins have complex language like humans do?
I believe in certain aspects we can say monkeys and dolphins have a complex language as well as humans, although the physical evolution doesn't give them the ability to articulate difficult thoughts as we do, they still can communicate and understand each other.

Actually, we don’t know what kind of thoughts other animals than humans may have . Maybe their  thoughts are of totally different kind than ours and that is why we cannot even imagine the meaning of other species' potential languages.

Submitted by chpsueey on Tue, 10/10/2023 - 18:02


In my opinion, the language of dolphins and monkeys is also complex, as it probably involves many biological procedures and structures and also evolved over time, but is surely not as much complex as all of the different human languages. Therefore I think that dolphins and monkeys communicate more on a trivial level (from our perspective), which consists of sharing basic needs and emotions but impulsive and not let's say 'well-thought through' and without being able to communicate what is being communicated, like meta-cognition.

Submitted by Mocosilla on Thu, 15/09/2022 - 06:22


Do you think monkeys and dolphins have complex language like humans do?

I think that the complex of language depends of the specie. Obviously we have the most complex of all, but when we talk about dolphins and monkeys I believe that complex is beneath human.

Submitted by meknini on Sat, 16/07/2022 - 03:28


I am not certain whether monkey and dolphin have languages for communication like humans but it's to my understanding they have ways to signal to each other and these signals could be through sounds and gestures. Over time I suppose with repetitions and hands down experiences they have learned to process that a specific sound or gesture would mean something just like they have learned to identify edible and inedible plants out of so many species in their habitat which I don't see as being directly taught but more through observations. Moreover, language develops over time and I'm not sure whether animals improve their language or add to their vocabulary. And, we use our language to better our lives by inventing whereby I feel they use theirs more for survival rather than for betterment of their community.

Submitted by jyoti Chaudhary on Thu, 02/06/2022 - 12:32


Do you think monkeys and dolphins have as complex language as humans do?

we are not compared to monkeys and dolphins' complexity with humans because human brains are different from theirs, both animals are intelligent and creative think like a human but not in the proper way.