When was conversation invented? – Albert R., 12, Florida
The truth is, no one knows for sure when speaking was “invented”. It is a great mystery. But like a language scientist for 15 years, I can give you our best estimate of when people started talking to each other using language, and how we think it started.
Human language and how long it has existed
Talking is an activity specific to Homo sapiens, our species. In every culture where most people can hear, people speak with the spoken language. And in groups where a lot of people are deaf – like in certain villages where many people are born deaf for genetic reasons – or in deaf communities around the world, people speak with their hands, using sign languages. There are many different sign languagesjust as there are many different spoken languages.
Birds sing songs. Dogs bark, and cats meow. But these forms of communication are simple compared to human language. An animal can make 10 different sounds, for example, but an adult human knows over 20,000 words. Moreover, we are the single animal that expresses thoughts in complete sentences. Because language is unique to humans and so unlike anything in the animal kingdom, researchers don’t really think language was invented; instead, we think it evolved during the evolution of human beings from other apes.
So to know when the conversation started, you have to go back to when humans first evolved. Scientists think that humans as we know them today are probably evolved about 300,000 years ago. Some of our evolutionary ancestors like homo erectus and cousins like Neanderthals may have had the tongue toobut researchers don’t know for sure.
What’s amazing is that for most of this time, all people have done with language is talk; there was no reading or writing until about 5,000 years ago, which is recent compared to the lifespan of modern humans. For almost all the time that humans have existed on planet Earth, no one has read a book or a sign, or written down their name.
People started writing things so they can track the accounts. For example, if Farmer Joe owed Farmer Jill three sheep, then they would draw a picture of a sheep and write three marks. Eventually, those little pictures turned into hieroglyphs and then into the letters we use today to write all kinds of things like shopping lists, poems, and stories.
Where is the conversation coming from
Another question you might ask yourself is where the talking comes from. Before people used language, how did they communicate with each other? Did they just make sounds at each other like animals do? The truth is, we don’t know the answer here either. But there are two main theories.
The first theory is that language started with people making different sounds, mostly mimicking things around them, like animal cries, nature sounds, and tool sounds. Eventually, they started using these sounds to talk to each other. They can make the sound of the wind blowing to talk about the weather or imitate the sound of a bird to tell a friend there is a bird nearby. Then, over hundreds of thousands of years, those sounds turned into words that people began to learn as part of their language. At some point, people started stringing words together to form sentences.
The other main theory, which is a more recent idea, is that people started out by gesturing – pointing at things with their hands, imitating actions using their bodies, and making funny faces. Eventually, these gestures turned into a complete sign language. This process continues today in villages where many people are deaf. If a lot of deaf people who don’t know a sign language get together, they will spontaneously invent one a few years from now.
This theory assumes that after developing sign languages, people eventually started making sounds with their gestures. At some point, they started producing mostly sounds that became words instead of just using their bodies. The reason they switched to making sounds, the theory goes, is that speaking out loud lets you communicate with someone even when you can’t see them.
Big questions like this allow us all to explore what it means to be human beings. Only humans have language, and so understanding where language comes from is a way to understand where we come from too.
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