It’s probably not something you’ve thought about very much. Not many people do. It’s just something we take for granted. We humans can talk, other animals can’t, and that’s just the way it is. Right?
Well, maybe — but you have to admit it is pretty weird. With well over a million different species on our planet — scientists say there may be more than eight million — it’s kind of odd that we’re the only ones who can talk. What were the chances of that? Not only that, we’re spoilt for choice: there are over 6,000 languages spoken round the world. You’d think at least some other animals would’ve learnt the trick.
But wait — other animals can talk, I hear you say. They can communicate with others quite well — just in their own way. They show their feelings with sound, smell, attitude and colour — even electricity. They can warn each other of danger, threaten a rival, find a mate, even teach their children how to do things. Dogs are pretty good at showing us what they want, after all — and you probably feel they can understand you, too.
And that’s all true — some of the time, anyway. But can they really talk? Just think for a moment about what language lets us do. Simply by making a few noises with my mouth, even at the end of a phone where you can’t see me, I can put a thought into your head. If I say I’ll meet you on Wednesday next week at four o’clock in Trafalgar Square, next to the lions, you’ll know exactly what I mean — even if you have to check on Google for directions.
No other animal can do that — or even begin to understand what that means. Animal communication is like using emoji — it expresses a feeling, but not much else. Even if a bee can wiggle-dance in a way that gives its hive-mates a clue about where to go for food, they’re certainly not discussing the offside rule, or quantum physics. Only humans do that.
So why is that? It’s because language allows us to share ideas, and that makes all the difference. It’s the secret to almost everything that makes us human — anything from riding a bicycle, to making a vaccine, to flying a helicopter on Mars. So you’d think it’d be pretty important to know how we come to be able to do that, and why other animals can’t.
Which makes it all the more surprising that we’ve got absolutely no idea.
Seriously? Yes, seriously. It’s not just us regular folks who don’t know why your dog can’t talk — or any of the other animals we know, love or live with. Neither do the experts. According to Noam Chomsky, the man who more-or-less invented modern linguistics and spent a lifetime leading the field, the origin of language is officially “a mystery”.
So what do we know? Well, as things stand, the best we’ve got is an idea Professor Chomsky came up with over 60 years ago, which says that something must have happened in the brains of humans — and only humans — that allows us to speak. According to him, some kind of genetic mutation probably rewired the brain of one lucky individual about 60,000 years ago, and evolution took care of the rest.
That’s fine as an idea — it’s just that, well, there’s really no evidence to support it. At all. We still haven’t found any part of the brain dedicated solely to language, or anything in the human genome that looks like it might have caused it. We don’t even know how the neural connections inside our brains allow us to speak. So as theories go, that’s no more help than saying that God gave us language — not really much help at all.
But maybe there’s another way to look at it. Maybe what language needed to get started wasn’t a ‘cognitive revolution’, but something much more practical. Let’s think about what animals do when they communicate. Just as we do, they make noises that mean things — we know that animals as different as monkeys, birds and prairie dogs use different noises to warn of different predators, for example. Just like us, other animals can use sound as a way of conveying meaning.
The sounds we make when we talk are very different, though. We also use different noises to mean different things — every word we say has a unique meaning, after all — but our words aren’t just noises. They’re made up of smaller noises. These smaller sounds — the vowels and consonants of speech — are what linguists call phonemes. Each language has a unique set (English has 44, Japanese just 20) but because we’ve learnt to combine them, we can use them to make as many words as we want.
And that’s the big secret of language. Why? Well, animal sounds are simple, holistic noises that can’t be broken down into bits. In other words they’re analog — sounds that can vary in quality and intensity, but otherwise don’t change. A bark is a bark, a moo is a moo. The thing that makes human sounds different is that they are digital.
Digital, you say? Yes — digital. Just as with maths, in which ten simple digits — 0 to 9 — can be used to express any number you want, a small number of phonemes can combine, like digits, to make an endless number of words. You only need a handful. Languages with the smallest number have only three vowels and eight consonants, but in the space of just three syllables they can still generate as many words as the average person needs. And that’s the digital trick — it makes unlimited use of limited means.
Of course, language isn’t only about words. The most obviously complex thing about the way we speak, whether our own language or someone else’s, is grammar. And grammar is what linguists have spent most of their time studying. But in terms of how language began, that must have come later: without words there’s nothing for grammar to work with. The reason dogs — and other animals — can’t talk is that they don’t have words.
And that’s because they haven’t gone digital. Even Professor Chomsky now believes the heart of all grammar is nothing more than the ability to combine two words together to make a third meaning, a function he calls ‘Merge’. So all that’s really needed to understand why humans can talk and other animals can’t is to explain how we come to have so many words — and the key to that is the simple switch from analog to digital.
But if that’s the explanation, how come other animals aren’t doing it? Why would only humans have learnt to do something so obviously useful? To answer that, we need to understand the consequences of being able to talk. Because language isn’t just something that’s useful to a lucky individual, like an extra finger — or even colour vision. Language helps everyone in our community, because it links up our minds.
Which means that language is a tipping point in evolution. Without it, we’d still be working out everything on our own, like almost every other animal. With it, we can learn from from the experience of our family, our tribe, even our entire species — anyone we can talk to, in fact. That’s a completely transformational change: it turbocharges our collective brainpower. And that’s the real story of our journey with language: because it allows us to share knowledge, all of us can learn from the best ideas of a just a few — a viral process that can rapidly go exponential.
So if the switch from analog to digital was just a natural step in using sound to communicate, there’s hope for dogs yet. But maybe they shouldn’t be in a too much of a rush. Most of the trouble humans get into involves arguments over issues of culture, religion and identity — three deep rabbit-holes that language soon encourages us to dive into. For the true history of our species is the epic struggle to free ourselves from these false gods — one you can read all about in my new book SPEECH! How Language Made Us Human. Available now in all branches of the Brazilian rainforest…
For a more detailed review of SPEECH! click here.
Simon Prentis is a veteran translator and interpreter of Japanese who has worked with languages and cultures in over fifty countries. His clients have ranged from national and academic institutions to international icons like Paul McCartney, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Zappa and Yoko Ono; he brings a wealth of experience to his intriguing account of the origin of language and its consequences. He has also produced the cool video short posted below, and you can watch a podcast with him here.