Inquiring into language’s origins can seem like a quixotic adventure, but it does bump you into the heart of the classical humanist question of what makes a human human. Two issues in particular stand out:
- How much of language is cultural and how much inborn? This is a variant on the widespread dispute about nature or nurture, but it provides a specific focus. It does not seem unreasonable to think the question might have an answer.
- Why is language so different from other animal communications? Animal signals are nothing like sentences, either in semantics, syntax, or vocabulary. Other animals do not discuss topics together. They do not construct a body of lore that can be useful at some later date. They cannot call the dead to mind by the simple expedient of speaking a name. Yet, how can we square the differences being so great with the Darwinian premise that species do not evolve powers they do not need to survive? A prey animal needs to evolve the ability to outrun its predators by only a little bit. No need to run at 100 miles per hour when the fastest predator can only go 50.