The Miracle Of Language — The Greatest Human Invention

January 16, 2023 at 9:30 p.m.


The use of language is one of the key characteristics that distinguish Homo sapiens (that’s our genus and species) from other primates. Because no direct evidence exists in the fossil record, researchers have a difficult time inferring its development.  

Fortunately, however, the evolutionary history of the human brain and throat offers some insight. The human brain plays a vital role in the production and comprehension of language and the emergence of language capabilities are reflected in changes to the brain’s structure.  

The fossil record can help, and even though brain tissue doesn’t fossilize, surviving crania can be used to make endocasts that reveal the shape of the brain that the cranium being cast once held. Because studies of modern human brains have identified the areas where speech production and language comprehension take place, researchers using endocasts can trace the development of these areas over time.  

Differences observed in the throat anatomies of modern humans and primates have also aided researchers in making inferences about the development of language capabilities. The larynx (the area of the throat containing the vocal chords), for example, occupies a lower position than it does in the throats of other primates.  

This arrangement makes possible the large human pharynx which produces the relatively wide variety of sounds used in human speech. (The pharynx is the muscular cavity behind the nasal cavities, mouth and larynx.) There is strong disadvantage to this arrangement: a greatly increased risk of choking while eating and drinking. (I wrote about this problem in an earlier column.) Another important indicator is the hyoid, a small throat bone only rarely preserved in the fossil record.

The discovery of a Neandertal hyoid bone in Israel has led some researchers to conclude, because of its humanlike appearance, that Neandertals were capable of human speech.  Although the origin of language will always be debatable because the evidence is scarce, most agree that by the late Paleolithic, humans possessed a full range of language capabilities. Otherwise, early humans would not have been able to pass on the complex knowledge required to make their increasing sophisticated tools.

There is a unique, wide-ranging story of the evolutionary history of language as a human invention – from the emergence of our species to the more than 7,000 languages spoken today. Their complexity and range was invented by our species, later developing into local variants, each new linguistic community altering language to fit its own culture. To be sure, the first languages were also constrained by human neurophysiology and the human vocal apparatus. And all languages came about gradually. Language did not begin with gestures, nor with singing, nor with imitations of animal sounds.

Languages began via culturally invented symbols. Humans ordered these initial symbols and formed larger symbols from them. At the same time, symbols were accompanied by gestures and pitch modulation of the voice: intonation. Gestures and intonation function together and separately to draw attention to, to render more salient perceptually, some of the symbols in an utterance – the most newsworthy for the hearer. This system of symbols, ordering, gestures and intonation emerged synergistically, each component adding something that led to something more intricate, more effective. No single one of these components was part of language until they all were – the whole giving purpose to the parts – as far back as nearly 2 million years ago.

Some people think that the main differences between humans other animal species is our ability of complex reasoning, our use of complex language, our ability to solve difficult problems and introspection (this means describing your own thoughts and feelings). Others also feel that the ability for creativity or the feeling of joy or sorrow is uniquely human. Humans have a highly developed brain that allows us to do many of these things. But are these things uniquely human? First, let’s get into the fuzzy part of that question.

All languages on earth trace their underdetermined, socially bonding, grammar-constrained, meaning-motivated expressions of thought back to early hominins, to Homo erectus and perhaps even earlier. Based on the evidence of Homo erectus culture, such as their tools, houses, village spatial organisation and ocean travel to imagined lands beyond the horizon, the genus Homo has been talking for some 60,000 generations – quite possibly more than one and a half million years. By now one would expect our species, after more than a thousand thousand years of practice, to be very good at language. And we would also expect the languages we have all developed over time to better fit our culture.

Final Thoughts

According to Daniel Everett, in his book “How Language Began,” “Language was culturally invented and shaped and made possible by our large, dense brains. This combination of brain and culture explains why only humans have ever been able to talk. Talk may be the greatest human invention.”

In Guy Deutscher’s new book “The Unfolding of Language,” he claimed that compared to language, all other inventions pale in significance, since everything we have ever achieved depends on language and originates from it. Without language, we could never have embarked on our ascent to unparalleled power over all, and even over nature itself.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected].  



The use of language is one of the key characteristics that distinguish Homo sapiens (that’s our genus and species) from other primates. Because no direct evidence exists in the fossil record, researchers have a difficult time inferring its development.  

Fortunately, however, the evolutionary history of the human brain and throat offers some insight. The human brain plays a vital role in the production and comprehension of language and the emergence of language capabilities are reflected in changes to the brain’s structure.  

The fossil record can help, and even though brain tissue doesn’t fossilize, surviving crania can be used to make endocasts that reveal the shape of the brain that the cranium being cast once held. Because studies of modern human brains have identified the areas where speech production and language comprehension take place, researchers using endocasts can trace the development of these areas over time.  

Differences observed in the throat anatomies of modern humans and primates have also aided researchers in making inferences about the development of language capabilities. The larynx (the area of the throat containing the vocal chords), for example, occupies a lower position than it does in the throats of other primates.  

This arrangement makes possible the large human pharynx which produces the relatively wide variety of sounds used in human speech. (The pharynx is the muscular cavity behind the nasal cavities, mouth and larynx.) There is strong disadvantage to this arrangement: a greatly increased risk of choking while eating and drinking. (I wrote about this problem in an earlier column.) Another important indicator is the hyoid, a small throat bone only rarely preserved in the fossil record.

The discovery of a Neandertal hyoid bone in Israel has led some researchers to conclude, because of its humanlike appearance, that Neandertals were capable of human speech.  Although the origin of language will always be debatable because the evidence is scarce, most agree that by the late Paleolithic, humans possessed a full range of language capabilities. Otherwise, early humans would not have been able to pass on the complex knowledge required to make their increasing sophisticated tools.

There is a unique, wide-ranging story of the evolutionary history of language as a human invention – from the emergence of our species to the more than 7,000 languages spoken today. Their complexity and range was invented by our species, later developing into local variants, each new linguistic community altering language to fit its own culture. To be sure, the first languages were also constrained by human neurophysiology and the human vocal apparatus. And all languages came about gradually. Language did not begin with gestures, nor with singing, nor with imitations of animal sounds.

Languages began via culturally invented symbols. Humans ordered these initial symbols and formed larger symbols from them. At the same time, symbols were accompanied by gestures and pitch modulation of the voice: intonation. Gestures and intonation function together and separately to draw attention to, to render more salient perceptually, some of the symbols in an utterance – the most newsworthy for the hearer. This system of symbols, ordering, gestures and intonation emerged synergistically, each component adding something that led to something more intricate, more effective. No single one of these components was part of language until they all were – the whole giving purpose to the parts – as far back as nearly 2 million years ago.

Some people think that the main differences between humans other animal species is our ability of complex reasoning, our use of complex language, our ability to solve difficult problems and introspection (this means describing your own thoughts and feelings). Others also feel that the ability for creativity or the feeling of joy or sorrow is uniquely human. Humans have a highly developed brain that allows us to do many of these things. But are these things uniquely human? First, let’s get into the fuzzy part of that question.

All languages on earth trace their underdetermined, socially bonding, grammar-constrained, meaning-motivated expressions of thought back to early hominins, to Homo erectus and perhaps even earlier. Based on the evidence of Homo erectus culture, such as their tools, houses, village spatial organisation and ocean travel to imagined lands beyond the horizon, the genus Homo has been talking for some 60,000 generations – quite possibly more than one and a half million years. By now one would expect our species, after more than a thousand thousand years of practice, to be very good at language. And we would also expect the languages we have all developed over time to better fit our culture.

Final Thoughts

According to Daniel Everett, in his book “How Language Began,” “Language was culturally invented and shaped and made possible by our large, dense brains. This combination of brain and culture explains why only humans have ever been able to talk. Talk may be the greatest human invention.”

In Guy Deutscher’s new book “The Unfolding of Language,” he claimed that compared to language, all other inventions pale in significance, since everything we have ever achieved depends on language and originates from it. Without language, we could never have embarked on our ascent to unparalleled power over all, and even over nature itself.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected].  



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