News FocusEvolution of Language

Animal Communication Helps Reveal Roots of Language

Science  21 May 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5981, pp. 969-971
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5981.969

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Summary

Language leaves no traces in the archaeological record, and many researchers have been doubtful about how much animal communication could reveal about the unique features of human communication. That began to change in the 1990s, when linguists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, primatologists, and other scientists teamed up to test new hypotheses about how language arose. Since 1996, this interdisciplinary crowd has gathered every 2 years at Evolang, a meeting devoted to deciphering the evolutionary origins of language. Although some say the early Evolang gatherings suffered from too many hypotheses and too little testing, many think last month's meeting marks a turning point for the field. Participants flocked to hear a barrage of new data from animal and human studies. The new empiricism may help resolve one of the field's liveliest debates: whether the first human language consisted of gestures, similar to today's sign languages, or articulated speech. At the meeting, a new and unlikely seeming animal model for human language got star billing: songbirds. Their ability to learn and imitate their parents' melodious tunes has many parallels with the ability of human children to learn spoken language, researchers say.