Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Say what?

I heard this theory years ago and it’s stuck with me ever since. I’ve tried to track down the source online with little luck so if anyone out there is familiar with it please do let me know in the comments section. Save that, the search will continue.

How and why did we first start communicating verbally? Many theories abound, but the one I’ve heard that pleases me most (and seems most plausible) goes something like this…

As we continued to evolve and become less like apes two very important things happened that led to the development of speech. First, we came down from the trees. Second, we started to lose hair.

How did these two seemingly disparate evolutionary developments contribute to what we now call speech? It’s important to keep a few things in mind when arriving at the answer (or theory). An ape on the ground is decidedly more vulnerable than one in a tree, even a somewhat evolved ape. And many of those apes were mothers tending to babies. Those babies would, in the past, cling to their mom’s furry coats and enjoy the ride. With the increasing loss of hair that free ride became more and more difficult. Returning to the safety of the trees wasn’t in the evolutionary playbook so those babies eventually had let go and start walking. While mom was certainly interested in exploring and foraging for food, she was first and foremost a mother and as such her mind was never far from her baby’s safety.

But how to keep tabs on junior? Well, some argue that this very problem, or rather the solution to it, is the basis for human speech. What if mom made a grunt every minute or two and junior made a grunt in reply? That first call-and-response could very well have been the first conversation. Sure, very little was communicated in that first series of grunts – are you there? yes mum- but it was only the beginning. It’s not hard to imagine that soon a high-pitched grunt meant danger or a low growl meant I found some of those delicious green leaves we all love so much so come over here and enjoy.

And here we are many, many spoken words later. And yet it sometimes feels like when you are trying to say something very important to someone who means so very much you’re right back there on the forest floor, grunting.

It’s a theory, but I thought it interesting enough to share.

Go have a conversation with someone.

1 comment:

Care said...

Great read! now I can't stop thinking about ape noises and tones translating to types of words! :)

low and soft... "quiet".
loud yelling... "get me a beer!"