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Roman Cieciak

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Evolution of human language started with singing


Watching this speech by Martin Serano it struck me that following his logic of language as sexual adaptation we might have started talking with a love song. Then with each generation the song grew in complexity as the result of mating competition. With time the commmon components solidified into structured form of primitive language.

Are there some scientists, who considered such path of language evolution?

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    Jan 9 2014: It started with onomatopoeia.
    • Jan 10 2014: So maybe the singing part was how we transitioned from "Uh-ah" to "It started with onomatopoeia."?

      Mimicing sounds of nature explains the phonetic part of our language and to some extent morphemic, but singing requires melody and structure and it can be the way those onomatopoeic sounds got organized making for syntactic fundamentals.
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    Jan 10 2014: If language evolved from singing songs, then why so many people couldn't sing well but could speak well and write well in their language? Do you think all the literators who contributes most to the development of languages should be good at singing?

    And I think onomatopoeia is kinda sound but not a language. The real human language should be able to establish some connections between each others to communicate their thinkings and ideas to solve problems or exchange things to survive in the world. I think when people learned successfully how to survive, some of them became artists and started to sing to express their happiness. This suits the priorities of human's five basic needs.
    • Jan 10 2014: Speech has its own melody, we call it intonation, but principally its equivalent to musical modulation, so speaking can be seen as a form of singing also. Writing in itself, especially print, slows or even halts language developement. Cultures that did not develop writing change their language more dynamically and fluidly.

      Onomatopoeia is not language per se, but it was a form of communication that given time evolved into one.

      Also by singing I don't mean Regina Spector singin, but more like songbird singing, as we are talking about primitive humanoids. Music as an art very probably started as an expression of joy, you're right and as a part of the culture it influenced language and vice versa.

      What do you mean Maslov's hierachy of needs?
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        Jan 10 2014: I didn't mean speech, just normally speaking, you can find many people in life can speak well but can't sing a melody. If you say people's language is kinda modulation, so it belongs to a certain form of singing,then I don't agree with it. I think speaking is speaking, singing is singing, but I think of the idea that people's language may came from the surrounding music(nature sounds). They got their enlightened moments from these sounds and then invented their own. And obviously, if people sing, they need more energy than when they speak. If they were starved, how could they have the energy and desire to sing?They must find a way to communicate and get together to get food and keep warm, then they became to consider propagations to develop their realm. I don't know about rat, but I know Most of humans consider survival prior to having relationship and family. But there're still exceptions who would die for love first. I think it's the minority. And why would people have to sing to get love? I think in ancient time, people could show their strong body and superb capability of working or fighting to get their beloved ones' attention and love. If one sang out of tune, it would be an disadvantage for him/her to get love, instead he/she could just spoke to her/him with their language or body language or gave something like flowers or foods----something more practical and effective. But if someone could sing well that could be a plus, which is another case to say singing may come from speaking too.

        So I think if you say human's language came from the nature music, I will think it's fair enough.
  • Jan 8 2014: Singing as a sexual adaptation would be an evolutionary edge, but so would rudimentary language. Being able to coordinate even the most basis things among individuals ("I attack from the front, you from the back", for example is highly beneficial, but requires language so rudimentary even some animals are capable of it).

    In short, singing developing language is a possibility, but its not necessary to explain the evolution of language. Therefore, Occam's razor states I get it out of the theory until I have proof saying otherwise.
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      Jan 9 2014: There's always some kind of rudimentary language with obvious evolutionary benefits. I think the question here is whether our human vocal language, with its many peculiarities, could be what it is without the fundations laid by courtship singing.
      When I watch how babies learn to talk, they clearly learn to sing first, mastering breath intake and the ability to hold long notes. They sound nothing like other apes. Vocal languages of other apes are a lot more grunt-like. Chimps clearly lack control of their breathing, and mostly breathe in and out while emiting sounds. As soon as you make a series of sounds out of a single breath, you immediately sound human.
      If this was advantageous by itself, you'd expect other primates to have caught up with it. But they didn't, and communicate fine with body language, grunts and shrieks.
      Serenading might have been sexually selected for its own sake. And then both talking and singing co-evolved to give us broadway musicals.
      • Jan 9 2014: The more controlled breathing could be the result of an evolutionary advantage to those who could make more sounds--a larger vocabulary allows you to convey more ideas with greater precision (the difference between "food that a way" to "food that a way, half a day's walk, bring a spear, you'll need it").
        This of course assumes one had the brain to make use the more complex language before the more controlled breathing. However, seeing as animals can be trained to understand some aspects of human speech they themselves can't mimic or make use of in their natural state, I'd say that particular capacity was there even in early humans, and even exists in certain animals. In other words, if I gave a chimp better control of his vocal cords and more agile tongue and lips, he'd know how to make at least partial use of them.

        As for other primates catching up, evolution doesn't work that way. A beneficial mutation is more statistically likely to catch, but that doesn't mean a mutation is more likely to occur because its beneficial. Primates didn't catch up because the mutations giving them the opportunity didn't occur.
        Same reason I don't have night vision despite the fact that my ancestors in the African Savannah would have found it very handy, especially when many of the animals around them could be better in the dark.
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          Jan 10 2014: Singing requires breath control, most singing mammals are aquatic, coincidently.
          Communication doesnt. It benefits from it, but doesn't require it. Why vocal, by the way, why not sign language? What about a thousand different shrieks for a thousand different kinds of trees, fruits, warnings or whatever?
          It just seems more far fetched to me not to include singing. I also believe our branch of homidids were divers, at some point... for other reasons as well.
    • Jan 9 2014: I myself would point the Occams razor as the argument in the other direction, as in the original formulation it states and I paraphrase "do not multiply entities beyond necessity", therefore claiming singular behavior as the origin of language, has less probabilistic entropy then more general claim about rudimentary language.

      Linguistic behavior conveying things like "I attack from the front..." is still more complex (=less probable) than "I'm cool, let's mate". Finding food is crucially important, but sex is the strongest psychological drive. Studies show that rats prefer sexual stimulation to food.
      • Jan 9 2014: Talking about Occam's razor, note that you've thrown in an extra assumption without meaning to. You assume primitive humans would have found singing to be sexually attractive. I assume no such thing in my theory that they simply used their developing rudimentary language for more straight forward survival (I suppose you could call that an assumption as well, but seeing as other animals do it, its got more empirical backing).

        It hardly disproves the singing theory, but the straightforward edge in cooperation and survival is still the simpler of the two theories.
        • Jan 10 2014: Occam's razor doesn't seem to be very important if we try to pinpoint the single evolutionary event as the root cause of language emergance and after some consideration I must say that in fact it favours your claim that 'it started as a vocal behavior with some benefitial purpose" as, being more general, it requires less information to validate. But as a hypothesis it doesn't exclude too many possibilities and is hard to disprove, which make it not so good of a hypothesis.

          Modern humans find singing attractive in one way or another, so it is plausible that our ancestors would find it attractive too. As Pat Gilbert says in a comment above it started with onomatopoeia and mimicing songbirds can be seen even today in tribal societies of Amazonia. For hunting puroses, supporting your thesis not mine, but it's arguably some form of singing.
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    Jan 8 2014: That's a good idea.I don't know if it's necessary to start talking by singing a LOVE song to others. But I do agree that singing songs is very good for language learning and cultivating people's happy disposition.

    When I was young, I learned a lot of songs with lyrics. So when I enjoyed singing these songs, I also practiced my memory to remember all the lyrics. Even today, I like singing very much. That helped me to keep a good memory during my growth. Even now I still remember and can sing the songs in my childhood.

    And I can't imagine a person embracing hatred when he is singing songs to others in our real life. And the fact is when you sing, you'll always be able to forget some of your pains or troubles, which helps you to take them out to keep you mentally healthy. The problem is many people has already been hurt heavily by the curel reality so that they lost the passion to sing songs. I have also heard that some people with a stammer can also be cured by singing songs.

    So I am with the idea that using songs to learn languages is welcome.
    • Jan 8 2014: I couldn't agree more. Singing is a very important and useful skill as it helps connect language content with emotion and emotion is very helpful with memory. Music in general is useful for learning.

      Unfortunately you're missing the point, my focus here is the evolutionary role of singing in the emergence of speech. If it was true it would tell us how deeply rooted melody of vocal behavior is and why it is so important.
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        Jan 9 2014: Sorry for my missing the point of your topic, after I cleared my head, I realized it's the question about what's the first for human to learn, singing songs or speaking their language. I still think it's a very good question because it let me think about what I never thought about. I can't open the link you attached and I'm not a sicentist but I 'd like to express my view based on my interest. Thank you.

        I think regarding how babies learn languages, I don't think human's language evloved from singing songs. The first word they can speak probably is "mama"or "papa", so it's nothing to do with the mating of other inferior animals.I think humans should learn how to communicate their basic food needs and a way to get everybody's power to survive first in the nature. I never heard that a baby could sing songs before it could speak. And we often say that we learn singing songs. So I think maybe singing songs evolved from the language and the social cultural development.
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    Jan 8 2014: Yes, Darwin did!