The Evolution of Language


Address for correspondence: Michael C. Corballis, Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.


Language, whether spoken or signed, can be viewed as a gestural system, evolving from the so-called mirror system in the primate brain. In nonhuman primates the gestural system is well developed for the productions and perception of manual action, especially transitive acts involving the grasping of objects. The emergence of bipedalism in the hominins freed the hands for the adaptation of the mirror system for intransitive acts for communication, initially through the miming of events. With the emergence of the genus Homo from some 2 million years ago, pressures for more complex communication and increased vocabulary size led to the conventionalization of gestures, the loss of iconic representation, and a gradual shift to vocal gestures replacing manual ones—although signed languages are still composed of manual and facial gestures. In parallel with the conventionalization of symbols, languages gained grammatical complexity, perhaps driven by the evolution of episodic memory and mental time travel, which involve combinations of familiar elements—Who did what to whom, when, where, and why? Language is thus adapted to allow us to share episodic structures, whether past, planned, or fictional, and so increase survival fitness.