Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited

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A guest post by W. Tecumseh Fitch, on the Occasion of Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday.


Darwin's "Origin of Species" (Darwin, 1859) made little mention of human evolution. This initial avoidance of human evolution was no oversight, but rather a carefully calculated move: Darwin was well aware of the widespread resistance his theory would meet from scientists, clergymen, and the lay public, and mention of human evolution might have generated insuperable opposition. But Darwin's many opponents quickly seized on the human mind, and language in particular, as a potent weapon in the battle against Darwin's new way of thinking. Alfred Wallace, whose independent discovery of the principle of natural selection spurred Darwin into finally publishing his long-developing "outline" of the theory in 1859, didn't help by arguing that natural selection was unable to explain the origins of the human mind. Although Wallace had reservations about all evolutionary approaches to the mind, human language provided the most powerful argument, due to the respectable position of linguistics and philology in Victorian science.

Darwin's most formidable foe on the linguistic front was Friederich Max Müller, professor of linguistics at Oxford University, a very well-known and well-respected scholar (Stam, 1976). In his "Lectures on the science of language," delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1861, and rapidly published thereafter (Müller, 1861), Müller launched a full frontal attack on Darwin and Darwinism, using his credentials in the "science of language" as a powerful bludgeon. Müller's position was uncomplicated: "language is the Rubicon which divides man from beast, and no animal will ever cross it … the science of language will yet enable us to withstand the extreme theories of the Darwinians, and to draw a hard and fast line between man and brute." For Müller, "Language" was the key feature distinguishing humans from all animals. Müller's arguments were seen by many as convincing: his student Noiré dubbed him "the Darwin of the mind" and considered Müller to be "the only equal, not to say superior, antagonist, who has entered the arena against Darwin" (p. 73,Noiré, 1917). Müller's argument about the unbridgeable, qualitative difference between human language and all forms of animal communication, combined with Wallace's opinions, provided arguments that Darwin by necessity took very seriously.

Thus, when Darwin finally broached the subject of human evolution in 1871, in his second great book "The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex," the need to provide a credible explanation of language evolution was a central concern. Darwin rose to the challenge: his "musical protolanguage" model represents a powerful marriage of comparative data, evolutionary insight, and a biological perspective on language. Darwin's view of language was ahead of its time, and his model and arguments remain surprisingly relevant to contemporary debates. He clearly adopted a "multicomponent" view of language, one that recognized the necessity of several distinct mechanisms to produce the complex product that we now call language, rather than privileging any one factor as the single "key" to Language in a monolithic sense. Among these several components, he presciently recognized the necessity for complex vocal learning, and recognized that this biological capacity, while unusual among mammals, is shared with many birds. The importance of vocal learning has often been forgotten, but also frequently reaffirmed by later scholars (Egnor & Hauser, 2004; Fitch, 2000; Janik & Slater, 1997; Marler, 1976; Nottebohm, 1976).

Darwin also adopted an empirical, data-driven approach to the problem at hand. In particular, Darwin exploited a wide comparative database, exploiting not just his knowledge of nonhuman primate behaviour, but also insights from many other vertebrates. Finally, and most characteristically, he resisted any special pleading about human evolution. He intended his model of human evolution to fit within, and remain consistent with, a broader theory of evolution that applies to beetles, flowers and birds. Unlike Wallace, who remained a human exceptionalist to his death (Wallace, 1905), Darwin aimed to uncover general principles, like sexual selection and shifts of function, to provide explanations of unusual or unique human traits. While gradualistic, his model does not assume any simple continuity of function between nonhuman primate calls and language, and he clearly recognized the uniqueness of language in our species. In many ways, then, Darwin's model of language evolution finds a natural place in the landscape of contemporary debate concerning language evolution, and it is surprising that his model has received relatively little detailed consideration in the modern literature (for exceptions see Donald, 1991; Fitch, 2006).

In this essay, I aim to redress this neglect by considering Darwin's model of language evolution in detail. After discussing Darwin's main points and arguments, I will briefly review additional data supporting Darwin's model that has appeared since his death. I will also discuss the issue of meaning, about which Darwin had too little to say, but which can be resolved by the addition of a hypothesis due to (Jespersen, 1922). My conclusion is that, suitably modified in the light of contemporary understanding, Darwin's model of language evolution, based on a "protolanguage" more musical than linguistic, provides one of the most convincing frameworks available for understanding language evolution. The timing of my writing, on the 150th anniversary of the Origin, and the 200th of Darwin's birth, is also appropriate for a revival of interest in Darwin's compelling and well-supported hypothesis.

Language as an "Instinct to Learn"

Chapter Two of the Descent of Man, entitled "Comparison of the mental powers of man and the lower animals" is one of the most remarkable in the entire Darwinian corpus, noteworthy for its concision and its breadth of argument, in considering the evolution of the human mind. The first half of the chapter lays the groundwork of modern research in comparative cognition, arguing that animals have emotions, attention, memory as well as many other mental traits in common with humans. However, Darwin's opponents, notably Müller, had already ceded the point that animals have memory, experience emotions, and so on. Language was the key issue, and one can imagine considerable anticipation of both pro- and anti-Darwinian readers as they turned to the section simply titled "Language".

In ten densely-argued pages, Darwin considers some theoretical preliminaries, and then lays out his theory of language evolution. The first stage involved a general increase in intelligence and complex mental abilities, and the second involves a sexually-selected attainment of the specific capacity for complex vocal control: singing. The third stage was the addition of meaning to the "songs" of the second stage, which was both driven by, and in turn fueled, further increases in intelligence.

Theoretically, Darwin makes a number of important observations. First, he recognizes the crucial distinction between the language faculty (the biological capacity which enables humans to acquire language) and particular languages (like Latin or English). The former capacity, which Darwin refers to as "an instinctive tendency to acquire an art" (p 56), is shared by all members of the human species. Darwin neatly bypasses the unproductive nature/nurture debate that has consumed so much scholarly energy by observing that language "is not a true instinct, as every language has to be learnt. It differs, however, from all ordinary arts, for man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children" (p 55). As ethologist Peter Marler has put it, language is not an instinct, but an "instinct to learn" whose expression entails that both biological and environmental preconditions be fulfilled. It is this "instinct to learn" for which an biological, evolutionary explanation must be sought: a thoroughly modern perspective.

Second, although he was well-aware of the peculiarities of the human vocal tract, Darwin argues that the human capacity for language must be sought in the brain, rather than the peripheral vocal tract. He acknowledges that "articulate speech" (by which he means vocalization augmented by controlled movement of the lips and tongue, p. 59) is "peculiar to man", but he denies that this mere power of articulation suffices to distinguish human language "for as every one knows, parrots can talk." Instead, Darwin states that it is not speech, but humans' "large power of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas" that is definitive of language, and that this capacity "obviously depends on the development of the mental faculties" (p. 54). By locating the language capacity in the human brain, Darwin's viewpoint is again thoroughly modern.

Finally, Darwin recognized the relevance to language evolution of birdsong, which he considered the "nearest analogy to language". Like humans, birds have fully instinctive calls, and an instinct to sing. But the songs themselves are learned. He recognized the parallel between infant babbling and songbird "subsong", and recognized the key fact that cultural transmission ensures the formation of regional dialects in both birdsong and speech. Finally, he recognizes that physiology is not enough for learned song: crows have a syrinx as complex as a nightingale's but use it only in unmusical croaking. All of these parallels have been amply confirmed, and further explored, by modern researchers (Doupe & Kuhl, 1999; Marler, 1970; Nottebohm, 1972, 1975).

Darwin's "Musical Protolanguage" Hypothesis

Darwin's model of the phylogenesis of the language faculty, like most models today, posits that different aspects of language were acquired sequentially, in a particular order, and under the influence of distinguishable selection pressures. The hypothetical systems characterized by each addition can be termed, following (Bickerton, 1990; Hewes, 1973) "protolanguages". Darwin's first hypothetical stage in the procession from an ape-like ancestor to modern humans was a greater development of proto-human cognition: "The mental powers in some early progenitor of man must have been more highly developed than in any existing ape, before even the most imperfect form of speech could have come into use" (p 57). He elsewhere suggests that both social and technological factors may have driven this increase in cognitive power.

Next, Darwin outlines the crucial second step: what I have dubbed "musical protolanguage" (Fitch, 2006). Having noted multiple similarities with birdsong, he argues that the evolution of a key aspect of spoken language, vocal imitation, was driven by sexual selection, and used largely "in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing". He suggests that this musical proto-language would have been used in both courtship and territoriality (as a "challenge to rivals"), as well as in the expression of emotions like love, jealousy, and triumph. Darwin concludes "from a widely-spread analogy" (amply documented with comparative data later in the book) that sexual selection played a crucial role driving this stage of language evolution, in particular suggesting that the capacity to imitate vocally evolved analogously in humans and songbirds.

The crucial remaining question is how emotionally-expressive musical proto-language made the transition to true meaningful language — how, in Humboldt's words, humans became "a singing creature, only associating thoughts with the tones" (p. 76von Humboldt, 1836). This leap, from non-propositional song to propositionally-meaningful speech, remains the greatest explanatory challenge for all musical protolanguage theories (cf. Mithen, 2005). Darwin, citing the previous writings of Müller and (Farrar, 1870), suggests that articulate language "owes its origins to the imitation and modification, aided by signs and gestures, of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man's own instinctive cries". Darwin thus embraces all three of the major leading theories of word origins of his contemporaries (cf. Fitch, in press). Once proto-humans had the capacity to imitate vocally, and to combine such signals with meanings, virtually any source of word forms and meanings would suffice, including onomatopoeia (an imitated roar for "lion", or "whoosh" for wind), and controlled imitation of human emotional vocalizations (mock laughter for "play" or "happiness"). The attachment of specific and flexible meanings to vocalizations required only that "some unusually wise ape-like animal should have thought of imitating the growl of a beast of prey … And this would have been a first step in the formation of a language".

Darwin does not suggest that the evolutionary process would stop with the initial acquisition of meaning. For "as the voice was used more and more, the vocal organs would have been strengthened and perfected". Additionally, language would have "reacted on the mind by enabling and encouraging it to carry on long trains of thought" which "can no more be carried on without the aid of words, whether spoken or silent, than a long calculation without the use of figures or algebra". Thus began the interactive evolutionary spiral that led to modern humans.

Signalling Modality: Vocalization or Gesture?

Darwin also explicitly acknowledged the role of gesture in conveying meaning, echoing Condillac's earlier arguments (Condillac, 1971 (1747)) and presaging contemporary discussions (Arbib, 2005; Corballis, 2003; Hewes, 1973; Stokoe, 1974; Tomasello & Call, 2007). Darwin was aware of the power of signed language: he reminds us that using his fingers "a person with practice can report to a deaf man every word of a speech rapidly delivered at a public meeting" (p 58). He also acknowledged the value of gesture in conveying meaning, and allowed that vocal communication would have been "aided by signs and gestures" (p. 56). Nevertheless, he argues against gestural theorists, because the pre-existence in all mammals of "vocal organs, constructed on the same general plan as ours" would lead any further development of communication to target the vocal organs rather than the fingers.

Darwin clearly believes that the power of speech is neural, not peripheral, citing the early aphasia literature as a demonstration of "the intimate connection between the brain, as it is now developed in us, and the faculty of speech". Comparing the vocal organs and brain, he concludes "that the development of the brain has no doubt been far more important". And although he uses a continuity argument to support the early and sustained role of speech, he firmly acknowledges the abrupt modern discontinuity in the linguistic system that has thus evolved. Thus, like many other insightful commentators (e.g., Donald, 1991; Hockett & Ascher, 1964), Darwin recognized that posing phylogenetic continuity and modern discontinuity as in any way opposed is to create a false dichotomy. The tree-like nature of phylogeny guarantees that both are core parts of the evolutionary process.

Darwin Redux: Modern Comparative Data

Summarizing, Darwin suggested that the first step on the road to human language was a general increase in intelligence in the hominid lineage. In a typically pluralistic fashion, he recognized both "social intelligence" ("Machiavellian intelligence" in the modern trope (Byrne & Whiten, 1988)) and technological/ecological intelligence (e.g. for tool use) as playing important selective roles. Given our modern understanding of hominid evolution, this first stage might be provisionally linked to the genus Australopithecus or perhaps early Homo (e.g. Homo habilis).

The second stage is the least intuitive: that before vocalizations were used meaningfully they were used, so to speak, aesthetically, to fulfil many of the same functions that modern humans use music today (courtship, bonding, territorial advertisement and defense, competitive displays, etc.). This idea that complex vocalizations (and thus some aspects of phonology and syntax) might have preceded the ability of speech to convey propositions and distinct meanings is the most challenging aspect of Darwin's model. But Darwin uses the comparative database, and particularly detailed analogy between learned bird song and human song and speech, to show that this step is not just plausible but well-documented: it has occurred in many other species. Indeed, modern data shows that vocal learning, without propositional meaning, has evolved independently in at least three other clades of mammals (cetaceans, pinnipeds and bats) and three clades of birds (parrots, hummingbirds and oscine songbirds) (Janik & Slater, 1997; Jarvis, 2004). Such convergent evolution, or repeated independent evolutionary developments of a comparable ability, provides our strongest empirical basis for estimating the likelihood of a particular type of evolutionary event (Harvey & Pagel, 1991). Many of the chapters in this book affirm, and extend, the observations of parallels between language learning and birdsong that Darwin offered in 1871. Thus, whether intuitive or not, Darwin's focus on, and hypothesis for, the evolution of vocal learning is consistent with a wealth of evolutionary and comparative data.

Difficulties with Darwin's Model: Evolving Phrasal Semantics

"How did man become, as Humboldt somewhere defined him, 'a singing creature, only associating thoughts with the tones'?" Otto Jespersen 1922 (p. 437)

Despite its many virtues, there remain some important problems with Darwin's model that have impeded its acceptance today. The first and most important is his explanation of the addition of meaning. Darwin's explanation, as typical for his day, was concerned only with word meanings (what today would be termed "lexical semantics"). But from the viewpoint of modern linguistics, his model seems wholly inadequate to deal with large swaths of semantics, particularly those aspects tied in with the interpretation of whole phrases and sentences ("phrasal semantics"). Modern formal semantics has developed rigorous models of this aspect of linguistic meaning (Dowty, Wall, & Peters, 1981; Guttenplan, 1986; Montague, 1974; Portner, 2005), and it is far more complex and difficult to explain than lexical semantics. Although one can hardly blame Darwin for not foreseeing these relatively recent developments in linguistics, they nonetheless raise substantial difficulties for his model. For much of the syntactic "glue" which binds sentences together into large, meaningful wholes (function words, inflection, bound morphemes, word order, and a host of others) cannot be understood as resulting from onamatopoeia or imitation of emotional expressions. Nor can they be readily understood as "inventions" of some uniquely intelligent individual: all evidence suggests that these indispensable linguistic tools develop reliably in individuals of normal intelligence (Bickerton, 1981; Kegl, 2002; Mufwene, 2001; Mühlhäusler, 1997; Senghas, Kita, & Özyürek, 2005). This key aspect of language thus seems to have a biological basis. Darwin does recognize the phenomenon today called "grammaticalization": he states that "conjugations, declensions, &c., originally existed as distinct words, since joined together" (p 61). But he offers no model for the origin of these distinct words, and it is hard to see how onamotopoeia or similar processes could have generated this original syntactic and semantic "glue". Thus, complex phrasal semantics remains unexplained by Darwin's model.

However, this oversight was remedied long ago by the linguist Otto Jespersen (Jespersen, 1922). Jespersen's basic insight involves recognizing the link, in humans, between musical and linguistic phrases, and working conceptually backward from there. Jespersen suggested a form of protolanguage in which, initially, whole propositional meanings attached to entire sung phrases, but where there was no consistent link between the individual conceptual components of the meaning, and component parts of the musical phrases (syllables and notes). Thus, there were no "words" as we now understand them. From this "holistic" starting point, Jespersen argued that a cognitive process of analysis started, which slowly isolated individual chunks of the musical phrase (syllables, or multi-syllabic "phraselets" — what today we call "words") and associated them with individual components of the meaning (e.g. nouns, verbs and adjectives, whose precursors were already present in the conceptual systems of our pre-linguistic ancestors).

Jespersen's hypothesis of a "holistic protolanguage" has recently been rediscovered and championed by linguist Alison Wray (Wray, 1998, 2000) and neuroscientist Michael Arbib (Arbib, 2005). Both cite considerable additional evidence supporting this "analytic" model, including data from modern adult language, child language acquisition, and cognitive neuroscience. Supporters of the more intuitive "synthetic" model of protolanguage, in which words evolved first followed by syntactic operations for combining them (e.g., Bickerton, 1990), have subjected holistic models to extensive criticisms (Bickerton, 2007; Tallerman, 2007, 2008). However, I argue that most of these critiques miss their mark if the notion of a musical protolanguage is accepted as a starting point (cf. Fitch, in press). Jespersen/Wray's model of holistic protolanguage thus dovetails nicely with the musical protolanguage hypothesis, in ways that I believe resolve many, if not all, of these criticisms (cf. Fitch, 2006; Mithen, 2005).

Sexual Selection:

A second problem with Darwin's model remains unresolved at present: his focus on sexual selection as the force driving the evolution of musical protolanguage. Appearing as it did as a few pages of an extensive tome introducing and then extensively documenting the very idea of sexual selection, this aspect of Darwin's theory has the virtue of explaining a core aspect of human evolution using a broad principle abundantly demonstrated in the evolution of other species. As throughout his work, Darwin eschewed "special pleading" for our own species. The central difficulty for this beautiful hypothesis is posed by two ugly facts about modern human language: it is equally developed in males and females, and is expressed very early in ontogeny, essentially at birth (Fitch, 2005a). These aspects of language differentiate it sharply from most sexually-selected traits, which are strongly biased to develop in the more competitive sex (typically males), and only at sexual maturity. If anything, human females have superior language skills when compared to men (Henton, 1992; Kimura, 1983; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974), and language is remarkable in its very early development, with at least some early tuning to phonology already occurring in utero before birth (DeCasper & Fifer, 1980; Mehler et al., 1988; Spence & Freeman, 1996).

There are several potential answers to the difficulty that these facts pose: one is to argue that during the musical protolanguage stage, sexual selection was the driving force, and song was (as in most bird species) expressed mainly in males at sexual maturity. Then, at a later stage (presumably during the evolution of meaningful language) some other selective force kicked in, so that language became equally (or better) expressed in females, and was pushed to develop early. A candidate selective force is kin communication: that selection for information transmission between parents and their offspring, or more generally between adults and their younger kin. I have suggested that kin selection drove this second stage of the evolution of propositional semantic content (Fitch, 2004, 2007). For an exploration and critique of this idea, see (Zawidzki, 2006). This kin-selection scenario neatly explains the early ontogenetic appearance of language in infants (the earlier offspring begin absorbing their elders' knowledge, the better), and its bias towards females (who are primary caregivers in all hominoids). The continued presence of meaningful speech in males is easily explained by the dual facts that immature males must also learn, and that, unusually in humans, adult males play an important role in child rearing (whether the father, or male siblings of the mother, is irrelevant to this fact). Finally, this kin-selection model has the virtue of explaining why language evolved in humans and not in other "musical" lineages. Humans combine an extended childhood, with ample time to acquire knowledge, with very small reproductive output. The fact that ape babies are born singly, and rarely, conspire to make the survival of each individual hominid infant a crucial component of reproductive success in the great ape lineage (cf. Fitch, 2007; Hrdy, 1999, 2004).

An alternative possibility is that sexual selection was, and remains, an important driving force in human cognitive evolution, including language (Miller, 2001), but that human pair-bonding has "changed the rules" in significant ways, so that both sexes are choosy, and both compete for high-quality mates. Some comparative data can be cited in support of this second option. Recent data shows that female bird song is not so uncommon as thought by Darwin, who considered female song to be a simple aberration (Langmore, 2000; Riebel, 2003; Ritchison, 1986). There is some evidence suggesting that sexual selection can indeed drive female bird song, though it seems clear that female song is a secondary derivation of male song in most lineages (Langmore, 1996). While these observations provide some support for the idea that the dual-sex expression of human language could result from sexual selection, it is important to recognize that female song still appears to be numerically speaking exceptional and that any model based on sexual selection will have difficulty explaining the extremely early development, and productive use, of language in human infants.

A final possibility is that sexual selection never played a role in the evolution of music or of language. The popular notion that music evolved for courtship (Miller, 2000, 2001) stands on a surprisingly weak empirical footing compared to a less obvious, but better-documented function of music: mother-infant communication (Trainor, 1996; Trehub, 2003a, 2003b). Mothers sing to their infants all over the world, even those who claim to be unable to sing (Street, Young, Tafuri, & Ilari, 2003), and infants both prefer song to speech, and respond to song in manifestly adaptive ways (e.g. engaging with and getting excited by play songs, and being lulled to sleep by lullabies (Trehub & Trainor, 1998). These observations suggest that music originally functioned in a childcare context, as it continues to do today. By this model, the use of music in bonding among adults is simply a side-effect of this central function, and its occasional use in courtship is a red herring (Dissanayake, 2000; Falk, 2004; Trehub & Trainor, 1998). This final possibility is clearly compatible with the kin-selection arguments advanced above, but here there would be no intervening stage of language evolution in which sexual selection ever played a dominating role. Even Darwin was occasionally wrong.

Terminological Niceties: Musical or Prosodic Protolanguage?

A final, less crucial difficulty with Darwin's model is terminological. Darwin himself seemed to conceive of his pre-semantic protolangage in terms directly comparable to modern day music (or at least he provides no indication that this is not the case). He concludes that "musical notes and rhythm" were present in this protolanguage, and that they were deployed "in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing." This is why I term his model "musical protolanguage". However, modern human music consists not just of song, but also instrumental music, so this appellation might immediately have connotations of drumming, whistling or flutes that are not, strictly speaking, relevant to language evolution. More pertinently, if we take the musical protolanguage model seriously, we must acknowledge that modern music may not necessarily preserve the state of this protolanguage precisely, and that both music and language have changed in the interim (cf. Brown, 2000). That is, Darwin's hypothetical communication system was proto-music, not music per se. Adopting the logic of comparative reconstruction, we can then ask which aspects of modern speech, and of song, are shared, and thereby reconstruct this system (Fitch, 2005b). The central shared aspects are prosodic and phonological: the use of a set of primitives (syllables) to produce larger, hierarchically-structured units (phrases) which are discretely distinctive. But two key "musical" aspects are not shared between speech and song: namely discrete-pitched notes, and temporal isochrony (a steady beat). I have used this comparison of modern speech and song to argue for a subtly different model from that of Darwin, which I termed "prosodic" rather than "musical" protolanguage, in which protolanguage consisted of sung syllables, but not of notes that could be arranged in a scale, nor produced with a steady rhythm (Fitch, 2006). This prosodic protolanguage model thus includes the "sung cadence" aspect of Darwin's model, while rejecting both his "notes" and "rhythm" (at least as normally construed). Both of these aspects of (most) modern song are, by hypothesis, more recent developments in music not present in protolanguage. I see this as an adjustment of Darwin's hypothesis, fully in keeping with its spirit. Furthermore, it is unclear from his writings whether Darwin would have disagreed with this adjustment.

A different reconstruction of the common ancestor of music and language, involving both discrete pitches and isochronic rhythm (as well as tone-based meaning) is given in (Brown, 2000). Brown also argues that his hypothetical protolanguage, which he dubs "musilanguage" could not have evolved by normal neo-Darwinian selection and thus demands a group selection explanation. This remains its clearest, and most dubious, distinction from what is otherwise just a rediscovery of Darwin's basic hypothesis (for critiques see Botha, 2008; Fitch, in press).


I have argued that Darwin's model for language evolution, "musical protolanguage," suitably updated, provides a compelling fit to both the phenomenology of modern music and language, and to a wealth of comparative data. By placing vocal control at the centre of his model, Darwin availed himself of the rich comparative database of other species who have independently evolved complex vocal imitation, and he thus explains two of the features of human language that set if off most sharply from nonhuman primate communication systems: vocal learning and cultural transmission. The biggest missing piece in Darwin's model, as I see it, is a reasonable explanation of phrasal semantics (and the aspects of syntax that go with it), but this gap was filled by Jespersen by 1922. Together, these hypotheses provide one of the leading models of language evolution available today (for an enthusiastic book-length exploration seeMithen, 2005), and one that has been repeatedly re-discovered by later scholars (e.g., Brown, 2000; Livingstone, 1973; Richman, 1993). While many aspects of what has now become a family of models remain to be explored empirically (the issues surrounding sexual, kin and group-selection remain particularly unclear), this is a model worthy of detailed consideration and elaboration today. Most importantly, Darwin's model makes numerous testable empirical predictions (for example about the partially overlapping nature of the brain mechanisms underlying music and spoken language, and their genetic basis) that can be answered in the coming decades.

This year of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday seems an opportune time for Darwin' own model of language evolution to regain the prominence it deserves.


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Above is a guest post by W. Tecumseh Fitch; it can also be found on his home page here.


  1. Nathan Myers said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

    What a fascinating and illuminating essay! A synthesis of the sexual selection and nurturing roles for proto-language might come from considering the role of neoteny in development of our modern form. That is to say, mating behaviors might be adopted neotenously from nurturing behaviors, and then be, there, further developed by the competition. (I hope this idea is already explored in the references.)

    I find it astonishing that the nurturing origin idea was explored so late: 1996?!

  2. Bryn LaFollette said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    What great read! I'm fascinated by the parallels that might be drawn from Jespersen's theories of whole-phrase units and the development of modern polysynthetic languages. Really fascinating stuff!

  3. dr pepper said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

    Darwin's view of language was ahead of its time, and his model and arguments remain surprisingly relevant

    Ok, there's the headline we were struggling with a few posts ago:

    Darwin: Ahead of His Time, Still Surprisingly Relevant.

    Well done!

  4. Stephen Jones said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 2:08 am

    There are problems to this. The obvious one is that language communication can work entirely independently of speech or sound.

    It is possible that we will never have the evidence to decide whether language developed through sound or gesture (and of course a mixed origin is perfectly feasible).

    The two main candidates for the evolution of language (and thus the increase in brain size) are sexual selection and 'pulling a fast one on your neighbour'. Both are consistent with either physical origin.

    [(myl) Please don't forget cutting up dead elephants, increasing the efficiency of social grooming (by re-inventing it as gossip), and making marriage contracts possible ! ]

  5. Chris Dyer said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 5:14 am

    When these discussions of musical/linguistic evolution come up, I'm always a little disappointed to see no one mentioning Rousseau, perhaps the first major modern thinker to seriously consider the relationship of music and language. Although he was writing almost a century before Darwin and his interests were different than ours today, he had lots of "quasi-evolutionary" ideas about music and language being unified in an earlier more "pure" version of man. (As an aside, he thought Italian preserved the unity better than French, making it a more appropriate language for opera.)

    [(myl) You can find his Essai sur l'origine des langues here. I haven't found an English translation on line, but a partly-visible Google Books version is here.]

  6. Marinus said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    As an analytic philosopher, if I was going to try and reproduce the step from a musical (or prosodic) proto-language to language proper, I would follow the lines laid down by David Lewis in his immensely influential book Convention (1969). In the fourth chapter Lewis develops an analysis of what he calls 'verbal signalling languages', which are set verbal signals of whatever kind which by conventional arrangement entail the communication of some proposition from one party to another. Lewis then moves from such verbal signalling languages to fully fledged languages in chapter five. By convention, he means some course of action within a state of affairs wherein party A expects B to do X in case Z, B expects A to expect X from B, A expects B to expect A to expect X from B, and so on as far as necessary that allows A and B to agree on some course of action where A does X, with something similar for action Y which is appropriate for B. When this convention amounts to a verbal signalling language, the expected course of action is whatever A would do when B communicates some proposition to A (Lewis's example is the sexton communicating the arrival of the Redcoats to Paul Revere by some arrangement of lanterns: the sexton is A, Paul Revere is B, hanging the lanterns is X and Revere announcing the arrival of the Redcoats is Y).

    A musical or prosodic proto-language can clearly function as a verbal signalling language: for instance, male A giving a mating song X communicates to B through the relevant set of expectations that some sexual advance is made, to which B responds with Y, that is, accepting or rejecting the advance as appropriate. From there it's straightforward, following Lewis's analysis, to arrive at fully fledged languages.

    This doesn't address any matters about the natural history or evolution of fully fledged languages, but it shows how one can move from a musical or prosodic proto-language to a fully fledged language, which is one of the problems the essay leaves open. A complete story of this leap prompts a discussion of the developement of language and of intentionality, but nothing turns on which came first or on which manner, and Darwin's theory requires no commitment either way. When there is intentionality of the sort which which allows the relevant type of expectations, then you can move from the proto-language to the fully fledged one. The evolution of the intentionality is a different matter, and needn't be addressed right away.

  7. Blake Stacey said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    The central difficulty for this beautiful hypothesis is posed by two ugly facts about modern human language: it is equally developed in males and females, and is expressed very early in ontogeny, essentially at birth (Fitch, 2005a).

    I wonder if part of the answer might depend on developmental biology, and in particular on how development sometimes puts constraints on sexual dimorphism. Selection pressure might change the allele frequencies among the male population, but those same genes end up in female children too; changes made in one side can show up on the other even if the resultant phenotypes of the second sex don't have spectacularly greater selective fitness. (Cf. male nipples.)

  8. Brandon said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    Second, although he was well-aware of the peculiarities of the human vocal tract, Darwin argues that the human capacity for language must be sought in the brain, rather than the peripheral vocal tract. He acknowledges that "articulate speech" (by which he means vocalization augmented by controlled movement of the lips and tongue, p. 59) is "peculiar to man", but he denies that this mere power of articulation suffices to distinguish human language "for as every one knows, parrots can talk."

    Or even sign language, since that has nothing to do with how precise our vocal tract is.

  9. Bill Walderman said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. This is the sort of thing that makes Language Log one of the most interesting sites on the Internet. I want to apologize for an intemperate comment I rashly posted in another thread a few days ago.

  10. Rick S said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    Stephen Jones: There are problems to this. The obvious one is that language communication can work entirely independently of speech or sound.

    I don't see that as a problem at all. Vocalization has an overwhelming advantage for survivability: Unlike any other mode of volitional communication, it requires neither proximity nor prior attention to be effective. When you see a predator, it does no good to silently wave your arms and point if your packmates aren't looking at you.

  11. Adam said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    Another comment from the philosophers' peanut gallery: Jespersen's hypothesis (as here described; not familiar with it myself) resonates with the propositions-first approach taken by Kant, Frege, and Brandom. Brandom in particular has a fairly detailed story to tell about how lexical items can be distinguished within a practice that at first contains only propositional items.

  12. James Wimberley said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

    The beautiful lullaby story has perhaps a problem with range. Mothers sing to babies and toddlers to soothe and to amuse them: not to persuade, instruct, complain, arouse, intercede, punish, or anything else they need to do in the relationship. On the other hand, adult music has social functions that don't occur in childcare: arousal for sex or fighting, and as a basis for dance. And how does mother-baby musicality get started?
    It does make men go soppy as well, so could play a part in the eternal female problem of getting men to stick around.

  13. Jim said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    Darwinism and evolution are not the same thing. There is no way that "gradualism" can explain the origin of language (or consciousness, or insect metamorphosis, and on-and-on). Check out

  14. Bryn LaFollette said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

    In all fairness, Mr. Jim, Darwinism inherintly entails evolution, and in fact this essay is laying out the argument for how in fact these phenomena are explained within a Darwinian framework. Perhaps you forgot to read the actual post, or just missed its point entirely.

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 4:36 am

    [(myl) Please don't forget cutting up dead elephants, increasing the efficiency of social grooming (by re-inventing it as gossip), and making marriage contracts possible ! ]

    Rather a blunder forgetting about social grooming. I've actually read the whole book and agree with much of it. There isn't any need for there to be a single factor. I think there's a general consensus that the evolutionary advantage was in respect to other members of the same species rather than giving the species an advantage over its competitors.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 4:43 am

    There is no way that "gradualism" can explain the origin of language (or consciousness, or insect metamorphosis, and on-and-on). Check out

    A meaningless statement unless you define what you mean by gradualism.

  17. John Cowan said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 4:45 am

    James Wimberley writes:

    Mothers sing to babies and toddlers to soothe and to amuse them: not to persuade, instruct, complain, arouse, intercede, punish, or anything else they need to do in the relationship.

    Not so, or at least not necessarily. When feeding my 7-month-old grandson this morning, I sang to him in order to entrain a rhythm of systematically eating the cereal I was spoon-feeding him, thus (to the tune of "Ten Little Indians"):

    Dorian, Dorian, eats his cereal [shlurp]
    Dorian, Dorian, likes his cereal [shlurp]
    Dorian, Dorian, loves his cereal [shlurp]
    That's what a Dorian does. [scrape up new cereal from the bowl, and da capo].

    That, I submit, performs several of the above actions: it persuades, instructs, and arouses.

  18. Aaron Davies said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    on a completely unrelated note, does anyone else find abbreviated-yet-utterly-transparent names interesting? mr. fitch's full name is inherently obvious, as was the name of someone going by "f. x. <last_name>" i ran across some time ago.

  19. Bill Benzon said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    I've made my own version of this argument in Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture and reprised it in my essay-review of Steven Mithen's The Singing Neanderthals, "Synch, Song, and Society." In brief, I argue that the nervous system itself is a rhythm machine and that group music-making serves to "smooth out" those rhythms and thereby reduce anxiety (chapter 4) and that anxiety reduction is itself adaptive (chapter 8). The interesting thing about this argument is that it locates music's positive effects in the operations of the nervous system itself, not in any one or two of the many behaviors mediated by the nervous system. Music makes for a more effective nervous system and thus it may indirectly affect a wide variety of behaviors (this is what I argue in chapter 8). That's the kind of argument I think we need to get us to language. If it's not music and anxiety, then it will turn out to be something else.

    Note that my essay-review also has some remarks about symbolization that seem consistent with the propositions-first position advanced above.

    John Cowan — great music game with your grandson.

  20. Nathan Myers said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    Whenever you catch someone saying "Darwinism" you know you've teased a creationist out of the woodwork. The rest of us say "natural selection" or "sexual selection".

    The linguistic equivalent to creationism must be "Babelism". I suppose philologists used to subscribe to something like that, but linguistics seems to have made most of the transition to science with little of the rancor that rocked biology. (I say "most of" because Chomsky still seems to hold some sway, sort of like embedded IDists.) The analogy is close but not precise, I suppose because philologists have always acknowledged (even if lamented) language change.

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 2:44 am

    I suppose philologists used to subscribe to something like that, but linguistics seems to have made most of the transition to science with little of the rancor that rocked biology. (I say "most of" because Chomsky still seems to hold some sway, sort of like embedded IDists.)

    Whenever I hear somebody talk about 'Chomsky' or 'Chomskyites', I presume a nutter with an axe to grind.

    At least Creationists let us know what the axe is.

  22. Language Log » Musical protolanguage: Darwin’s theory of language evolution revisited « The Haruspex said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:54 pm

    […] February 15, 2009 · No Comments Language Log » Musical protolanguage: Darwin’s theory of language evolution revisited. […]

  23. dr pepper said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 1:13 am

    My guess is that James Strickland is a velikovskyite.

  24. Henri Rahikainen said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    Awesome post. Got me right back to being hooked on Language Log again.

    The linguistic equivalent to creationism must be "Babelism"

    Creationism is to Intelligent Design what Babelism is to Edenics.

  25. mark said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    Nathan Myers wrote:

    The linguistic equivalent to creationism must be "Babelism". (…) Chomsky still seems to hold some sway, sort of like embedded IDists.

    On the topic of embedded IDism, what about "Grammar of the Gaps" as an analogue to God of the gaps?

  26. Aaron Davies said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    i can't find james strickling on this page at all, so either your comment got attached to the wrong post, or our host is showing his usual disregard for blog etiquette and rendering conversations incomprehensible by deleting comments without telling anyone.

    anyway, strickling is clearly a neo-velikovskian, of roughly the same sort as the guy who was going on about comets last month. most of them hang out at these days on the off chance you want to see more.

  27. Nathan Myers said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    Aaron: I have come to think of them as "catastrophism cultists". Like the (reputed — I haven't read him myself!) Hittite-denialism of Velikovsky, it's a kind of specialized hobby. Their distinguishing feature seems to be an insistence that received legends constitute primary evidence for hypothesized historical or near-historical events, rather than proposing known events as candidates for the inspiration of legends. Despite their ideological quirks, the "picture of the day" archives are often rather fun (the older ones moreso), as is their needling astronomers who claim to know more than the evidence, in fact, warrants.

    Stephen: What is the axe?

  28. How do biology and culture interact? « A Replicated Typo said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    […] ongoing academic battle between W. Tecumseh Fitch and Derek Bickerton over at the language log. The initial post by Fitch called for a greater recognition of Darwin's theory of language origins: […]

  29. language evolved from song? | the evolving ultrasaurus said,

    April 4, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    […] definite sounds with definite ideas" that is definition of language. Tecumseh Fitch writes a Language Log guest post on Darwin's theories of language evolution. I had never known that Darwin's theories […]

  30. Link love: language (2) « Sentence first said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    […] I saved the longest for last: W. Tecumseh Fitch, an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist, revisits Charles Darwin’s ideas on the evolution of language. […]

  31. Singing | Research and notes said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

    […] video of vocal chords in harmony, Estonia's singing revolution, a brief history of singing, Musical protolanguage, Reinterpreting the descent of the larynx (pdf), Music, evolution and language (pdf), Digital […]

  32. Weekend Links: February 6 | Semantic Victory said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    […] a couple of days ago I have read an article “Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited”, which is a bit long and over-academic, but still extremely interesting — I suggest that you […]

  33. Micky Crepin said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

    Speech came from apes listening to birds copying at first, then breaking down the notes to form sounds to which we call words

  34. The Evolution of Language and Music said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    […] Cognitive linguist Alison Wray (Wray, Alison. 2000. "Holistic Utterances in Protolanguage: The Link from Primates to Humans". In The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social function and the origins of linguistic form, edited by C. Knight, M. Studdert-Kennedy, and J. R. Hurford. Pp. 285-302. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.) rediscovered Jespersen's insight and adduced additional evidence from child acquisition, adult speech and neuroscience in its support. See more here. […]

  35. Vocalizzi « Oggi Scienza said,

    August 9, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    […] trisavolo generale) Fitch IV studia le vocalizzazioni di pinnipedi e non per verificare le ipotesi sull'origine della musica e del linguaggio umano avanzate da Jean-Jacques Rousseau e riprese da […]

  36. Florian Blaschke said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 7:57 am

    Rick S said:

    I don't see that as a problem at all. Vocalization has an overwhelming advantage for survivability: Unlike any other mode of volitional communication, it requires neither proximity nor prior attention to be effective. When you see a predator, it does no good to silently wave your arms and point if your packmates aren't looking at you.

    *facepalm* That's what instinctive calls are there for. You don't need language in such a situation at all, and it's even quite inefficient in comparison. Animal vocalisations still exist in humans, like laughter, crying, shrieking, screaming, an ingressive "huh" when surprised, these are all involuntary (even though they can be faked) and their presence in babies proves that they are instinctive and not connected with language. Just like humans can and do suppress their (rather rudimentary) vocalisations using their voluntarily controllable hands, so do primates suppress their calls in this way: Corballis relates an example of an ape finding food, but wishing to keep it for themselves, therefore suppressing their instinctive food call by holding their mouth shut with their hands. Nice demonstration that calls cannot be the precursor of language, while manual gestures are still part of it. What we call spoken language, in the gestural theory, is an extension of facial gestures also present in sign languages – "mouthing". These are isolated sounds and syllables, but they're not necessarily mute at all. A common facial gesture is mouth-pursing, and this is also a part of spoken language that's highly visible.

    By the way, we are still expected to look at our conversation partners, which would be unnecessary if our language were substantially acoustic.

    While there are situations when visual gestures are useless or inopportune, there are conversely situations when acoustic gestures (especially spoken language) is equally useless or inopportune, especially such a common and important situation as hunting. Westerners will still use an improvised form of signing, including exaggerated mimics and of course some mute mouthing, when faced with a situation where they need to communicate with a party not particularly closely nearby but when they cannot make any, or only very little sound. Gestural theory holds that language has always been multimodal, i. e., both visual and acoustic, therefore unlike other theories it does not have any problems with situations where communicating visually or acoustically is not possible. This is, in fact, such a decisive strength that any model of language origins that does not incorporate this basic tenet of gestural theory cannot be maintained.

    I do not wish to dismiss all alternative attempts to explain language origins. Many of them make very interesting and enlightening points and have attractive features and plausibility going for them. Gestural theory is not necessarily incompatible with those alternative approaches to the problem. I suspect a full model of language origins will eventually incorporate, integrate and synthesise several of these hypotheses.

    I completely agree, by the way, that the origins of music are intimately tied up with the origins of language, and prosody, another feature partly deemed "para-linguistic" traditionally but probably erroneously, links them both. I also agree that mother-child interaction is crucial (think "motherese" and baby talk). Once you admit visual (manual and facial) gestures into the picture, however, you begin to realise that the evolution of language and music are only parts of the evolution of complex human behaviour in general, such as the evolution of performing arts and ritual. I don't think you can tell a story of language origins in isolation, nor of music origins. These are parts of the evolution of something that I don't know any established term for, but that includes language, music, dance and other performing arts, ritual and religion – story-telling is connected with all of these. The origins of sport are also connected to this – think of the elaborated choreographies not only of athletes, but also spectators, and the way that ritual display and even warfare is tied up with sport. Dance was also used to pass stories (i. e., myth) down from generation to generation. Music was used to co-ordinate necessary activities, and also involved in warfare. Both music and dance are implicated in human mating ritual.

    The "prosodic proto-language" approach strikes me as profoundly incomplete. What about the origins of choral singing, which is thought to have been important to the evolution of music and social co-ordination in some theories? What about the role of manual and facial gestures in child development?

    I think this is the problem, the real heart of the problem, that the origin of language is only part of the much more comprehensive and complex problem of the evolution of (symbolic) human behaviour in general.

    I believe the comprehensive problem should be termed the emergence of symbolic thought and ritual (ritualised) behaviour.

  37. Florian Blaschke said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 8:14 am

    See Wikipedia on primate warning calls. Evolution had already solved the approaching predator problem just fine. That situation is an eminently bad example to use.

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