Thursday, July 4, 2013

That's What She Said: Evidence for a Female Origin of Human Language

Travel back in time to Ancient Rome. In Saecula Saeculorum. Sword fights. Chases on horseback. Adventure. Love. Loss. Latin.

The Paleo Diet (to which I adhere) has people more interested than ever in that mystical formative period of human development known as the Prehistoric/Paleolithic period. This was the period in which human language developed. We can never exactly know the details on how language developed among our earliest ancestors.  But there are reasons to believe it was our ancient grandmothers who really created the extraordinary gift of human speech.

Language in Prehistory

I've long been fascinated with that formative period of human history about which we can know nothing but guesses from their bones, prehistory. When humans emerge into the historical period, by which we mean when they had learned to transmit their knowledge through some type of writing, they were already extraordinarily fascinating creatures. They step out from the shadows of prehistory with formed cultures, art, bafflingly complex languages, and developed religions and mythologies. Which means, they had been cultivating those things for quite a long while before they first began to transmit information in written form.

I fall in the camp of believing that some Proto-Human language does constitute the source and ancestor of all current human speech. But here I want to explore another thought I've reflected on--the likelihood that it was women in particular who actually first gave birth to human language. 

I'm not the first to suggest this idea.  The book The Invisible Sex (Adovasio, Page, and Soffer, 2009) asserts that women were the silent sources of much of human culture in the prehistoric period, including language development. Through my studies of ancient languages and my reading of available modern research, I've observed compelling evidence that human language began primarily as a female invention and continued so for a considerable amount of time.

We know language must have existed long before the invention of writing. As for how long, exactly, there is considerable debate. Some would assert that language as we know it did not exist before the emergence of Behaviorally Modern Humans (e.g., Ehrlich, 2002). Others would push language development deeper into the hominid species, as early as Homo Ergaster (e.g., Ruhlen, 1994). 

The First Paleo Speakers

Whether it was Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals, or even Homo Erectus that first spoke with complex language, their lifestyle was essentially the same. The first human/hominids that used true language were hunter-gatherers living in some type of a tribal organization. As is the case with modern hunter-gatherers, the gender roles were clearly divided, with the men responsible for obtaining the meat which made up the bulk of their people's diet, and the women caring for the camp/cave/home and gathering the supplemental foods of vegetables, nuts, berries, and roots when available in season.

And that fact alone is highly suggestive that language origin was not an equal innovation between the genders. Men and women would have spent much of their daily time apart, much more so than their earlier ancestors who collaboratively scavenged food like chimpanzees even today. We can ask, which gender needed language more? Who needed to communicate complex information the most? And the key piece of evidence will be, who didn't mind if that information was communicated out loud?

Men at Work: Bringing Home the Meat

Prideaux, T. 1973. The Emergence of Man: Cro-Magnon Man
Lions on the hunt, without human language, carry out complex and coordinated attacks on their prey that involve one member of the pride flushing out the target, chasing it into the waiting grasp of others. Men on the prehistoric African Savannah similarly took down their animals with coordinated plans. But the nature of hunting is that one needs to be undetected in the endeavor. Early men likely developed systems of communicating their strategy through hand gestures, as soldiers still employ today. But they certainly didn't yell or even speak their plan to each other prior to executing the effort.

Women's Work: Cultural Innovation

Traditional societies even today (such as Amish or surviving hunter-gatherers) do indeed divide societal tasks strictly by gender. The locus of language origin was a place where women did not go hunting with the men, but rather stayed behind with the other women and cared for the group's camp and gathered foods such as roots, berries, and vegetables when available in season. Now, there's barely an animal on the planet that is poisonous to eat. Sure, if you eat nothing but polar bear, you'll acquire a toxic level of Vitamin A in your system. And if you eat nothing at all but rabbits, you'll develop protein toxicity because of the lack of fat in those animals. But no man ever had to explain to another male why this animal can't be eaten while this one is just fine. Rather, they coordinated their attacks on virtually everything that both moved and was worth their trouble to kill and bring home. 

Poisonous Hedera Helix Berries
But women gathered foods in a realm of great danger. Some berries and mushrooms are delicious and healthy. Others kill. These facts were probably learned by trial and error. But after the error, and the subsequent ceremonial burials, the information about dangerous foods had to be communicated and passed down, lest the disaster be repeated needlessly.

Telling someone what a dangerous berry looks like is considerably more complex of a communication than telling this guy to run that way and chase the mammoth that other way. I assert that it required the genesis of what we know as language.

And I further assert that our ancestors could have gone thousands of years with the females cultivating a system of vocal communication of which the males were uninvolved and/or uninterested in.

Obviously evenings back together at the camp, sharing the efforts of that day's hunt were times when men and women interacted. And obviously the species was perpetuated by continual interaction of men and women sexually. But we should not assume that just because women had begun communicating with each other using the kernel of human language that the men were immediately wooing them with love poetry. I mean, long before language, hominids like Australopithecus Afarensis were getting it on as well. 

Men and Women: A Tale of Two Brains

What further evidence suggests that women had both invented language and then developed it for a considerable amount of time before men adopted this wondrous tool?

Because, on a physiological level, men and women process and use language differently. Women have a higher percentage of their brains devoted to language processing, and men have been observed to process language in only one hemisphere of their brain while women use both (Zaidi, 2010).

This would indicate that language is, for women, more of a natural and ingrained ability than it is for men. For women, language is a fully integrated human behavior. For men, it is as if, on the computer of our brain, we're running a program not fully compatible with our software. And so men use language more as a learned skill than a fully ingrained talent.

This would make sense if, as I have suggested, women had innovated vocal communication thousands of years before men began to use it.

The Men Catch on Eventually...

So obviously at some point the men also began to use language. If this theory is correct, the men could not have been unaware that the women were communicating information through their speech. Or it's also just possible that women intentionally didn't use that system of communication when men were around. But even if men did know about it, there was no reason for them to really care or want in on that world at first. Perhaps as human societies further developed, they allowed for a little more flexibility in gender roles such that some men spent their days fully in the camp with the women. Perhaps a more developed and altruistic society allowed a male born with a defect to survive and function around camp as one of the women. (Like the Ancient Spartans, very ancient societies probably did not allow children with defects to survive.)  We know that, even as early as Neanderthals, the elderly were cared for. So when an older male no longer went on the hunt, there was a greater chance he would start to pick up on the how vocalized communication worked. And soon the communication system would leak into the world of all the rest of the men. But if that development were fairly recent  (evolutionarily speaking), evidence of the female origin of language would remain in some substantial physiological difference. And indeed that's exactly what we observe. Women use language as a globalized talent within their entire brain. Men use it as a learned skill localized to half their brain.

What Are You Two Women Doing Tomorrow?

Final evidence for a female origin of language can be found in the fact that ancient languages emerged with a high level of gender differentiation, much more that would be assumed of a patriarchal invention.

Classical Arabic even preserves a single verbal form for when you describe the action of two females. There's also a specific verb form for describing two men. And there are also fully different forms for describing one female versus one male. And here's the point. ancient and traditional languages are notable for their tendency to use specific forms to describe the gender of the person doing the action. Sure, we even today have different words for "he" and "she. But traditional languages have different verbs forms to go along with those pronouns.

Languages generally have moved in the direction of simplicity as the centuries have rolled onward. So distinctions such as "you (a female) are" and "you (a male) are" have largely vanished. But yet the oldest and most traditional languages had such differences. One explanation could be that since languages were first developed by women, they naturally created ways to mark those distinctions. Only centuries later, after men also adopted speech and the overall simplifying tendency of language took hold, did these distinctions become somewhat rare in the world of linguistics.

In Conclusion

Alas, a theory such as this can never be proven and would not seem to await any further evidence. But I find it compelling that observations within the physiological differences of men and women in processing language mirror the probable cultural impetus for creating language in the first place. When it came to first expressing complex thought through speech, the ones most in need of the invention really were our ancient mothers...


Adavasio, J. M., Olga Soffer, and Jake Page (2009). The Invisible Sex. Left Coast Press

Ehrlich, Paul R. (2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press.

Ruhlen, Merritt (1994). The origin of language: tracing the evolution of the mother tongue. Wiley Publishing.

Zaidi, Zeenaat F. (2010). "Gender Differences in Human Brain: A Review," in The Open Anatomy Journal. pp. 37-55.

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