Chapter 3 – Language as a cultural adaptation

> Chapter 3 - Language as a cultural adaptation

2015: Muhammad Hairulnizam Bin Samsudin, Nur Atikah Ibrahim
2014: Charlotte Choo, Christian Teo Jocelyn Tong


Hello readers,

Welcome to our blog!

Here, we will be exploring the concept of the evolution of language through bio-cultural adaptation, and we will split our perspectives in three ways:
1) Language evolution through biological adaptation
2) Language evolution through cultural adaptation
3) Language evolution through both biological and cultural adaptation

You can find these information on the tabs above. We have also included a glossary for your reference, in case you need some clarification for the terms we have used in our discussion!

Happy reading!

1.1 About Us

Atikah, Nizam & Sarah-Grace says hi!

We are a group of linguistics students and we are really excited to be part of this project, which is going to provide an informative platform where people can learn more about the murky beginnings of language (and perhaps help shed more light about language’s history), as well as its growth since.
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2. Biological Evolution

Under this tab, we will explore the biological adaptations of language. It is divided into two categories namely:

1) Increase in Brain Size
2) Adaptationist Position

2.1 Increase in Brain Size

Brain size is believed to have tripled over the period of human evolution. Today, the human brain is known to be one of the largest and the most complex that has developed since early humans days. Brain size is said to have evolved concurrently with the increase in brain to body ratio. As mentioned under the cultural evolution tab, early humans had developed stone tools and such technological advancements together with new environmental challenges that primates faced in the past, tested humans’ fitness for survival. This led to the development of bigger bodies and thus bigger brain size and much more complex brains. As a result, presently, our brains are able to process and store more information due to its larger capacity, serving us a big advantage.

Figure 2 below illustrates how brain capacity or volume has increased over time with comparison to the climate fluctuation patterns. As seen within the red zone, during the period of great climate fluctuation, it has led to the greatest volume of brain size increase. Henceforth, this may provide the explanation as to how and when the human brain evolved significantly to how it is today (Brains, n.d.).


In addition, the development in brain capacity is further supported by the theory that primary tool making techniques and process of early humans has acted as a stimulus in the specific brain region specialised for manual manipulations and speech production. This improvement in technological aspect of early humans emerged during the period of the Homo Habilis. Over time, this resulted in a gradual increase in brain size as shown in the diagram below (Bolhuis et. al, 2014).



From 6 – 2 million years ago
Slight increase in Brain Size
Bipedalism, which is the way of walking upright started in early humans. It then resulted in the advancement of simple tool making. Thus, brain size increased slightly.

From 2 million – 800,000 years ago
Increase in Brain to Body ratio
This was the period where early humans began dispersing across continents. This led to the various encounters of new environments. With the process of natural selection, due to the challenges faced, the early humans experienced an increase in body size, which simultaneously resulted in bigger brains.

From 800,000 – 200,00 years ago
Rapid increase in Brain Size
The bio-climatic effects that occurred during this period has caused the human brains to evolve most significantly (Beals et. al, 1984). These environmental forces influenced the way early humans interact with their peers and surroundings thus resulted in a larger and more complex brains in order to cater to the needs of early humans. This proves to be an essential mean of survival which enabled our ancestors to last till today (Brain, n.d.).

2.2 Evolution of the Vocal Tract (Adaptationist Position)

Adaptationism refers to the view of natural selection being the main drive or cause to explain for any biological evolutionary (Forber & Orzack, 2012). Natural selection refers to the process where a heritable biological trait becomes more common or less common due to its advantage or disadvantage. What this means, is that a biological trait slowly become biologically innate in the genetics that is slowly changing through the future generations. (Natural Selection, n.d) One example would be the skin of a human foot. As humans evolved to walk more the skin of the ball of the foot becomes harder (to withstand pressure) over the next generations as natural selection occurs.

Similarly, natural selection takes place for communication and language to evolve. Earlier on, we have talked about the evolution of the brain and how it generates and stimulate the cognitive function to communicate; earliest forms being grunts and gestures (See section on Increase in Brain Size). This need to communicate led to those grunts and gestures to slowly evolve into more meaningful and effective way to communicate which is through voicing. This advantage would then lead to the evolution of the vocal tract.

Images from

From the above image we are able to see the difference of the vocal tract of the primates which our earlier ancestors share a similar tract with and the vocal tract of the human tract. The difference is the position of the larynx that consists of the vocal cords which is the instrument of producing sounds. The position of the larynx is while in the human larynx is higher resulting in a two-tube vocal tract that enable to voice more sounds as it goes beyond normal lung volume for normal breathing and this exquisite control of lung volume passing through attributes to long fluent sentences by human beings (Ghanzafar & Rendall, 2008). However, there is an advantage of having a high larynx position as apes are able to eat and breathe at the same time while normal human adults cannot as the lower larynx results in pathways to the lungs and stomach to intersect making the risk of choking higher. Nevertheless, natural selection dictates that having the ability to speak and communicate is more advantageous resulting in the biological evolution of the vocal tract and thus evolving language.

Another view called the exaptationist account offers a different explanation than natural selection. The explanation is that some biological trait or features were initially used for a specific reason but over the course of generation has evolved and co-opted to be used for other reasons too (Exaptation, n.d). MacNielage (2008) stated that a lot of the parts of the vocal systems were initially used for different specific parts but they evolve to work together in producing speech over the years.

Whatever views that one accounts for the evolution of the vocal tract, there is no doubt that the evolution of speech and language itself stemmed from the biological evolution of the vocal tract to be able to produce extensive amounts and varieties which would later on be used as a communication system.

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3. Cultural Evolution

Under this tab, we will explore the cultural adaptations of language. There will be three categories namely:

1) Invention of tools & devices
2) Creolisation
3) Development of Cultural Systems

3.1 Invention of Tools & Devices

One of the early human cultural developments include stone tool making. These tools are useful devices such as those for hunting or building houses. Language may have been ‘invented’ or evolved about the same time that tools were made (Stout & Chaminade, 2009). The advancement of language was largely due to this process of tool making since scientific research proved how the invention of tools stimulated the brain of the early humans thus developing cognitive ability leading to language (Balter, 2013). In addition, apart from stimulating the cognitive area of the brain (specifically the Broca’s area), stone tool making too encouraged the need for intercommunication since making tools require intercommunication in order to acquire the specialized skill. Culture was hence produced not only by man’s higher intellectual development but also by his increased social life. In other words, higher intellectual development of man and the development of superior means of intercommunication go hand in hand and form the foundation of culture for early humans (Ellwood, 1918; Dediu et. al, 2013).

Figure 1 below illustrates the development of the various stone tools, which showed the ‘jump’ in technological advancement and thus underlying cognitive skills (Snelling & Matthews, 2013).


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3.2 Creolisation

Creoles too, played a vital part in the process of language evolution through cultural means. There are several views regarding the evolution of creole languages. Initially many viewed creole as having evolved from pidgins and is considered as a simplified language, which has been nativized by the second generation of pidgin speakers. Such creoles are said to have typically arose when these children transformed the pidgins “from proto-languages to full-fledged languages” (Mufwene, 2007). However, there exist a more recent opinion stating that creoles evolved from the setting of a social context where they developed from a necessity for communication between linguistic groups who are non-mutually intelligible amongst each other. This occurred especially during trade contacts during the 16th to 19th century between the European and non-Europeans (Mufwene, 2007).

Despite the difference in the idea of how creoles came about, the significant issue at hand is that creoles played a vital process in the evolution in language since the process of creolization was mainly driven by social interaction. Some examples of creole languages in practice include the Haitian Creole, which fused Standard French and the native languages of Haiti, and was known to have emerged due to the need for communication amongst the slave traders and their masters. Bonenfant (2011) further explained how it initially came about as a language contact and then developed as a lingua franca (Bonenfant, 2011). The creole language recently also gained English influences via contacts with American English. Thus, this addresses the phenomena of language contact which plays a vital part in cultural influences of linguistic development.

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3.3 Development of Cultural Systems

Another cultural progress in early humans that have had a huge impact on the evolution of language is the development of writing systems (Dediu et al., 2013). Prior to the invention of writing systems, humans could only communicate verbally, and hence had to keep their utterances short, simple and easy to understand. However, with the ability to record language, humans could begin to form increasingly complex sentences, both in terms of lexicon, morphology and syntax (Dediu et al., 2013).

The development of writing systems itself has also been seen as an evolutionary leap in language. It is seen as a significant milestone in the transition of early humans from barbarism to civilisation. In the earliest records of human language writing systems, iconic symbols or logos were used to represent various notions. However, numerous modern languages utilise symbols that speakers have agreed upon to represent ideas independent of their pronunciation. Some examples include the alphabetic and syllabic writing systems. To put it in other words, there was a crucial progression from concrete to abstract representation that gave rise to the arbitrariness of human language in the contemporary world.

Today, the development of such cultural systems include the advancement in information technology. As an example, we can see how the invention and prevalence of social media creates a new dimension for language use and evolution. For instance, new words and phrases such as LOL, which means laugh out loud, are coined and incorporated into our everyday language.

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4. Biocultural Evolution

We will also be exploring the overlap of both biological and cultural evolution. This can be largely explained via the theory of child language acquisition.

4.1 Child Language Acquisition

One of the most distinct examples of language evolution is a child’s acquisition of language. Humans are able to acquire the ability to perceive, comprehend and communicate with words and sentences at a very young age. This seemingly innate ability is often argued as a biological evolution of the human language. A common basis that this argument made use of is Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. It is a theory that accounts for how arbitrary properties and the complexity of language can be comprehended and reproduced to convey different infinite sets of meaning by a human child during language acquisition period. A child being able to use features of grammar that is not evident in his or her own first language shows that those features are encoded in the acquisition device. Hence, revealing that there must be a certain degree of structure in the language-specific capacity that has evolved that shapes nature of learning a language easily at a relatively young age. (Kirby & Smith, 2008)

However, some arguments question why the structure of language capacity in the brain is then structured that way and presented views of language adaptation through cultural transmissions. Language is acquired socially and through observations of linguistic behaviours of others (Kirby & Smith, 2008). Kirby and Smith also introduced the idea of iterated learning that further exhibit cultural transmission of language through imitation and learning from others. This accounts for biases from cultural experience (eg. The people they interact with) cause changes in a language during the acquisition period. Thus, explaining to a certain degree of how different language developed over the years.

Some researchers further classify the phenomenon of child language acquisition as both a cultural and biological evolution, linking it to the idea of natural selection where a characteristic that increases fitness would lead to individuals needing less exposure to develop it as it becomes biologically encoded ( Christiansen et al, 2011). Brighton, Kirby and Smith (2005) proposed a similar concept with regards to language changed called cultural selection. It suggests that language changes and adapt to increase the ease of learnability. Language first evolved for its functional advantage of communication. A child is then born with the ability to learn a language and comprehend sets of linguistic universals. Next, an individual acquire the language through cultural transmissions and interactions in the society which have also undergo changes. These acquired linguistic forms are then passed to the next generation and will only survive through constant application and its functionality. For example, learning vocabularies in language increases communicative abilities as such establishing the capability to map forms and meaning would gradually be innate as biological adaptation takes place. This illustrates cultural selection occurring through the biological adaptation of certain relevant forms to make it easier to learn and use a language(Christiansen et al, 2011).

Even though there are different perspectives of language acquisition in the evolution of language, it is evident that both cultural and biological changes played roles in language evolution.

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5. Conclusion

Although language is no longer just used for basic needs for survival, the evolution of language continues as new generations integrate new technology as a part of their daily vocabulary. Just as stone tool making had also used communication to improve on technology across generations, our future generation will continue to evolve language to technology as our society becomes more heavily depended on it. Language just like biological evolution will continue to evolve to simplify tasks and getting meaning across to another person more effectively. As efficiency in communication grows, it will allow for more room in the brain to develop in different aspects of life, forcing humans to be able to achieve more. As we continue to study the capabilities of the brain to acquire language, use and its creative outlets, we can see that biological factors on a primitive level will still play a large role in language learning. On the other hand, it can be observed that a child’s language ability is not only depended on the natural capabilities of its brain but rather, its social environments could play a larger role in the amount of knowledge and languages a child could be exposed to. Therefore, the evolution of language cannot be just observed as solely biological or socio-cultural but rather the interworking of the two contributed to the development of human languages today.

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6. Glossary

Broca’s Area: Refers to a region of the brain concerned with the production of speech, located in the cortex of the dominant frontal lobe. Damage in this area causes Broca’s aphasia, characterised by hesitant and fragmented speech with little grammatical structure.

Natural Selection: The process of the survival of the fittest, where better adapted organisms are able to continue producing offsprings. This is a theory discovered and proposed by Charles Darwin and is being regarded as the main process bringing about evolution.

Patterned ideas: When the development of cultural evolution takes place and is used by groups. [For example, the making of stone implements a certain pattern and is followed until it is relatively perfected.]


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7. References


Asif A. Ghazanfar & Drew Rendall(2008, June 3), Evolution of human vocal production, Current Biology, Volume 18, Issue 11

Balter, M. (2013, March 9). Striking Patterns: Study Suggests Tool Use and Language Evolved Together |WIRED. Retrieved March 23, 2015, from

Beals, K., Smith, C., & Dodd, S. (1984). Brain Size, Cranial Morphology, Climate, and Time Machines. Current Anthropology, 25(3), 301-330.

Bolhuis, J., Tattersall, I., Chomsky, N., & Berwick, R. (2014, August 26). How Could Language Have Evolved? Retrieved March 29, 2015, from

Bonenfant, J. L. (2011). History of Haitian Creole: From Pidgin to Lingua Franca and English Influence on the Language. Review of Higher Education & Self-Learning, 3(11).

Brains. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2015, from

Christiansen, M., Reali, F., & Chater, N (2011). Biological Adaptations for Functional Features of Language in the Face of Cultural Evolution. Human Biology, 247-259.

Dediu, D., Cysouw, M., Levinson, S. C., Baronchelli, A., Christiansen, M. H., Croft, W., … & Lieven, E. (2013). Cultural evolution of language. In Cultural evolution: Society, technology, language, and religion. Strüngmann Forum Reports, vol. 12 (pp. 303-332). MIT Press.

Ellwood, C. A. (1918). Theories of cultural evolution. The American Journal of Sociology, 23(6), 779-800.

Exaptations. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2015, from

Morgan, T. J. H., Uomini, N. T., Rendell, L. E., Chouinard-Thuly, L., Street, S. E., Lewis, H. M., … & Laland, N. (2015). Experimental evidence for the co-evolution of hominin tool-making teaching and language. Nature communications, 6.

Mufwene, S. (2007). What do creoles and pidgins tell us about the evolution of language? In B. Laks, S. Cleuziou, J. Demoule, & P. Encrevé (Eds.), Origin and evolution of languages approaches, models, paradigms. London: Equinox

Natural selection. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2015, from

Orzack, Steven Hecht and Forber, Patrick, “Adaptationism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Smith, K., & Kirby, S. (2008). Cultural evolution: implications for understanding the human language faculty and its evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363(1509), 3591-3603.

Snelling, A., & Matthews, M. (2013, February 26). When Was the Ice Age in Biblical History? Retrieved March 29, 2015, from

Stout, D., & Chaminade, T. (2009). Making tools and making sense: complex, intentional behaviour in human evolution. Cambridge Archaeological Journal,19(01), 85-96.


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