It is likely impossible to quantify the evolution of human language, for the evolutionary process is a continuous one, rather than discrete. In this respect, “linguistic speciation” shares an inherent continuousity with biological evolution. Neither a “species” or a “language” is a fixed entity, but an adaptive moment amidst constant change. Along these same lines, I wonder, how long does it take for an “invasive” species or an immigrant to become “native” following its arrival? Naturalization is likewise a continuous process. My point here is that these threshold distinctions, “language,” “species,” “native,” are made arbitrarily, likely for the purpose of maintaining and reinforcing the power relations of the distinguisher.
Just last night, I learned of an ancient tribe in India that has passed a chant down through the ages. Linguists have determined that this chant, which is not based on any language, has a distinct system/organization yet contains absolutely no meaning. In fact, it appears that the systemic structure of this audible noise is most similar to bird song. Linguists believe this may be evidence of early human ancestors mimicking the sounds made by the surrounding animals, and, this could be how all language originated.
Suppose humans never existed on Earth, and some other organism developed into the dominant intelligence species here. I wonder, if they were to develop a language, if the same process would reveal itself – mimicking the sounds made by the surrounding creatures until those sounds eventually resulted in some type of meaning. Further, is this same process of the origin of language applicable to intelligent life outside of Earth?
I’m confident that early humans with complex vocal chords mimicked the sounds of other animals, though for me to say why would just be speculation. Also, the claim that such mimicry is human language’s evolutionary origin may be a tough sell — it’s an on-going and controversial debate as to whether human language is something that evolved at all. Some, like Noam Chomsky, make the case that the capacity for language is innate in all human beings, and that we all have access to a “universal grammar” that underwrites every language that has ever existed.
Generally, my thought on this is that over millions of years the brain evolved, becoming increasingly complicated, and that eventually the memory centers and Broca’s area of the brain were sophisticated enough to allow us to communicate through symbolic and abstract reference. Given the right elements, energy, and time, I think that this kind of evolution leading to the emergence of symbolic and abstract communication is certainly possible for planets other than Earth.
So, a couple questions for you: Is it possible that meaningless mimicry of the kind you mentioned (the Indian chant) and meaning-latent language co-evolved alongside one another, both serving different purposes (the former being a sort of communion with the other animals or a way to express emotions that words can’t capture, the latter being functional communication)? That is, why assume that because the chant is meaningless that it preceded meaningful utterances? Definitive words often cannot capture inner most sentiment, and we must resort to simply making noises, as seen in the meaninglessness of Sigur Ros’ vocals. Meaningful language precedes meaningless utterances in some cases. Finally, let’s assume that the bird’s song is in fact meaningless, and that the early human mimicking of it was likewise meaningless — you say that the chant remains meaningless to this day. If such a chant were the evolutionary origin of meaningful utterances, wouldn’t the chant itself have taken on some meaning along the way?