Routes to Language



This page is an attempt to describe a meta-model of language origins. It is intended to be a topic for discussion and not a definitive map of how language evolved. The route to language given here illustrates how a comprehensive theory of language origins could be structured, not how language actually originated.


The approach used in this model is cognitivist, so the proposal makes certain basic assumptions. All of these assumptions are disputed, so it is important to make them explicit:


        Language is not a single system with a single origin.

        Language exapts existing cognitive, sound-making and gesture-making systems, it does not rely on novel, language-specific systems.

        Language has meaning (lexis and semantics), structure (grammar and syntax) and phonology (sound and gesture). Any comprehensive attempt to describe language origins should address all of these.

        Language is a social phenomenon, and this must be central to any explanation of language origins.

        Language is a tool, it changes its environment. A full hypothesis of language origins needs to explain these environmental changes.

The model shows a series of capacities, given in a rough time order and with dependencies indicated. A timescale is not given, but the capacities are colour-coded by probable species, as follows:


        Orange: pre-Australopithecus

        Yellow: Australopithecus

        Green: Homo genus, pre-erectus species

        Blue: Homo erectus & subsequent species

        Purple: Homo heidelbergensis & subsequent species

        Red: Homo sapiens


These species allocations are arbitrary and open to discussion.


This model should be viewed as a hypothesis (or, to be more accurate, a hypothesis about a hypothesis), and criticisms and suggestions for improvement are most welcome.


If this project is of interest, or if you have any thoughts about it, you can contact me at to discuss it further.

For terminology terms (in red capitals), see Glossary.

For bibliographical references (in green), see References.

For available box summaries (in dark red capitals) see buttons above, or click on box.

This is the model as at 6 September 2020. This is not a final version.