Building blocks of language evolved 30-40 million years ago

The capacity for language is built upon our ability to understand combinations of words and the relationships between them, but the evolutionary history of this ability is little understood. Now, researchers from the University of Warwick have managed to date this capacity to at least 30-40 million years ago, the last common ancestor of monkeys, apes and humans.

Across the globe, humanity flourishes by sharing thoughts, culture, information and technology through language—an incredibly complex method of communication used by no other species. Determining why and when it evolved is, therefore, crucial to understanding what it means to be human.

In the paper, ‘Non adjacent dependency processing in monkeys, apes and humans’, published today in the journal Science Advances, an international consortium of researchers, led by Professor Simon Townsend at the University of Warwick, made a crucial advance in our understanding of when a key cognitive building block of language may have evolved.

Being able to process relationships between words in a sentence is one of the key cognitive abilities underpinning language, whether those words are next to one another, known as an ‘adjacent dependency’, or distant to one another, known as a ‘non-adjacent dependency’. For example, in the sentence “the dog who bit the cat ran away” we understand that is it the dog who ran away rather than the cat, thanks to being able to process the relationship between the first and last phrases.

Dr. Stuart Watson, who carried out this work at the University of Zürich, explains: “Most animals do not produce non-adjacent dependencies in their own natural communication systems, but we wanted to know whether they might nevertheless be able to understand them.” [ … ]

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