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The Invention of Language

By Peter Lloyd

No one knows how language appeared in humans. The debate centers around how quickly it appeared and whether or not it arose from some innate ability or developed with some level of intention as a product of social interaction—what we call crowdsourcing today. Innate or deliberate, I call it invention. Better yet, open innovation. I imaging a noisy, prehistoric, creative free-for-all.

We obviously had it in us to invent language. Humans continue to consciously and deliberately invent languages. Math and music, for example. Computer languages and hypertext markup language. More importantly, I find that considering how language may have been invented offers insights into invention and creativity.

Out of Nothing
First there was no language, now there is. At one time our ancestors did did not speak and now we do. Somehow creatures who did not speak came up with words and eventually started scribbling them. Since people who had no language invented it, you could say that illiterates invented language.

No surprise. We see a version of language invention every generation. Kids, especially from middle school through high school, introduce rafts of new words. Go back to that period in your life and try to recall the vocabulary you and your group invented. Every few years someone writes a blog or an article listing and defining the latest neologisms. Currently hip hop gives us our greatest supply of new words.

But could pre-verbal or non-verbal kids invent an entire language? They could and they have. For a dramatic illustration of a group of children inventing an entire language, see: Nicaraguan Sign Language.

Idea Prime
The essence of invention is the idea. If that’s true, the idea of language had to precede language. But can you have an idea without language? It must be possible, because the invention of language preceded language itself. If language were necessary for invention, it would be impossible for non-speaking people to invent tools. Apes and crows invent tools.

Humans may have invented tools and language around the same time. Maybe a tool inventor needed to say, “Hand me that hammer.” Perhaps the understanding that you could invent new words to serve a purpose prompted the idea that you could manipulate matter to solve a problem? “Me turn stone into hammer? Me try!”

Either way, the idea—a new word or image of a new thing—rules creativity.

Creative Lies
Some of our primate cousins convey meaning with the sounds they make. A few, like the vervet monkey, produce distinct warning calls to alert their kin to the presence of specific threats such as a leopard, a snake, or an eagle. In all cases, primate vocalizations and those of other animals remain brutally honest. Critters can’t lie. But we can. And lying lies at the heart of human creativity.

To an unimaginative creature, a fable, if they could grasp such a concept, has no use. Yet they can make tools, so they must have ideas. They can trick each other, so they must understand the value of deceit. But to spend time telling each other things that are not true—folks who study animals just don’t see it.

In our world, we not only can lie, we do. The ability to deceive relates directly to the ability to conceive ideas—to see a better unreality. Of course, that ability brings with it the need for honesty and trust. The danger that deceit presents to the members of a group accounts for the value we give to honesty. It urged the invention of means to enforce honesty.

Ask Me No Questions
When they communicate with sign language and picture boards, some primates will answer questions, but they never ask questions. This also accounts for their creativity deficit. They can be very clever and inventive, but don’t expect subtly faceted theories from your simian relatives.

I’m tempted to rank alongside primates those people who act as though they have all the answers and never ask questions. You know, those pontificaters who dodge questions, or give speeches in which they ask and answer their own questions. But I digress.

Questions like, how? what if? and why not? drive creativity. Answers, the product of creativity, merely give us new vantage points from which to marvel and ask more questions.

See also: Origin of Language

Peter Lloyd is co-creator with Stephen R. Grossman of Animal Crackers, the breakthrough problem-solving tool designed to crack your toughest problems.

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