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The Origins and Evolution of Language: Michael Corballis (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Michael Corballis’ talk titled “The Origins and Evolution of Language” at TEDxAuckland conference.

Psychologist and author Michael Corballis’ talk titled “The Origins and Evolution of Language” delves into the fascinating journey of how human language has evolved from gestural communication to the complex linguistic systems we use today. He highlights the importance of bipedalism in freeing up the hands and face for gestural communication, suggesting that language likely began as a form of mime among early humans.

Corballis argues against the notion of a sudden linguistic mutation, proposing instead a gradual evolution of language from gestures to spoken words. He also discusses the diversification of languages as humans spread across the globe, adapting to different geographies and cultures. The talk concludes by exploring the future of language, emphasizing the shift towards digital communication and the continuous evolution of language as a dynamic and integral aspect of human civilization.

Listen to the audio version here:


The Mystery of Language

Language is probably the hardest problem in science. Nobody really knows how it works, and nobody really knows where it came from. And yet, we can all do it. I think it’s a bit like driving a car. We can drive a car, but we don’t really know how the machine works. One of the things that makes language unique, I think, is that we can generate new sentences all the time. There’s an infinite capacity to say something different. In this talk, you will probably hear some sentences you’ve never heard before, yet I hope you can understand them.

Animal language, or animal communication, on the other hand, is mostly repetitive, automatic, and emotional, and doesn’t create new meanings. The English comedian Stephen Fry once uttered the following sentence: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.” That sentence, I think he was confident in believing, had never been uttered before, and I’m happy to repeat it here, in case you need it. To compound the problem, there are something like 6,000 different languages in the world, most of them impenetrable to any other.

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