Humans’ gift for charades helps explain the origin of language

Language gives us the power to describe, virtually without limit, the countless entities, actions, properties and relations that compose our experience, real and imagined. But what is the origin of this power? What gave rise to humankind’s ability to use words to convey meanings? …

But this raises a conundrum – what is known in philosophy as ‘the symbol grounding problem’. If words are arbitrary and purely a matter of convention, then how did they come to be established in the first place? In practical terms: how did our ancestors create the original words? This is a challenging question to answer. Scientists have little direct knowledge of the prehistoric origins of today’s approximately 7,000 spoken languages, at least tens of thousands of years ago. We do, however, know an increasing amount about how people create and develop new sign languages.

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