Auckland language expert contradicts Chomsky's 'big bang' origins theory

Professor Corballis takes issues with other linguists such as Noam Chomsky that language emerged suddenly in a single step.

Professor Michael Corballis on language evolving over millions of years.

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An expert in the origins of language says every pressure to create a universal one is matched by ones to retain them.

University of Auckland Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis says as long as there are different cultures there will be a number of languages.

“I can’t see competition being resolved quickly between universalisation, with everyone speaking English, and the tendencies for cultures to keep themselves separate.”

“Different generations develop different twists and that leads to different languages themselves. Hopefully, if we get more universal languages, we will get less exclusion and less conflict.’

Professor Corballis takes issues with other linguists such as Noam Chomsky that language emered suddenly in a single step.

“There is a tendency to think there was a leap but I think it happened gradually over two and a half million years,” he says.

“During the Pleistocene, people moved around Africa as hunter gatherers and eventually found their way out to Europe, round through Asia and down into the Pacific and across to the Americas.

“That continual movement meant they had to have efficient ways of communicating so they could plan their moves and adapt to new environments.”

Cultural evolution
The world has some 6000 languages and they are changing all the time. Professor Corballis sees these changes as mainly a cultural form of evolution, rather than biological.

His new book, The Truth About Language, notes that as groups broke away from larger ones, they used fewer phonemes – units of sound – but this does not necessarily mean they became more diverse from a “big bang” of a single language in Africa.

Languages developed for exclusionary reasons, so groups could distinguish themselves from one other in a kind of secret code. Vanuatu offers an extreme form with more than 100 languages spoken over a relatively small geographic area.

Professor Corballis also suggests that rather than starting from one language, small groups developed their own distinctive ones and these later evolved as the populations amalgamated or were dominated by another.

This evolution into larger civilisations tended to simplify languages in both structure and vocabulary, resulting in forms as such as today's Chinglish – a simple mixture of English with Chinese influences.

♦ Professor Corballis discusses The Truth About Language at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 20

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