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THE EVOLUTION AND INTERPLAY OF LANGUAGE-CULTURE MATRIX – ANIRUDH SHANDILYA

Noam Chomsky in the 1960s posited the Theory of Language Acquisition Device (LAD) to explain the innate faculty of infants to acquire language and humans during the course of their evolution at some point acquired this device. How did it occur? What forces were responsible for symbolic thought and establishing the system of arbitrarily selected vocal symbols known as the language that caused increased social cohesion?

The answer lies in a host of reasons triggered by major climatic upheavals that occurred during the Pleistocene epoch. The first evidence of symbolic behaviour or language existed amongst Homo Erectus. The physiological modifications that enabled such behaviour were gradual and operated for a few million years.

Evolutionary Development:

Australopithecines, the first definite bipedal hominins were small object feeders and specialized largely in an herbivorous diet, especially the Paranthropus variant, evident by relatively large jaws, large molars, zygomatic arch, and moderate sagittal crest. Sagittal crest and zygomatic arch served as attachment sites for temporal muscles and masseter muscles respectively that helped in moving large jaws for grinding and crushing their largely herbivorous diet.

The first Pleistocene glaciation that occurred around 2.58 million years ago resulted in the largescale destruction of forests leaving only a few pockets with nuts and seeds. Paranthropus variant remained in the vestiges of these forests while Australopithecus radiated into Homo habilis and later into Homo erectus (via Homo ergaster) due to a change in its dietary habits to a more omnivorous diet in the savannas where it hunted the big game. The gradual shift to an omnivorous diet and later cooking (Homo erectus being the first users of fire) which further softened the meat caused less pressure on the temporal and masseter muscles leading to a reduction in the size of molars, jaws, masseter muscles, and the almost complete absence of the sagittal crest. This facilitated a change in the facial contours in the form of a reduction which provided the room and facilitated an increase in the size of the cranium at its cost and in turn the brain. The brain itself was facing evolutionary pressures from increased tool usage employing motor skills and persistence hunting that required planning, group cohesion, and improved memory to motivate the hunting behaviour. Thus it was the interplay of a multitude of factors in the form of climate induced dietary shift, tool making and its usage, hunting and group living that acted as selective forces for increased cranial capacity and the development of memory sites in the occipital lobe, thinking sites in the frontal lobe and different motor areas in the cerebral cortex. This culminated when with the advent of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens sapiens the development of Broca's area and Wernicke's area of the brain that are associated with modern language took place.

Language as a vehicle of Culture :

The development of culture went on pari passu with language. Rudimentary culture started with Homo habilis establishing the Oldowan tool industry (2.5 million years ago) and the making of crude tools by striking one against the other which resulted in core tools. The second stage of cultural advancement was marked by the advent of Homo erectus who established the Abbevillian and Acheulian tool industry of manufacturing hand axes using Clactonian and Levalloisian techniques that used flakes and bifacial core tools. Homo sapiens neanderthalensis which inhabited colder climates during the warm glaciation period established the Mousterian industry that used flakes extensively which was made imperative by the scarcity of game hunting.

The evolution of the tool industry was marked by a progressive increase in cranial capacity: from Homo habilis (750cc) to Homo erectus (1000cc) to Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (1400cc). Thus, the factors that facilitated increased mental faculties leading to symbolic thought and language development also caused an increase in the complexity of culture as learned behaviour could be efficiently transmitted from one generation to the other through language.

Do language and culture feed each other?

You are what you speak! This psychology maxim which is used to psychoanalyze an individual can be extrapolated to analyse culture as well based on its language. It is a two-way traffic: culture influences the structure and content of language and language affects cultural behaviours.

a) Culture's influence on language:

Evidence can be found in verb categories used in the language of Navajo; a traditionally nomadic people found in the southwestern United States. In the reporting of actions or events and the framing of substantive concepts the Navajo emphasizes movement and specifies the nature, direction, and status of such movements in considerable detail. Navajo has one category of events that are in motion and another that have ceased motion, these categorizations and emphasis on events in the process of their occurring reflect the Navajo's nomadic experience over centuries, an experience also reflected in their myths and folklore.

Another grammatical feature that is related to cultural characteristics is the possession or lack of the possessive transitive verb "have".  Cultures that have developed a system of private property or personal ownership of resources develop the verb "have". Other languages which have communal ownership of property generally lack "have" and instead use "it is to me". Thus in complex societies with social inequalities, the fixation on ownership is more, hence the possession of the verb "have" exists there vis a vis those primitive communities that lack private property. 

b) Language's influence on culture :

Language influences the formation of a particular concept, especially during childhood. A cross-cultural study involving children was done among speakers of Hebrew, English and Finnish to judge whether languages have any bearing in the development of a variance involving a similar concept but having a differential in linguistic emphasis. The study involved the development of gender identity among children early in their life. Out of the three languages, Hebrew has the most gender emphasis where all nouns are either masculine or feminine and even second nouns and plural nouns are differentiated by gender. English's emphasis on gender is lesser than that of Hebrew, differentiating by gender only in the third person singular (she/her/hers or he/him/his). Finnish emphasizes gender the least. Consistent with the idea that language influences culture, Hebrew speaking children acquire stable gender identity the earliest, Finnish speaking the last.

This is also evident by the increasing recognition of gender being a malleable construct instead of being a stable biologically determined one in Scandinavian countries and in most of English-speaking counties. On the contrary Hebrew and its linguistic cognate Arabic doesn't harbour any such idiosyncratic fallacies. There is a definite dichotomous emphasis on gender which always remains stable.

Language is one of the instruments that is reflective of the culture of its speaker as its structure, phonology and content are based on the speaker's environment and cultural setting. The existence of thousands of languages and dialects is one of the most beautiful testimonies of the evolutionary wonder that the primate Homo sapiens sapiens is.

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