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Turning Off Volume on Skype Sheds Light on How Languages Emerge

How the languages of the world arose is still an open question.
Image by Gordon Johnson from https://pixabay.com

There are thousands of languages spoken around the world today. While we know how many of them are related to each other, we know very little about how they actually arose.

"The main reason is because we can't travel back in time and go back to the times when these languages actually emerged," said Manuel Bohn, a postdoctoral researcher at Leipsig University.

There are languages, particularly sign languages, that have emerged over the past century. Even in those cases, though, Bohn says documentation of the evolutionary process began at some point after those first moments when two people needed to communicate and didn’t have a way to do so. And it is those very first steps toward language that Bohn wants to learn about.

Lacking a time machine, Bohn and his colleagues wanted to try to simulate the birth of a new language in the lab to watch how it works. The problem was, they couldn’t figure out how to deprive their study participants of language.

Then came the aha moment.

“We were on a Skype conversation and then we thought ‘Well, hey, this is actually a way we could do this. We could just simply put kids in a Skype conversation and turn off the sound,’” Bohn recalled.

That is exactly what they did. They paired up children and let them talk with each other to build a relationship. Then, they turned off the sound and gave them increasingly complex pictures to communicate to each other.

What happened looked a lot like a game of Charades. But, as time went on, the pictures got too complex to be mimed. Trying to describe “nothing” was both a challenge and a breakthrough moment.

“They were pointing to white stuff in the room, trying to put their palms up like ‘stop’ or ‘nothing.’ None of that worked,” Bohn said. “And at some point, to communicate, a child just pulled her t-shirt to the side and pointed to a silvery white spot on her shirt.”

For whatever reason, it worked.

But the really remarkable thing was what happened next, Bohn says. When the other child in the pair had to communicate “nothing,” she also pulled her shirt to the side and pointed to it – even those it was red and didn’t have a white spot.

“What happened here is that within this one instant, they established ‘Okay. This is our sign for nothing,’” Bohn said. “It had a referential connection to something in the world in the first round. But the second round, totally abstract, completely removed from what it refers to.”

In other words, they had started creating a language. And they went on from there. Pair after pair of children developed what could be recognized as languages in the span of an hour.

Bohn was surprised by how fast the children developed languages, but even more surprised by the diversity of signs, word orders, and grammatical structures they created.

While this study doesn’t provide a definitive answer to how languages arise, Bohn it provides one plausible mechanism and a way to ask more questions – like whether kids from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds would do the same things, and how these nascent languages might change in being taught to those outside the originating pair.

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“Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.