Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Spoken And Unspoken.
About Mark Pagel's TEDTalk
Biologist Mark Pagel says our complex language system is a piece of "social technology" that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.
About Mark Pagel
Mark Pagel is the head of the Evolution Laboratory in the biology department at the University of Reading. Pagel builds statistical models to examine how evolutionary processes imprint in human behavior, from genomics to the emergence of complex systems to culture. His latest work examines the parallels between linguistic and biological evolution. Pagel argues language is a culturally transmitted replicator with many of the same properties we find in genes.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today, spoken and unspoken - how we communicate. Now here's the thing about language, it's this amazing tool because it is a tool that has only evolved in our species, in Homo sapiens. We are the only ones ever to develop language. Why is it that language only evolved in our species?
MARK PAGEL: It's a complicated argument, but it really boils down to the fact that other animals don't really have anything to talk about.
RAZ: This is Mark Pagel. He's an evolutionary biologist.
PAGEL: Now we're a species that allows individuals to specialize at what they're good at, and then trade what they make or produce with other people for objects that they make or produce. No other animal does that. As soon as that capability arises, you need to have a technology - a piece of social technology for arranging deals. And that conduit is language. But why we and we alone came to that sort of tipping point of cognition, I think, is still something of a mystery.
RAZ: And it's possible that that tipping point actually happened sometime around 200,000 years ago. And then something really strange happened.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PAGEL: As we spread out around the world, we developed thousands of different languages. Currently, there are about 7,000 or 8,000 different languages spoken on Earth. But the real puzzle and irony is that the greatest density of different languages on Earth is found where people are most tightly packed together. If we go to the island of Papua New Guinea, we can find about 800 to 1,000 different human languages spoken on that island alone.
There are places on that island where you can encounter a new language every two or three miles. And so it seems that we use our language not just to cooperate, but to draw rings around our cooperative groups and to establish identities, and perhaps to protect our knowledge and wisdom and skills from eavesdropping from outside. Different languages slow the flow of ideas between groups. They slow the flow of technologies and they even slow the flow of genes.
RAZ: When you think about humans, right, and the way we evolved, we evolved in a way that would not allow us to communicate with other members of our species, which seems so weird.
PAGEL: It is really peculiar on the face of it that our languages exist to prevent us from communicating with each other. And, of course, that's the sub-subtext of the Tower of Babel. And it's as if we use our language almost instinctively and subconsciously as a marker of tribal identity. As soon as someone opens their mouth and we hear their accent, we start to place them. And what we're subconsciously doing is saying, are they one of us? You know, are they within our in-group or are they an out-group member? And one of the reasons I think we can do that is that it is exceedingly difficult to learn a language to a very high standard such that you can pass yourself off. You know, your accent or the words that you use or the idioms that you use will give you away. And so I think one of the reasons we've evolved to use it that way is because it is, in some sense, a reliable signal of our sort of tribal background.
RAZ: It's interesting because it would sort of confirm this idea that humans are tribal instinctively, that they're not cooperative.
PAGEL: The wonderful sort of paradox and this sort of uncomfortable nature of our tribalism is that we are really remarkably and uniquely cooperative among animals within our tribal groups. And that, you know, the simplest examples of this on a sort of daily basis are the holding doors for people and giving up seats on trains, but, you know, we give to charities and we volunteer to fight in wars and so on. And yet, that cooperation that we engage in, at least throughout our history, has largely been confined to other members of our tribe. And as soon as we move outside the tribe, it's as if a lot of our ethical and moral stances evaporate and we can treat people outside of our tribe as kind of subhuman.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PAGEL: OK. This tendency we have towards isolation, towards keeping to ourselves crashes headfirst into our modern world. Our modern world is communicating with itself and with each other more than it has at any time in its past. And that globalization now raises a burden because these different languages impose a barrier to cooperation. Put it this way, nature knows no other circumstance in which functionally equivalent traits coexist.
One of them always drives the other extinct. And we see this in the inexorable march towards standardization. There are lots and lots of ways of measuring things, but the metric system is winning. There are lots and lots of ways of measuring time, but a really bizarre, base-60 system known as hours and minutes and seconds is nearly universal around the world. And so our modern world now is confronting us with a dilemma. And it's the dilemma that this Chinese man faces - whose language is spoken by more people in the world than any other single language, and yet, he is sitting at his blackboard converting Chinese phrases into English language phrases.
RAZ: So you can imagine a future in which, you know, people will still speak Mandarin or Hindi, but everybody will also speak English.
PAGEL: You know, it's interesting that if we look around the world, there are about 7,000 to 8,000 distinct languages, but about 10 languages account for about 50 percent of all speakers on Earth. And what's happening is that something like 30 to 50 languages per year go extinct. So we're losing our linguistic diversity at a really alarming rate. It's virtually inevitable that there will be a single language on Earth.
PAGEL: Yes. And the reason is that we can already see it happening - that something on the order of 2 billion people speak English as their second language. And what will happen is that if - when you imagine two large language communities living next door to each other, one of those languages is continually sort of outcompeting the other. So at every exchange in a local shop, someone's got to agree to speak the other language. Simply because English has such an enormous head start, one would have to bet on English being the language that's going to be the sort of, you know - and this is a terrible sort of metaphor - the lingua franca for the word.
RAZ: But, I mean, if that happened, I mean, it would also change English.
PAGEL: Yes. One of the remarkable things is how English is fissioning into many forms of English. So there's Spanglish and there's Franglish. But the remarkable thing around the world is that all of these sort of dialects of English are very good at communicating with each other. We expect if there are these forces of homogenization, they will lead, eventually, to a single kind of gray form of English that's spoken all over the world. And, of course, there will be sort of regional dialects, but we expect they would all be sort of inter-communicable. People will be able to speak to each other as they already are.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PAGEL: And then what this does is it raises the possibility to us that in a world in which we want to promote cooperation and exchange, in a world that might be dependent more than ever before on cooperation to maintain and enhance our levels of prosperity, it might be inevitable that we have to confront the idea that our destiny is to be one world with one language. Thank you.
RAZ: Mark Pagel. He's a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Reading. His talk, "How Language Transformed Humanity," is at TED.NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.