Why is language so important to anthropologists

Language makes man

Not only Herder and Kant asked the basic question: Is language nature or culture, instinct or invention? Ruth Berger gives the answer from a scientific point of view in her book "Why man speaks. A natural history of language". The linguist has not only studied Hebrew, English and Turkic languages, but also biology. She then wrote her master's thesis on the history of anthropology and was therefore ideally equipped to approach the subject of language in an interdisciplinary manner.

"With the interdisciplinary, that is extremely important with the topic of language, because of course it is something very complex, where a lot of areas, from social sciences to classical linguistics, neurosciences, general biology, behavioral sciences, genetics, paleoanthropology, all contribute, and so on That was, of course, a goal that I tried not to look at just that from one subject, but to collect what the various subjects have had in recent years for knowledge. "

And there has actually been a lot of new things in the last ten or 15 years. In the mid-1990s, the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, in his bestseller "The Language Instinct", assumed an innate, abstract knowledge of language that toddlers only had to call up - a purely genetic determinism.

Today we know, however, that there is no preprogrammed "universal grammar", as Pinker and other students of the American linguist Noam Chomsky long postulated. There is indeed a "language gene", but it only controls the development of an important part of the brain, the basal ganglia. They are responsible for fine motor skills and articulation and, in addition to the Broca and Wernicke areas, decisive for language. In addition, there is the anterior cingulate cortex, part of the emotional brain that can compare feelings with thinking, rational considerations and external impressions. A region that is also responsible for communication with animals. During research, Ruth Berger found out that language actually emerged from animal communication, which has long been controversial:

"Different animals have their own social systems and their own signals that they use to organize those social systems, and with humans, sound communication has at some point become very important. That may have something to do with that Humans have a natural tendency to be more cooperative than monkeys and to assume that others will use them rather than want to harm them. Experiments show that, and to promote that, it may have been useful to use social communication and social To intensify the bond. "

Thanks to the cingulate cortex, humans are far more capable of controlling their emotions than monkeys, as well as lying or even hypocritical. This allows him to live together in very large groups, for better or for worse. Thanks to the same vocabulary and experience, language also ensures the cohesion of a society.

The prerequisite for speaking is not only intelligence, but also anatomically they have everything necessary: ​​Recent studies on Spanish prehistoric people show that 600,000 years ago the ear canal was shaped in such a way as to transmit those frequencies that allow us to recognize the consonants, which enables us to design the linguistic code in an extremely differentiated manner. The original form of the language goes back even further, at least 1.8 million years. Because in order to be able to speak, humans have to control their breath, and this is possible thanks to enlarged nerve channels in the vertebral bones, which can already be found in the ancestor of Homo sapiens, Homo ergaster. Monkeys, on the other hand, have no breath control, which is why their laughter sounds similar to gasping:

"This is because they laugh in their normal breathing rhythm, every time they exhale they then make a kind of moaning sound, while when we laugh, similar to how we speak, we take a very long breath or exhale Process that we then modulate with our voice. And that's why we can distinguish between laughing and wheezing or other strained breathing processes much better. "

This led to the fact that test subjects, when they just heard, did not mistake the monkey sounds for laughter, but for sex. And that is quite obvious, because when people speak, they also provide information about their biological fitness:

"Well, you shouldn't misunderstand that it only refers to sexual fitness, the media like to portray that in such a way that men speak so that women fly at them. That may also be the case, occasionally. But always When we speak, we first of all show that we are sane and able to speak. That is something neurologically very demanding, which has a lot to do with very complicated fine motor skills and learning processes. When we communicate with other people , then we use a vocabulary that says certain things about us, and we also use the grammar we master to show how well-read or intelligent we are, and we can also use the language to assess other people well, and if someone uses this medium If you don't have a good command of what you can show off with and what you can say about yourself, then of course he has disadvantages, for example by having less or less good cooperators ation partner or sex partner. "

Almost like in the rest of the animal kingdom? Ranking, fitness - one can also read off one's emotional state, mood and attitude in language. But culture joins nature: over 90 percent of what we give about ourselves every day does not serve to convey content, but rather as a social ritual, according to Ruth Berger:

"There are two people talking to each other, but it's actually not so much about what is being exchanged, it's about the two either building or strengthening or intensifying their relationship or simply confirming that it will continue This relationship. That's what happens when you talk to someone, and when you stop talking to someone, then you've broken that relationship. "

So without language there are no lasting social ties. The much-discussed "language instinct" is evident in people's emotional attitudes and in their dialogical rites, says Ruth Berger: Inborn is not a universal grammar, but the will to communicate.

The fact that the author is not attached to any school helps her investigation. It shows the "link" between language and monogamy, as well as the "missing link" of language research: How one can still understand the development of language in the course of evolution in the so-called "Lall duets" between mother and child. Ruth Berger makes all this clear in an understandable and entertaining way, gives a clear overview of the latest research - the list of literature has 450 titles - and has her complex topic under control.

There is only one thing that the reader misses on his journey through the evolutionary history of language: images, because which layperson can immediately imagine the different areas of the brain? Unfortunately, the publisher saved up. Nevertheless: Ruth Berger gives with "Why man speaks" an excellent example of how one can convey complicated scientific contexts seriously and humorously at the same time. And it shows: Language did not come about through random mutations - it has decisively shaped the development of people, their brains and their behavior.

Ruth Berger: Why humans speak
A natural history of language

Eichborn Verlag, 304 pages, 19.95 euros