Gossip and the social origins of language

Robin I. M. Dunbar

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Gossip and the social origins of language

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  • Linguistics
  • Language Evolution
  • Sociolinguistics


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The social hypothesis for language origins is based on the claim that primates use social grooming to bond social groups, and the time available for grooming has an upper limit due to the demands of foraging and food processing. The grooming time is a linear function of group size in both primates and birds so it sets an upper limit to the size of community that can be integrated using the conventional primate mechanism. One of the researchers suggested that language represented a phase shift in communication that allowed this particular glass ceiling to be breached, making it possible for hominins to evolve significantly larger groups than those found among primates. Another researcher showed that the vocal repertoire of the chickadee becomes structurally more complex as group size increases. These findings suggest that the vocal repertoire can become more complex in order to provide a supplementary mechanism for social bonding. The correlation between brain size and group size in primates implies that the first stage of vocal complexity must have occurred with the appearance of the genus Homo around 2 million years ago. The putative demands of instruction in tool manufacture would imply that full-blown language would have evolved at this stage, whereas the social hypothesis requires only an extension of natural primate vocal communication with full grammatical language evolving later.

Keywords: social grooming; conventional primate mechanism; vocal repertoire; vocal communication; grammatical language

Article.  1257 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Sociolinguistics

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