Talk it over: Language, uniquely, makes us human

February 27, 2013 by Amy Marshall, The Conversation
Maybe we’re not as different as we’d like to think. Credit: pcgn7

We humans tend to consider ourselves apart from other species. But we're not really so different. So what makes us unique? I'd say it's language, though not everyone would agree.

Some people insist it's our large brains, but dolphins have proportionally larger brains than we do. Some still contend our opposable thumbs set us apart, but have two thumbs on each hand.

We walk on two legs? Yes, of course, but the feathered species do that too.

Some are insistent that our individuality as a species rests on the fact we can use tools, but many diverse are tool-users, including primates, elephants and birds. Even the veined octopus and certain ants and wasps have been observed .

The answer, then, is … language. We uniquely have the ability to communicate complex and .

At first it was spoken language. Then, independently, several human cultures developed the written word – the means to communicate with others over thousands of miles or years.

Through language we have built civilisations, developed science and medicine, literature and philosophy. We do not have to learn everything from personal experience, because through language we can learn from the experience of others.

Language makes us human, and it's encoded in our DNA.

The language gene

FOXP2, known as the "language gene", has a unique sequence in humans. While other living mammals share identical at two key amino positions 303 and 325, these amino acids are different in humans (threonine to asparagine at amino acid 303 and asparagine to serine at amino acid 325).

Broken Simulacra.

Such substitution mutations occurred some time after we diverged from our with the chimpanzee 4-8 million years ago.

We shared this unique FOXP2 with both and Denisovans, from which we diverged somewhere in the region of 400,000 years ago.

Compared to these other , humans have an additional mutation in a region that regulates FOXP2 gene expression. Was it this latest mutation in FOXP2 that ensured our survival through better communication, as other hominids went extinct?

This mutation was swiftly incorporated into the human genome at high frequencies during the last 50,000 years suggesting it carries a survival advantage. Studies to understand the effect of this most recent change in FOXP2 are currently underway.

Credit: M.H.G. (BAH)

The FOXP2 gene is involved in brain development, particularly those areas involved in vocal behaviour. FOXP2 is particularly important for animals, including songbirds such as finches, canaries and parrots that learn to sing by imitation.

In the songbird brain, FOXP2 expression is highest when birds are learning to sing. Reduction of FOXP2 expression in the brain of zebra finches at this critical period left birds unable to completely or accurately learn to sing.

In humans, FOXP2 mutations are associated with severe speech and language deficits known as developmental verbal dyspraxia – affecting both the ability to coordinate vocal muscles in speech and causing language comprehension difficulties. What a terrible, isolating condition that must be.

In language we find both truth and beauty; then, being human, we use it to argue about what is true and beautiful.

Language is fundamentally what makes us what we are. Would you disagree? If so, please, use your voice and let me know.

Explore further: A gene implicated in human language affects song learning in songbirds

Related Stories

Bats add their voice to the FOXP2 story

September 19, 2007

When it comes to the FOXP2 gene, humans have had most to shout about. Discoveries that mutations in this gene lead to speech defects and that the gene underwent changes around the time language evolved both implicate FOXP2 ...

Language protein differs in males, females

February 19, 2013

Male rat pups have more of a specific brain protein associated with language development than females, according to a study published February 20 in The Journal of Neuroscience. The study also found sex differences in the ...

Language-related gene responsible for branching of neurons

September 1, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Which genetic mutations enabled the evolution of language? The foxp2 gene plays an important role in language development. Simon E. Fisher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, ...

Recommended for you

Physicists discover new class of pentaquarks

March 26, 2019

Tomasz Skwarnicki, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, has uncovered new information about a class of particles called pentaquarks. His findings could lead to a new understanding ...

Study finds people who feed birds impact conservation

March 26, 2019

People in many parts of the world feed birds in their backyards, often due to a desire to help wildlife or to connect with nature. In the United States alone, over 57 million households in the feed backyard birds, spending ...

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.