Our mastery of language presents many mysteries, not least where grammar comes from and how children learn to speak so effortlessly. Now researchers argue that it all makes sense if you think of language as a game of charades
23 March 2022
IN THE early afternoon of 16 January 1769, HMS Endeavour dropped anchor in the Bay of Good Success on Tierra del Fuego. When Captain James Cook and his crew came ashore, they were met by a group of Indigenous people, probably Haush hunter-gatherers. Two of Cook’s party advanced. Soon, two of the Haush also stepped forward, displayed small sticks and threw them aside. Cook’s men interpreted this as an indication of peaceful intentions. They were right: the groups were soon exchanging gifts and sharing food. With no common language and inhabiting utterly different worlds, they could nonetheless communicate through a high-stakes game of cross-cultural charades.
Most of us have faced our own communication challenges, perhaps resorting to pointing and gesturing when abroad. And yet in daily life, we rarely give language a second thought – never mind its many perplexing mysteries. How can noises convey meaning? Where do the complex layers of linguistic patterns come from? How come children learn language so easily, whereas chimpanzees can scarcely learn it at all?
We believe these questions have remained unanswered because scientists have been looking at language all wrong. A growing body of research undermines prevailing ideas that humans possess an innate language ability somehow wired into our brains, encoding grammatical rules. In our new book, The Language Game, we argue that language isn’t about rules at all. As Cook’s encounter illustrates, it is about improvisation, freedom and the desire to be understood, constrained only by our imaginations. This radical idea helps to explain those long-standing mysteries about language – as well as how language evolved and why it makes humans special.