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Genetic roots of language


The possibility that language has genetic roots was first raised in the 1960s. Scientists argued that there must be a genetic basis to speech and language.

Apes lack the structures to speak, yet humans, who share more than 98 percent of their genes with chimps, are defined by their ability to speak and use language.

apes1Fast forward to the 21st Century: scientists in Germany and the UK are believed to have unlocked the secret of human language by discovering the first of many genes that gave humans the unique capacity of speech. Without it, language and human culture may never have developed.

Key genetic changes that have taken place in the last 120,000 – 200,000 years of human evolution appear to be the driving force. FOXP2 is the first gene to be definitively linked with human language and speech.

Mice to men

German and British researchers looked at the chimp, gorilla, orangutan, rhesus macaque monkey and mouse. Surprisingly, they discovered that the gene is very similar in mice, monkeys and man. The crucial differences between the human gene versus the animal gene were caused by changes to the gene’s DNA code that had taken place during the evolution of modern man.

It is important to note that this gene is only one of many involved in speech and language, which are complex abilities. According to geneticist Wolfgang Enard of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, “It is not the gene that made language possible.”

But the gene clearly plays an influential role, because it is linked with the ability to control facial movements – a faculty crucial to speech and language. The gene is required during early embryonic development for formation of brain regions associated with speech and language.

Further research found that people who lack two normal copies of the gene will have a considerable inherited speech and language disorder. Tendencies will include dyslexia, difficulties in comprehension and in processing sentences, inability to articulate clearly, and poor spelling and grammar.

Researchers stress that other speech and language genes are likely to be discovered.

Source: BBC, National Geographic.

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