Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson, from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the Radboud University Nijmegen, have published a paper (abstract) arguing that (in the words of this Jul. 9 Sci-News.com story) “essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neanderthals and the Denisovans.” The abstract linked above says:
This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000–100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and toward a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.
Now, my instinctual reaction is “What a load of poppycock,” but both Dediu and Levinson have been mentioned with respect over at Language Log, and I’m certainly not competent to have an informed opinion. I’m posting this so that those better informed than I can weigh in, and in the hope that it might prompt one of the Loggers to address it.