Here’s an interesting question:
If we shipwrecked a boatload of babies on the Galapagos Islands–assuming they had all the food, water, and shelter they needed to survive–would they produce language in any form when they grew up?
It comes from Christine Kenneally, who posed the question to a group of experts in the field. It’s a fascinating dilemma–are we all born with language “inside” of us; will it emerge without the social guidance of parents and other language speakers, or does each successive generation have to learn language anew?
Edmond Blair Bolles has provided a nice summary of the answers. But none of the experts offered the answer I found most convincing — the one offered by Bolles himself:
Nobody refers directly to the historical conversion of pidgin languages (protolanguages) into creoles (full languages). This change has happened many times in the past centuries, and Derek Bickerton established nicely that it was the children who converted Hawaiian pidgin into Hawaiian Creole. This feat was not accomplished in a nonlinguistic setting. The pidgin pre-existed the children, so these speakers were not like the lone infants on the Galapagos, nevertheless, the babbling of infants, the creation of the Nicaraguan sign language, and the conversion of Hawaiian English from pidgin to creole offers a pile of positive evidence that humans are born with more than a language-ready brain. We have a set of behaviors and social expectations that make some kind of linguistic communication sure to arise, assuming some kind of minimal social life.
There’s been a lot of talk about Alan Weisman’s book discussing what would happen if the humans disappeared from the earth, but I find Kenneally’s sort of question more interesting. I’ve often wondered how long it would take a small group (say, 50) of humans to recreate modern society. Would 50 average individuals have enough knowledge to rebuild modern technology in a generation? Would they want to?