Just watched this video, a TED talk from Mark Pagel:
I found the discussion to be intriguing.
I don't necessarily agree with everything he said. Indeed, I wonder if some anthropologists cringe and shudder when he suggests that chipanzees cannot "ape" the actions they see. I think the fact that many of them can use a stick to get ants out of the ground in the first place is a sign of some level of sharing of ideas between individuals. Also, it is curious to wonder if the evolution of language is a necessity for intelligent/conscious organisms to create civilizations.
I do like how the speaker links the development of language to our mental capacity for not only "aping" the acts of others, but also of sharing our acts with others. Language is a technology. Many people may not see it as such; they may take speaking and language for granted. But language is a tool we developed within ourselves.
We are now developing languages in new ways. We're building mathematical languages and computer languages which have allowed us to increase our capacity for computation, modeling, and data structuring. Looking forward to a future where we may one day come into contact with intelligent extraterrestrial beings, I have to wonder about the role language will play in our exchanges.
Will it be as simple as creating some "galactic rosetta stone" which will allow us to translate our languages together, or will the language barrier be so complex, so different, that we will feel utterly disconnected from whomever else is out there? We use manipulations of air and our internal organs to create sound. We can use tools, such as musical instruments and computers, to create other sounds. This is our language. We also have gesturing, which can very much be a part of our language. I wonder how an intelligent extraterrestrial being may perceive our language. Would it be common that developing biological and mechanical devices for creating vibrations in the local medium is the primary source of language? What if E.T. phones home with something other than sound? What if other beings have evolved a biological ability to speak through pulses in electromagnetic radiation (beyond our simple computer screens and written language; I mean a real ability to transmit and receive light signals as a form of language)? What if other beings have language on the level of producing structure in molecules and then transmitting those molecules? That would make "shaking hands" a whole new experience. It is intriguing indeed to wonder what the language barrier will be between ourselves and any other intelligent organisms we may one day meet.
Just more to ponder.