If evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar is right, language evolved for gossip. At any rate, we certainly do enough of it. Think of how many hours a day you spend in idle chit-chat, mostly talking about who did what to whom.
Gossip is exciting, even when the events discussed are mundane, and swapping stories during talk-in-interaction is probably the most important tool we have in building social relationships. Moreover, since gossip provides us with useful information about people in our social network, the holder of a juicy tidbit gains social capital by selectively sharing it with others.
It’s hard to imagine two humans building a relationship without ever speaking to each other. And yet our chimpanzee cousins build complex social networks without uttering a word. Chimpanzee vocalizations clearly play a social role, particularly laughter. While vocalizations help cement group cohesion, one-on-one relationships are built through other means.
In the primate world, friendships are maintained through the practice of picking fleas and dirt from the fur of other members in the group. Known as social grooming, it’s quite literally a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of relationship. Although grooming does serve a hygienic purpose, cleaning the fur and skin of insects and debris, it also solidifies friendships.
Humans also engage in social grooming—doing each other’s hair, primping each other’s clothes. But according to Dunbar, we’ve found an easier, more effective way of building and maintaining relationships—idle chit-chat. In other words, for us, gossip serves the same purpose of social network building as does mutual grooming for chimpanzees.
This gossip-as-grooming hypothesis is one of several theories of language evolution that emphasize the social rather than cognitive aspects of language. For example, anthropologist Dean Falk has proposed that language evolved out of the vocalizations of mothers soothing their young. In a similar vein, archeologist Steven Mithen proposes that language evolved out of the music-like vocalizations use by pre-humans to coordinate group behaviors.
Social theories of language evolution emphasize the fact that language is, first and foremost, a form of social behavior. If humans were hermits, there would be no need for language. This fairly obvious fact is all too often ignored by psycholinguists, who tend to focus more on the cognitive processes inside the head of the individual speaker.
Yet social theories of language evolution all suffer from the same explanatory gap. Specifically, the question is how meaningless vocalizations could have evolved into utterances with not only meaning but also complex structure. Even the “sweet nothings” that lovers whisper to each other usually come in the form of complete sentences.
The gossip-as-grooming hypothesis has an even larger gap to explain, namely the transition from physical grooming to vocal interaction. However, if we focus on the structure of language, we see an interesting connection between gossip and grammar.
Language compels us to organize our thoughts into sentences, which are basically tidbits of gossip. Every sentence has a subject—who or what, but mostly who—the sentence is about. Every sentence also has a verb—what the subject did, or will do, or is doing right now. And most sentences also have an object—who or what the subject performed the action on.
Even a science lecture takes the form of gossip. We talk about planets revolving around stars and gamma rays smashing into atomic nuclei as if planets and gamma rays were animate beings with minds of their own. We have no other way of talking about things, which is one reason why scientists so often resort to explaining their ideas in mathematical equations instead.
There’s no obvious reason why language, as a communication system, needs to be structured as snippets of gossip. Computer languages certainly aren’t structured that way. There’s also a structure to the waggle dance performed by honeybees to communicate about the location of resources, but it’s not at all like the grammar of human languages. Rather, the dance conveys two pieces of information, direction and distance, much like the polar coordinates used by pilots and air traffic controllers.
Although chimpanzees don’t have language, they do have complex social structures. So they clearly have a well-developed understanding of who-did-what-to-whom. The structure of language is constrained by general brain processes, many of which are used to guide our interactions with others. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that language is structured principally to convey social information.
In that sense, we truly are born to gossip.
Dunbar, R. (1998). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Falk, D. (2009). Finding our tongues: Mothers, infants and the origin of language. New York: Basic Books.
Fedurek, P., & Dunbar, R. M. (2009). What does mutual grooming tell us about why chimpanzees groom? Ethology, 115, 566–575.
Mithen, S. J. (2005). The singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind and body. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ross, B. (2009). Challenges facing theories of music and language co-evolution. Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa, 6, 61–76.
Zuberbühler, K. (2005). The phylogenetic roots of language: Evidence from primate communication and cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science 14, 126–130.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).