Language, Geological Time, and Evolution

Individual Development & Its Relationship To Emotions

Posted Jul 01, 2017

We are exploring the three major aspects of human development: emotions, language, and cognition. We turn now to language.

"An infant child possesses an amazing, and fleeting, gift: The ability to master a language quickly. At six months, the child can learn the sounds that make up English words and, if also exposed to Quechua and Tagalog, he or she can pick up the unique acoustic properties of those languages, too. By age three, a toddler can converse with a parent, a playmate or a stranger.”  
Patricia K. Kuhl (Scientific American, November, 2015, p. 66)
“Through his powers of intellect, articulate language has been evolved; and on this his wonderful advancement has mainly depended.”
 – Charles Darwin, (The Descent of Man, 1874, p. 49)

Language has been described as one of the most important revolutionary advances of human beings. We will explore language with specific reference to individual development and its relationship to emotions and cognition.

So what is language?
Let’s keep it straightforward. Merriam-Webster’s says language is: the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community; the audible, articulate, meaningful sound as produced by the action of the vocal cords; and a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings.

First, however, we must put language in the context of geological time. According to the big bang theory, the universe expanded from an extremely dense state about 13.8 billion years ago. The Earth and Sun were formed about 4.6 billion years ago.

Now let’s put our species, Homo sapiens, into this context. As the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr puts it, Homo sapiens appears to have originated in sub-Saharan Africa about 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, deriving from African populations of Homo erectus (Mayr, 2001). DNA and fossil evidence currently suggests the following migration across the earth: “A wave of H. sapiens eventually broke out of Africa and spread rapidly over the entire world. They reached Australia some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, eastern Asia 30,000 years ago, and North America reportedly about 12,000 years ago. There is, however, some evidence for an earlier colonization of America, possibly as early as 50,000 years ago” (Mayr, 2001, p. 250).

There appears to be little data to help us understand the development of language during the approximately 200,000 years of Homo sapiens. However, recently a New Zealand linguist, Quentin Atkinson, used a mathematical model to study the origin and spread of language (2011). In his examination of 504 languages around the world, he suggested language was at least 50,000 years old, and that one could trace the origin of language to Africa. There remains significant scientific controversy about these findings and implications.

How about writing? Writing involves the expressions of language by letters or other marks. Writing as we know it shows up about 5,000-6,000 years ago, and it was preceded by various forms of numerical recording.

What About Animals and Language?

Do animals express what we know of as feelings? As we discussed previously, Darwin, Tomkins, Mayr, and many others, argue that they do. “…it is now realized that many animals also show that they have emotions of fear, happiness, caution, depression, and almost any other known human emotion” (Mayr, 2001, p. 256). This probably shouldn’t surprise us, given that Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and various Primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos have a remarkable percentage of DNA in common—at least 97% depending on which Primates and how measured (Moreno, 2014). Is it any wonder that the expressions and feelings are similar?

But do animals have language? Here’s how Mayr addresses this question: “Even though we often use the word ‘language’ in connection with the information transmittal systems of animals, such as the ‘language of bees,’ actually all of these animal species have merely systems of giving and receiving signals. To be a language, a system of communication must contain syntax and grammar. Psychologists have attempted for half a century to teach language to chimpanzees, but in vain. Chimps seem to lack the neural equipment to adopt syntax. Therefore, they cannot talk about the future or the past” (2001, p. 253).

Darwin discusses the issue in more detail: “…all the higher mammals possess vocal organs, constructed on the same general plan as ours…” (1874, p. 92). Darwin also grappled with this issue in his wonderfully picturesque way by comparing other species to Homo sapiens: “The habitual use of articulate language is, however, peculiar to man; …That which distinguishes man from the lower animals is not the understanding of articulate sounds, for, as everyone knows, dogs understand many words and sentences. In this respect they are at the same stage of development as infants, between the ages of ten and twelve months, who understand many words and short sentences, but cannot yet utter a single word. It is not the mere articulation which is our distinguishing character, for parrots and other birds possess this power. Nor is it the mere capacity of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas; for it is certain that some parrots, which have been taught to speak, connect unerringly words with things, and persons with events. The lower animals differ from man solely in his almost infinitely larger power of associating together the most diversified sounds and ideas; and this obviously depends on the high development of his mental powers” (1874, p. 88).

The Enigma of Language: Language Is a Double-Edged Sword

As the infant researcher Daniel Stern (1985) points out, language creates tremendous advantages. It allows for “shared meanings… mutual experiences of meaning” (p. 162). The “possible ways of ‘being with’ another increase enormously” (p. 162).

However, he goes on: “But in fact language is a double-edged sword… It drives a wedge between two simultaneous forms of interpersonal experience: as it is lived and as it is verbally represented” (p. 162).

Thus, language can be used for sharing, but since the same words can mean different things to different people, misperceptions and confusion can readily occur. Language becomes “…an interpersonal problem. Meaning… is something to be negotiated between the parent and child” (p. 170).  So, as Stern notes, language can create shareability, but it can also have an alienating effect on self-experience and togetherness.

The enigma of language is very important when it comes to putting words to feelings. If the caregivers understand the infant/child’s expressions of interest, enjoyment, distress, anger, fear, and so on – and label them accurately as such with words – the youngster has a much better change of understanding her/his own internal world and feelings.

There is also extensive literature in experimental psychology which tends to support the efficacy of putting words to feelings, particularly as a viable form of emotional regulation. Experimental studies have found that verbalization (spoken or written) of current emotional experience reduces distress in contrast to no verbalization, verbalization of nonaffective material, distraction, or reappraisal (Frattaroli, 2005; Kircansky et al., 2012; Pennebaker and Chung, 2011). In addition, neuroimaging studies suggest that affect labeling diminishes the response of the amygdala and enhances the activity of the cortex (Lieberman et al., 2007). This leads to greater self-reflection, use of reason, and impulse regulation.

Before Children Talk, They Understand

“By the time babies start to talk they have already acquired a great deal of world knowledge…”
– Daniel Stern, M.D. (The Interpersonal World of the Infant, 1985, p. 168)
“…some senses of the self do exist long prior to self-awareness and language. These include the senses of agency, of physical cohesion, of continuity in time, of having intentions in mind, and other such experiences…”
– Daniel Stern, M.D. (The Interpersonal World of the Infant, 1985, p. 6)

When we talk about the importance of language, we almost automatically think in terms of when the child begins to speak. But long before the child speaks, she is listening—and understanding far more than we used to think. We are talking about language and infancy—roughly the period prior to 1-2 years of age. “Infant” means incapable of speech—but it does not mean incapable of understanding speech.

Actually, psychoanalytic researchers and clinicians, who deal in detail with early parent-infant interactions, have begun to ask if there is any “nonverbal” period of development (Vivona, 2012). Why? Because, the baby is immersed in words as well as sounds from pregnancy onwards. So the idea is that words and feelings and meanings combine very early on. Patricia Kuhl’s research is stunning in demonstrating the ability of very young humans to master languages (2015).

Hearing and Understanding

During infancy, the baby and caretakers communicate through facial expressions and gestures and sounds. We described this process in detail previously. All babies have a universal, inherited, built-in signaling system with which they both send and receive signals. This signaling is done especially through the facial expressions and vocalizations. These signals are called feelings—such as joy, surprise, anger, and fear.

At first, then, a child may gather meaning through tone of voice, inflection, gestures and facial expressions. Studies have shown that soothing words and tones register differently to an infant than distressed and angry sounds or words. And it is also stunning to realize how quickly very young children understand the meaning of words themselves.

From the earliest days of their lives, children are developing their vocabulary. At this young age, the child’s ability to understand words far outstrips her ability to speak words. This is one reason it makes good sense to talk a lot with very young children… they are learning words and meanings long before they can speak! This is very important. Putting words to feelings can enhance tension-regulation, self-soothing, and a better understanding of one’s internal world and emotions (Katan, 1961; Holinger, 2016).

It is a thrill when parents realize how much a child is processing and learning before she utters her first word. Finally, they can talk to their children and be clearly understood. “Please bring your shoes to me so we can put them on” … and lo and behold the child delivers her sneakers. “Will you please pick up your trains off the floor so no one steps on them and breaks them?” And he picks up his trains. The child may not be able to speak yet, but he is accumulating an understanding of many, many words—far more than he will be able to put voice to for months and months.

What Words? What Kind of Talk?

So, a child is never too young to understand what’s going on (even if on a purely emotional level), and it is never too early to talk with a child. But questions arise: What kind of talk? What words? To what end? Almost any talking and words can be a useful learning experience for your child. But an especially useful strategy with the pre-verbal child is accurately labeling her feelings with words. The payoff is terrific if words for feelings can be brought into the conversations at the earliest possible time.

[Infant upset about cookie] Parents can help young children become aware of their feelings (and feel that the parents “get them”) by using the words for the nine signals—affects, feelings—opportunity presents itself.

“You are excited about the glitter make-up!”
“You felt a lot of fear when the dog ran up so fast.”
“You were angry when I said no more cookies before dinner.”

Some research suggests that the parents’ capacity to link words and feelings is an important aspect of good parent/child relationship and the healthy development of the child’s personality. Greg Lowder and his colleagues are psychoanalytic researchers from New York and California. Over the past several years, they have explored this issue in an intriguing set of studies.  In 2007, these researchers eloquently summarized the work as follows: "Many factors come to bear on how successfully a mother will be able to manage the parenting experience.  A primary factor may be her ability to connect her emotions to language.  Her ability to do so, more or less successfully, will affect her capacity to regulate emotions as they arise, along with her ability to receive support from others by successfully communicating what she feels.”    

Translating Feelings into Words: Examples

Here's an example of putting words to feelings before the child can talk.
Say your infant daughter is crawling toward a toy and accidentally puts her hand on a sharp thumbtack. Her eyebrows will arch in the middle, the corners of her mouth will drop down, her chin will begin to quiver, she may begin crying and then getting red in the face and howling. Upon seeing or hearing this you will probably come over, pick her up, say something like "Oh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry," reassure her, hold her, perhaps kiss her hand where it hurts.

What have you done here? You have correctly perceived that the thumbtack triggered your daughter's distress, fear, and then possibly excessive distress and angry feelings.  You responded by attending to the trigger of her pain, getting rid of the thumbtack, kissing the hurt hand, and comforting her.

In this instance, you have understood your daughter's reactions – you have translated her facial expressions and cries into the feelings of distress, anger, and fear. This is translating. Many parents are able to do this instinctively – understand what feelings their baby is expressing through facial expressions and cries. Some parents are also aware of the existence of inborn feelings and are able to translate the expressions into words at the time: "Oh, dear, that hurt, didn't it? I can see you are distressed and scared."

Let's look at another example
Your little boy is crawling on the floor and spots a small red car.  He picks it up, looks at it intensely, his eyebrows a bit down and his mouth slightly open. Now he begins to play more actively with it, gurgling delightedly as he runs it back and forth along the floor. You realize he is interested in the little car, and he is getting excited as he plays with it. Technically, the affect of interest-to-excitement has been triggered – exactly what you want. You might even put it into words for him: "You sure are interested in that car – that's great!  You really are excited!"

This is the earliest kind of translating – moving from facial expressions and vocalizations into feelings.

We will discuss another type of translating which is harder for many parents – going from the child's words back to the feelings.


Unbearable Affect: A Guide to the Psychotherapy of Psychosis (2nd Edition)
Author: David A. S. Garfield, M.D.

London: Karnac, 2009

Beyond Medication: Therapeutic Engagement and the Recovery from Psychosis
Editors: David Garfield, M.D., and Daniel Mackler, M.D.

London: Routledge, 2009

These two books are wonderful treatises about the emotions, psychodynamics, and treatment of serious mental illnesses.

About Paul C. Holinger, MD, MPH

Dr. Holinger is Faculty, Training/Supervising Analyst (Child/Adolescent and Adult), and former Dean at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. He is also Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, and a Founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy.

His work includes articles and books on psychiatric epidemiology and public health (including suicide, homicide, and population trends over time), and infant and child development (including What Babies Say Before They Can Talk).


Atkinson QD (2011). Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. Science 332: 346-349.

Darwin C (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray. 1st Edition. The Descent of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2nd Edition. London: John Murray, 1874. Quotes from 2nd Edition, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Frattaroli J (2005). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis. Psychol Bull 132: 823-865.

Holinger PC (2016). Further considerations of theory, technique, and affect in child psychoanalysis: Two prelatency cases. International Journal Psychoanalysis 97: 1279-1297.

Katan A (1961). Some thoughts about the role of verbalization in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 16: 184-188.

Kircanski K, Lieberman MD, Craske MG (2012). Feelings into words: Contributions of language to exposure therapy. Psychol Sci 23: 1086-1091, 2012.

Kuhl PK (2015). Baby talk. Scientific American: November, 64-69.

Lieberman MD, et al (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci 18: 421-428.

Mayr E (2001). What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books.  

Moreno J (2014). How We Became Human: A Challenge to Psychoanalysis. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, Translated by Judith Filc.

Pennebaker JW, Chung CK (2011). Expressive writing: Connections to physical and mental health. In The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology (HS Friedman, ed). New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 417-437.

Vivona JM (2013). Is there a nonverbal period of development? Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 60: 231-265.

About the Author

Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, is a professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center and author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

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