When did Past Tense Arise?

May 16th, 2012

The subject of the origin of language was long considered an insoluble problem burdened with far too much idle speculation, but in the last few decades we’ve finally started making some serious progress on the matter. It now seems fairly clear that the first manifestations were “shared attention” nouns – sounds that designated known types of objects. Thus, some of the earliest words would have been things like rock, animal, and water. You pointed at the object and voiced the noun in order to focus the attention of another person on that object.

Sometime later, by a process that is not yet well-understood, we added verbs to our linguistic repertoire. Perhaps they first appeared in imperative mood (e.g., “Kill animal!” or “Make fire!”). Perhaps they arose from nouns: the noun
dead is somehow altered to become the verb kill. There are plenty of theories, but so far no consensus on the answer.

Today I’d like to ask the question “How did past tense arise?” The significance of this question is that the appearance of past tense marks the beginning of storytelling. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any major function of past tense other than storytelling. Since storytelling is the primary means by which culture is transmitted, the appearance of past tense also marks the moment when the amount of culture maintained by human societies mushroomed.

While storytelling is the primary means for cultural transmission, it isn’t the only means. The techniques for making stone tools were culturally transmitted starting at least two million years ago. However, these techniques were readily transmitted by example: Old Pro Hominid makes a stone tool while Green Kid Hominid observes. Green Kid Hominid tries his hand at it and makes a mistake; Old Pro Hominid performs the action properly for the kid. No language is required for this process. Indeed, it appears that all hominid culture prior to the Upper Paleolithic period (prior to about 30,000 years ago) was transmitted by demonstration rather than explication.

Something happened around the transition from Middle Paleolithic to Upper Paleolithic 30,000 years ago. There was a cultural quickening at this time. The cave paintings of southwestern France and northern Spain were created around this time. Our first sample of ceramic art appears at this time. What on earth inspired people to make these representations? Here’s my hunch as to the process:

Once hominids migrated out of Africa, they became aware of seasonality, the annual passage of the seasons and the changes in the nature and quantity of the food supply with the seasons. The further north they penetrated, the more dramatic the seasons became, and the important that annual cycle became to these hominids. Close observations of the behavior of the flora gave them the knowledge they needed to predict seasonal changes.

But there was a small flaw in this process arising from the migrations of herds of herbivores who provided the meat the humans craved. Animal migrations are not timed by temperature or local foliage; they are instead timed by the ratio of the length of day to the length of night. Humans who relied solely on local foliage (especially the smaller plants whose seasonal variations are controlled more by temperature than by day/night relationships) struggled with errors in their predictions of animal migrations. The errors arose from weather variations; the first day of spring might be March 21st, but you can still get snow that day if you’re far enough north. Calendars would have provided a more reliable means of predicting migration, and we can be certain that the process of developing a calendar extended over tens of millennia. A calendar is a record of time based on counting days. The earliest calendars were probably sticks with notches cut into them, each notch representing one day. We have quite a few artifacts in our museums showing a series of notches, demonstrating that people were counting things a long time ago.

All this worrying over the passage of the seasons would have pushed the development of the concept of time in the minds of these people. Of course, people had to be aware of time long before the Upper Paleolithic: it’s hard to go through life failing to notice the diurnal cycle. But, as Lord Kelvin noted, “To measure is to know”, and so the actual measurement of time by counting days would have greatly stimulated human ideas about time. I believe that the concepts of past and future emerged in language (and manifested as tense) as a result of the need to predict animal migrations. This would have happened between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. I lean toward the later date because it connects more neatly to the cultural quickening of 30,000 years ago.

Once people had empowered language with past tense, storytelling was inevitable, and the ability to transmit culture was greatly enhanced through storytelling, which triggered the cultural quickening.

That’s my hunch.