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Evolution’s great mystery: Language - Michael Corballis

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What we call language is something more specific than communication. Language is about sharing what’s in our minds: stories, opinions, questions, the past or future, imagined times or places, ideas. It is fundamentally open-ended, and can be used to say an unlimited number of things. So what does language mean for humanity, and how did we come to have it? Michael Corballis investigates.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Director Biljana Labovic
  • Educator Michael Corballis
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Art Director Mitchelle Tamariz
  • Animation Mitchelle Tamariz
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal, Elizabeth Cox
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Fact-Checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Human speech is quite unlike the way other animals communicate with each other. It is much more open-ended and flexible than animal calls, dolphin whistles, or even birdsong. Could it have originated in something other than vocal sounds?

For more on the evolution of language, check out the educator of this lesson’s website at michaelcorballis.com. The website gives various publications on the topic.

In his book, The Truth about Language (Princeton, 2017), Michael explores the slow process of language's evolution rooted in grammatical systems of dating back in our evolutionary history.

Check our Michael’s work on cognitive science science trends including:

Corballis, M.C. 2013. Mental time travel: A case for evolutionary continuity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17, 5-6.

Corballis, M.C. 2017. Language evolution: A changing perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 27, 229-236. 

Check out the author of Eat, Pray, Love’s speech on creative genius: or cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky’s piece on how language shapes the way we think

Interested in learning how language evolved from manual gestures? Check out Michael’s TEDx talk

For more on the importance of gestures, check out this video

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Create and share a new lesson based on this one.

About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Director Biljana Labovic
  • Educator Michael Corballis
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Art Director Mitchelle Tamariz
  • Animation Mitchelle Tamariz
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal, Elizabeth Cox
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Fact-Checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more