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I am toying around with a corner case of a well explored scenario: post apocalyptic world human re-population.

The added complication this time is that the group of survivors, by a sheer strike of luck, are all functionally mute individuals: they were all able to speak their language, until after various accidents they cannot articulate any sound. For the rest they:

  • are proficient in writing and reading the same language
  • the language they know is phonetically simple (no weird phonemes like the English chemical element "lead" and present tense "lead")
  • are proficient in the sign version of their language
  • possess the needed mix of knowledge (theoretical and practical) to kick-start humanity
  • have perfectly normal hearing
  • recorded version of their language are somewhat available (songs, movies and so on) but, due to circumstances, not easily reproducible, in particular for the first few generations.

Based on what I know, infants learn a language by listening to adults speaking it. In this scenario there will be nobody to speak the language to the first generation. They will only learn the written, read and sign version of the language.

Under the above conditions, and assuming the population manages to grow over time, will they have a spoken language at all or not?

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    $\begingroup$ The first generation is functionally mute. Is the second? When does the potential for speech re-enter society? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Mar 19 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Seems to me in the scenario described, you would need something to stop them from forming a language. The more unclear questions would be, over what time frame and how similar would the emergent language resemble the original preexisting one. $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Commented Mar 19 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ language arose in deaf humans deprived of language in about 4 years of regular interaction. so that is probably your fastest time. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Mar 19 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ "Are proficient in the sign version of their language": This is meaningless. There is no such thing as a "sign version" of a spoken language. For example, American Sign Language is not a version of English, it is a completely different language. (Fun factoid: American Sign Language is actually descended from the French Sign Language, and is not related to the British Sign Language...) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 19 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Vilarinof -- Oops! Still an easy phoneme! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Mar 20 at 21:53

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I suspect that the first generation capable of speech would reinvent it. On the assumption that the mutism isn't heritable, and isn't caused by some environmental agent, that means it'll start happening within a few years of The Event.

Whilst stuff like twin talk might arise from children who spent almost all their time together from a very early age, it seems entirely possible that once some sort of idiogloss springs into existence spontaneously (and humans do seem wired for that sort of thing to happen) it'll bootstrap speech even in the absense of recordings of speech from before The Event. Compare with complex sign languages, which seem to arise spontaneously in various places at various times when there were sufficient deaf people present with a wish to communicate with each other (eg. Origins of Sign Languages, though that's paywalled there are certainly other reasonable papers on the subject I can't track down right now).

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  • $\begingroup$ Research of feral children would yield useful information I immagin. $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Commented Mar 19 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Gillgamesh feral children tend not to have any kind of socialization, and so not much language. There's some studies on groups of homeless children, but I can't find anything directly relevant right now and it all makes for some pretty depressing reading. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 19 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ yes, not the most uplifting reading but the rabbit hole eventually leads to related concepts like; research.library.mun.ca/10241 and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_deprivation $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Commented Mar 19 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Gillgamesh, it's the languages used by groups of children of disparate immigrant populations that give the information you're after. They don't have a common language, but they very quickly develop one with full grammar out of bits of all the languages they have. See irregular conjugations of yeet as a modern western version of this. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 20 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Gillgamesh this will be another 3rd path, as they have a full and complete language, but not the sounds to go with it. It will still be the children as children together who solve that problem, because there's no group more creative than children who haven't yet been taught that they have to obey a set of arbitrary rules. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Mar 20 at 13:11

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