Playing with language, creating complexity: has play contributed to the evolution of complex language?

Michelle C Langley*, Antonio Benítez-Burraco, Vera Kempe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
254 Downloads (Pure)


We argue that enhanced play may have contributed to the emergence of complex language systems in modern humans (Homo sapiens). To support this idea, we first discuss evidence for an expansion of playing behavior connected to the extended childhood of modern human children, and the potential of this period for the transmission of complex cultural traits, including language. We then link two of the most important functions of play-exploration and innovation-to the potential for cumulative cultural evolution in general and for the emergence of complex language in particular. If correct, the shorter childhood of Neanderthals-involving restrictions on time to experiment and innovate-may have restricted their language (and other symbolic) system/s. Consequently, fully investigating the role that play may have had in the transmission of language and the development of symbolic cultures in both modern humans and Neanderthals provides a new avenue of research for Paleolithic archaeology and related disciplines.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-40
Number of pages12
JournalEvolutionary Anthropology
Issue number1
Early online date5 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 11 Feb 2020


  • Childhood
  • Language development
  • Neanderthals
  • Self-domestication
  • Symbolism


Dive into the research topics of 'Playing with language, creating complexity: has play contributed to the evolution of complex language?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this