Origin of language

From Academic Kids

The origin of language is a topic that has been written about for centuries, but the ephemeral nature of speech means that there is almost no data on which to base conclusions on the subject. We know that, at least once during human evolution, a system of verbal communication emerged from proto-linguistic or non-linguistic means of communication, but beyond that little can be said. No current human group, anywhere, speaks a "primitive" or rudimentary language. While existing languages differ in the size and subjects covered in their several lexicons, all human languages possess the grammar and syntax needed, and can invent, translate, or borrow the vocabulary needed to express the full range of their speakers' concepts.

Homo sapiens clearly has an inherent capability for language that is not present in any other species known today. The use of language is one of the most conspicuous and diagnostic traits that distinguish H. sapiens from other animals. But what is the origin of language? How did humans invent this tool?

Missing image
According to a Biblical account, the observed variety of human languages originated at the Tower of Babel. (Image by Gustave Doré)

Hypotheses that try to explain the origins of human language

A fundamental problem of language origin is the Continuity Paradox: language acquisition apparently only occurs in situations involving pre-existing languages, or at the very least pidgin communication. In the 19th century, philosophers and linguists proposed a number of hypotheses to explain the origin of language, which are noteworthy for their names even if none of them have vanquished their competitors in the battles for scientific credibility. The first such names were coined by Otto Jespersen as a way of deriding the hypotheses as simplistic speculation. Once the names caught on, new hypotheses that have arisen often have been given names with a similar style. It seems unlikely that one hypothesis describes the whole process; more likely, multiple mechanisms described by multiple hypotheses, working together or one after another, contributed to the development of language.

The "ding-dong" hypothesis

This hypothesis places the origin of human language in onomatopoeia: the various imitative sounds that humans make to mimic the sounds of the world around them. For example in English, boom is the sound of thunder, oink is the sound made by a pig, and tweet is the sound made by a small bird. Of course, many languages contain their own onomatopoeic words (eg. in Basque, ai-ai, which means "ouch-ouch", refers to a knife).

There are several reasons why this hypothesis has not met with universal acceptance, as it does not adequately explain the creation of words for inanimate objects, such as rocks, much less prepositions and other grammatical particles or abstract concepts. Words marked by onomatopoeia are conspicuous and somewhat unusual in most languages. The "ding-dong" hypothesis is therefore not considered to be a complete explanation for the origin of language.

The "bow-wow" hypothesis

Similar to the "ding-dong" hypothesis, this one has humans forming their first words by imitating animal sounds.

Not only do all of the objections involving other sorts of onomatopoeia explanations apply here, it is worthy to note that the names of animal sounds are strongly culturally determined and differ remarkably from one culture to the next, as the article on oink sets forth. It seems difficult to accept that humans learned to speak to one another by talking to the animals.

The "pooh-pooh" hypothesis

According to this hypothesis, the first words developed from sighs of pleasure, moans of pain, and other semi-involuntary cries or exclamations. These vocalisms then became the names of the phenomena that made people say them.

Most of the objections to the "ding-dong" hypothesis apply here also. Such words are found in most languages; they are conspicuous by their preverbal nature and incomplete assimilation into the lexicon. Moreover, they are culturally determined, and themselves show a great deal of arbitrariness.

The "ta-ta" hypothesis

Charles Darwin lent his authority to this hypothesis. According to this, human language represents the use of oral gestures that began in imitation of hand gestures that were already in use for communication. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran's research into synesthesia and sound symbolism would seem to support this hypothesis.

The difficulty with this hypothesis, is that it begs the question: it requires that a fairly sophisticated repertoire of gestures be in place already for humans to imitate with their mouth gestures. It assumes the existence of a language of gestures without explaining how it arose (however, see Nicaraguan Sign Language). At any rate, though sign languages do have somewhat imitative (or iconic) gestures, they also contain quite arbitrary symbols and have vastly different meanings in different human cultures.

One other difficulty with this hypothesis is that hand gestures and facial expressions are useless unless they are seen. That means it must either be daylight, or firelight, and with nothing blocking one's view. For facial expressions, the communicators must also be facing each other. In addition, hand gestures are difficult if the hands are doing something else.

The "uh-oh" hypothesis

According to this hypothesis, human language begins with the use of arbitrary symbols that represent warnings to other members of the human band. It is agreed that one sort of vocal cry means that lions have been spotted in the area, and another one indicates a snake. You holler one thing at your neighbour to warn them, "Don't eat that! It'll make you sick!" and something distinguishable to warn them "Don't eat that! It's mine!"

This hypothesis seems to have the potential to explain the perceived diversity of human speech; obviously the warning cries uttered here are to some measure arbitrary. It is less certain that this hypothesis could explain how more abstract features of human language developed.

The "yo-he-ho" hypothesis

According to this hypothesis, language arose in rhythmic chants and vocalisms uttered by people engaged in communal labour.

This may have more to do with the origins of poetry than with language itself. Sea chanteys, jody calls, and similar work songs all show humans engaged in communal work improvising with their language around the rhythms of their work. It is uncertain from this hypothesis how meanings came to be associated with the vocalisms uttered by the workers.

The "watch the birdie" hypothesis

This one is associated with ethologist and linguist E. H. Sturtevant. According to this hypothesis, human language became elaborated because humans found selective advantage in being able to deceive other humans. Since exclamations and vocalisms can involuntarily reveal your true mental state, humans learned to feign them in order to deceive others for selfish advantage.

The psychedelic glossolalia hypothesis

This theory states that speech was inspired by psychoactive fungi. The line of reasoning is thus: A common symptom of tryptamine intoxication is glossolalia, more commonly known as “speaking in tongues”. As the continent of Africa began to dry, grassland savannas opened, forcing humans out of the forests and into the plains where the dung of large herbivores was ubiquitous. Species of tryptamine-bearing fungi like Psilocybe, which live on animal dung, would have been very attractive to human populations seeking a new food source. Regular ingestion of the fungi could, over a long time, have stimulated complex vocalizations that eventually led to communicative speech.

Non-naturalistic hypotheses of the origin of language

Some people resort to traditional narratives, myths, or legendary history in order to explain the origin of human language.

The Biblical account in Genesis

see also confusion of tongues.

The Book of Genesis 2:19-20 has God give Adam the task of assigning names to all the animals and plants he had in Eden. The key Biblical narrative is a later Bible story that God punished human presumption in building the Tower of Babel by confusing the tongues of the builders; the observed variety of human languages is a consequence of that divine judgment:

"The entire earth had one language with uniform words. When they migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there. They said to one another, 'Come, let us mold bricks and fire them.' They then had bricks to use as stone, and asphalt for mortar. They said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top shall reach the sky. Let us make ourselves a name, so that we will not be scattered all over the face of the earth.' God descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of man had built. God said, 'They are a single people, all having one language, and this is the first thing they do! Now nothing they plan to do will be unattainable for them! Come, let us descend and confuse their speech, so that one person will not understand another's speech'. From that place, God scattered them all over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. He named it Babel, because this was the place where God confused the world's language. It was from there that God dispersed humanity over all the face of the earth." [1] (http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=1&CHAPTER=11) (Book of Genesis 11:1-9)

For many who affirm the Bible's statements, such as in Orthodox Judaism, this account taken as the core explanation for the origin of language without any need for another explanation. However, it is worth noting that the account does not in fact explain the origin of language, since language is already assumed to exist. It simply describes an event in which language is said to have been differentiated. At most, this is an account of the origin of language groups .

In contradiction to the legendary account of Genesis 11, Genesis 10:5 tells how, before Babel, the languages of the descendants of Japhet were divided naturally,

"By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations." (KJV)

Traditional historical accounts

History contains a number of anecdotes about people who attempted to discover the origin of language by experiment. The first such tale was told by Herodotus, who relates that Pharaoh Psamtik I caused two children to be raised by deaf-mutes; he would see what language they ended up speaking. When the children were brought before him, one of them said something that sounded to the pharaoh like bekos, the Phrygian word for bread. From this, Psamtik concluded that Phrygian was the first language. King James IV of Scotland is said to have tried a similar experiment; his children were supposed to have ended up speaking Hebrew. Akbar, a 16th century Mogul emperor of India is said to have tried a similar experiment; his children did not speak. [2] (http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/jan2001/979316388.Sh.r.html) [3] (http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/ling201/test4materials/ChildLangAcquisition.htm)

From Romulus and Remus forward, there have been a number of accounts of wolf children or feral children raised by wild animals or out of human contact. These accounts exist mostly in anecdote and hearsay as well; but most of them affirm that these children never learned to speak a language, or learned it imperfectly. There have also been accounts of twins who spoke an unintelligible language only their sibling understood. These cases are better documented; in the 1970s, the Kennedy twins whose given names were "Grace" and "Virginia" called each other Poto and Cabengo; it was determined that their idiosyncratic speech was a deeply altered form of English, with some influence from their grandmother's German. It appeared to be a well-formed language, with rules governing grammar and syntax. Similarly idiosyncratic speech patterns were reported from the twin writers June and Jennifer Gibbons.

Even in the absence of the unusual social lives of twins, many people have found it relatively easy and natural to construct new languages, with lexicons either derived from pre-existing languages, or wholly imagined; the author J. R. R. Tolkien and his several languages of Middle-earth is one well known creator; there are many others. Contact languages spontaneously arise when people speaking dissimilar languages must mingle with each other for sufficient periods. These contact languages, or "pidgins," can give rise to "creoles" when they become the daily speech of a community. All of these creations also bear witness to the fact that the use and acquisition of language is a human trait that can manifest itself spontaneously, without formal instruction, and under adverse circumstances.

Evolution and the origin of language

Steven Pinker, following Noam Chomsky and ultimately Immanuel Kant, believes that humans are born with a "language instinct:" a neural processing network that contains a universal grammar that has developed specifically for encoding and decoding human languages.

Derek Bickerton has suggested that the language faculty may have evolved in two major steps. The first is a protolanguage of symbolic representation and verbal and/or gestural signs, and the second formal syntax. Symbolic representation would allow modeling of reality and constructional learning, and, together with some communicative ability, would permit shared learning. Syntax would permit significantly improved precision and clarity in thought and communication.

The evolution of such an inherited trait in the genus Homo may be one thing that explains why anatomically modern humans expanded at the expense of other hominid species in the history of human evolution. Many mainstream theories of human evolution affirm that all current human beings are the descendants of a relatively small population of anatomically modern humans that appeared in Africa less than one million years ago. The development of an inherited gift for language, or its superior attainment over other species of Homo such as Neandertal man, is one possible explanation for the ascendency of anatomically modern humans over other primitive human groups at the time. At least one gene, FOXP2, is claimed to be involved with the development of language.

Was language invented once, or many times?

A related question concerns the possibility of linguistic monogenesis, a hypothesis that holds that there was one single protolanguage from which all other languages spoken by humans descend. The linguists Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen have advocated such a position. The reconstruction of such a protolanguage, if it exists, would be the Holy Grail of historical linguistics.

Some have gone as far as to claim that there exist etymological root words that are supposed to exist in all languages; one such claimed universal root is âkwa, meaning "water". Nicholas Marr contended that the protolanguage had been composed of merely four roots, "sal", "ber", "yon" and "rosh" to which all other words may be traced.

These suggestions remain extremely controversial; many linguists insist that phonetic laws must first be proposed that explain how these roots took their forms in the "daughter" languages, and in the absence of such explanation they reject the entire hypothesis. For these linguists, there may or may not have been such an original protolanguage; the intervening centuries of linguistic change have obscured any trails needed to recover it.

Biologists do not yet agree on when or how language use first emerged among humans or their ancestors. Estimates of the time frame of its origin range from forty thousand years ago, during the time of Cro-Magnon man, to about two million years ago, during the time of Homo habilis.

Some authorities believe that language arose suddenly, about 40,000 years ago. This is the time period from which we first see cultural artifacts, such as cave paintings and carved figurines. The relatively sudden appearance of these artifacts lead some to speculate that the cultural leap may have been prompted by the development of language which in turn allowed greater creativity to flourish.

Studies of the skulls of Neandertals (approximately 60,000 years ago) indicate that they would not have been capable of the full range of vowels used by modern humans. However, as pointed out by linguist Steven Pinker, a full range of vowels is not necessary for rudimentary speech. Even relatively complicated speech would be possible so long as a sufficient number of distinguishable consonants were in use.

Fossil evidence indicates that the main areas of the brain associated with language (Broca's area and Wernicke's area) may have begun to enlarge as long ago as 1 – 1.5 million years, in Homo erectus. However the most complete fossil erectus (nicknamed Turkana Boy; about 1.5 million years old) appears to have lacked a sufficiently tuned ribcage capable of fine control of speech.

The recently discovered Homo floresiensis' ancestors are assumed to have utilized some kind of seafaring device like a raft to reach the island where H. floresiensis dwelt, furthermore, it would seem probable that this process of colonization was an intentional one, and due to the complexity of such a task, it is suggested that H. floresiensis and its ancestor, mid-late H. erectus, must have possessed some form of language which, albeit primitive, would have been able to convey complex concepts. Analysis of the brain of H. floresiensis suggests intellectual capabilities which were comparable to other humans of that time, that is, also not widely divergent from primitive H. sapiens.

In 1886 the Linguistic Society of Paris banned discussion of the origin of language, deeming it to be an unanswerable problem.

The recent development of Nicaraguan Sign Language starting in 1979 seems to be an independent invention of language from scratch. "It's the first and only time that [linguists have] actually seen a language being created out of thin air."

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