The Origins of Language

Doesn’t it strike you as odd that we know an enormous amount about the first fractions of a second in the history of the universe, but we know comparatively little about where language comes from? Hmm. From the moment we are born we have language in our lives, it is a unique faculty that defines us as humans. How did the ability to speak evolve? Why is it uniquely human? While other animals can communicate their basic needs and emotions to each other, with bees and dolphins providing widely documented examples, humans are the only species capable of writing poetry, debating ethics or engaging in witty banter. It is remarkable that no other creature has developed speech, not even our closest relatives the chimps can talk. One of the most elaborate and complex systems in existence, the human language allows us to communicate anything, whether it is present, absent, or non-existent.

But what are the origins of this peerless faculty? Is language a divine gift bequeathed to us by the gods? Or is it a built-in, innate ability that all humans are born with? It is highly conceivable that a divine origin to language is the earliest hypothesis offered by man, certainly in early antiquity, to explain the language phenomenon. This theory is ubiquitous in the teachings of the Bible, where God created the world by utterances and proceeded to instruct Adam to name all things. All the mythologies of the ancient world contain stories of language origin, often citing magical qualities man has attributed to language. While speculation on a divine origin of language makes for an interesting debate, and happens to be one of my favourite topics, these theories are impossible to authenticate as they tie into issues of personal faith and therefore cannot be measured by any scientific model.

The Proto-language, or monogenesis theory, contends that all tongues evolved from one primitive natural language, often called Proto-Human. Advocates of this theory have proposed a list of words they believe are traceable to the monogenetic language. There have been several examples throughout history of self-styled “scientific experiments” designed to ascertain this Proto-language, one of which was Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus (664-610 B.C.) who dispatched two infants to live in the company of a shepherd with instructions to feed and shelter them, but not to engage in any conversation. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, when one of the children cried out bekos, the Phrygian word for bread, Psammetichus surmised that Phrygian must be the Proto-language. Another was King James IV of Scotland (1518-1572), who carried out a similar experiment and concluded that Hebrew was the Proto-language. Central to this debate is the case of feral children, particularly that of Genie. The child in question did not develop a Proto-language. Rather, she communicated using a series of grunts and gestures and was never able to fully acquire language, in spite of years of intervention by linguists and psychologists.

The ‘naturalist versus conventionalist’ hypothesis is concerned with several aspects of language origin, the earliest of which is whether early humans invented language or merely emulated the natural sounds around them. Plato and Socrates postulated that words echoed the essence of their meaning. Called the ‘bow-wow theory’, the idea that words evolved from the onomatopoetic utterances of our distant ancestors was prevalent up to the last century. A similar theory suggests that language evolved by way of emotional exclamations denoting pain, anger, pleasure, surprise, etc. In the 1930s, a theory posited that language originated in physical gestures carrying the message of nonverbal communication, which in time evolved into oral gesticulations when humans were unable to move their hands due to working with tools, gathering food, etc.  This is called the ‘oral-gestural theory’.

Here’s one of my favourite ones, it made me laugh when I studied it during my fresher year as a Linguistics student. It’s called the ‘yo-heave-ho theory’ and suggests that human language evolved from the rhythmic grunts and noises of cavemen at work, for instance while toting large rocks or chopping trees for firewood. Can you imagine it, scruffy fur-clad men hauling a giant woolly mammoth, their echoing grunts reverberating through the forest? It is they who are responsible for Shakespeare, Ibsen and Dickens. Yeah baby. But this theory may not be as far-fetched as we might think. The idea that language evolved as a means to facilitate tribal customs and communal chores seems solid. By 200,000 years ago, humans possessed the necessary anatomical features that enabled them to develop language. We may have been physically able to speak, but it is more likely that the birth of language coincided with the proliferation of manmade objects around 50,000 years ago. At this time there was an explosion in art and technology such as tools, implements and huts; all these seemed to have appeared rather abruptly, suggesting that humans underwent a considerable change at this time. It is now thought that the birth of language instigated this cultural boom. 

Another theory of language origin is that it is an innate, genetically determined ability. Proponents of this theory (Chomsky, et al) argue that all human brains are equipped with an intrinsic language faculty containing the language blueprint. This language faculty contains the fundamental template of a Universal Grammar, the rules of which are shared by all languages, and attempts to explain how children acquire language. The argument for the innateness of language, and for a built-in capacity for Universal Grammar, is called the Poverty of the Stimulus. This paradigm informs us that while most children acquire a well-formed syntax, the utterances they are exposed to in their immediate environment are often incomplete and contain naturally occurring speech errors (slips of the tongue, etc), thus the language they are exposed to is impoverished. And yet, children are largely able to assimilate the rules of their language, suggesting the presence of an innate language faculty.

Personally, I believe in bits of all of the above. Who said there has to be one true theory of origin? What if several of them evolved simultaneously, resulting in a fertile estuary with one or more rivers and streams of language evolution flowing into it? It matters little whether we yo-heave-hoed our way to civilisation or whether language came into being by a blind, unconscious process of divine inspiration. It’s what we do with it that counts. The dawn of speech is one of the great puzzles of evolution because there is no fossil record of human communication left for us to study. As evolutionist Carl Zimmer put it, “no one knows the exact chronology of this evolution, because language leaves precious few traces on the human skeleton.” I don’t know about you, but there’s something comforting about that.

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11 comments

  1. Pingback: Progenies of the Unknown | D'arcy Digs Her Heels

  2. I am so glad I read this post! This topic has always fascinated me, and I had not heard of a couple of these theories. The idea of a Universal Grammar and innate language centers of the brain filling in a general framework is quite a thing to ponder. Thinking about the qualities of grammar, it does seem that many of them are ‘inherent’ in the physical world and could be universalized. Temporal qualities, spatial qualities (presence or absence). Whether or not such qualities do inhere to reality, they certainly do inhere to the human mind’s perception of it. I guess when you get specific, though, with nouns for example –this falls apart. Which is why there are other theories! I must think on this some more, but I can tell that I, like you, will probably settle on some combination of ‘all of the above.’

  3. Vip

    A pleasure to read! What do you think about the correlation between the development of speech and the development of writing? Could it be that the later actually preceded the former? What came first – the drawing of a bison on the cave’s wall or the sound (i.e. the word) which identified the animal? Am I right to assume at least that there’s no dispute over the notion that ‘writing’ enhanced the development of speech by great leaps? A wonderful post!

    • D'arcy

      Depends what you classify as writing 🙂 Were cave paintings discursive transcripts designed to record and cement spiritual bonds or were they merely artistic impressions? Self-expression isn’t a modern imperative, after all. IMO, I don’t see how we can classify these paintings as writing, nor is there any evidence to suggest that writing preceded speech, if this were the case then I should think we’d have evidence that predates Mesopotamian cuneiform, and we don’t. We know that writing evolved from political expansion and economic necessity in the ANE, and the first evidence we have of writing is clay tokens specifying accounting transactions (e.g. Gilgamesh of Uruk has 66 oxen and pledges 20 to Ninsun of Sumer).

      As for your last question. We need to remember that illiteracy was commonplace well into the 19th century and the overwhelming majority of the population in the ancient world was illiterate (estimates suggest that only 3% of ancient Egyptians were literate). Literacy was primarily an urban phenomenon used by priests to secure immortality and by Scribes to record history. Consider that the Scribe was a distinct profession in ancient cultures, this in itself suggests a very limited level of literacy in the population. But, who are we to say that their speech wasn’t every bit as rich and vibrant as ours just because they were illiterate…? Food for thought. Wonderful questions, Vip, and I’m delighted that you enjoyed the post!

  4. Kylee Larke

    I wanted to thank you for this wonderful read!! I definitely loved every bit of it. I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post…

  5. Methadone Mike

    Fascinating. I have always been interested in evolutionary biology and the causative neurological factors that led to the development of speech. I have found a lot of conflicting theories, but these tie in nicely and I liked what you said about a linguistic estuary. Can you recommend a good book?

    • D'arcy

      “The Unfolding of Language” by Deutscher (2005) is a tour de force and I also recommend “The Seeds of Speech” by Aitchison. BTW, I wouldn’t necessarily call them causative factors? I’m not sure one can associate neurological development with causative behavioral patterns but perhaps within this context it is permissible 😉 Glad you enjoyed the post, and I similarly enjoyed your moniker!

      • Methadone Mike

        Okay yeah, I see what you mean, maybe causative was a bad choice of word I meant more along the lines of contributory and natural selection which would tie in with your linguistic estuary theory. Cheers for the recs, and keep up the good work.

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