Isn’t it 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?
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 banter. It is remarkable that no other creature has developed speech, not even our closest relatives the chimps. 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 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 obviously impossible to authenticate and 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 vs. conventionalist hypothesis is concerned with several aspects of language origin, the earliest of which is whether 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, 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 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 ability.
Personally, I believe in 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 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.”