The Origin of Language (by Edward Vajda) 

      Yesterday we discussed the gulf that separates the creative use of language by humans from the inborn signals of animals.  Bees returning from their first flight out of the hive know perfectly how to perform their complex nectar dances. With humans, the precise form of language must be acquired through exposure to a speech community.  Words are definitely not inborn, but the capacity to acquire and language and use it creatively seems to be inborn. Noam Chomsky calls this ability the LAD (Language Acquisition Device).  Today we will ask two questions: how did this language instinct in humans originate? And how did the first language come into being?

      Concerning the origin of the first language, there are two main hypotheses, or beliefs.  Neither can be proven or disproved given present knowledge.

1) Belief in divine creation.  Many societies throughout history believed that language is the gift of the gods to humans.  The most familiar is found in Genesis 2:20, which tells us that Adam gave names to all living creatures.  This belief predicates that humans were created from the start with an innate capacity to use language. 

      It can't be proven that language is as old as humans, but it is definitely true that language and human society are inseparable.  Wherever humans exist language exists.  Every stone age tribe ever encountered has a language equal to English, Latin, or Greek in terms of its expressive potential and grammatical complexity.  Technologies may be complex or simple, but language is always complex. Charles Darwin noted this fact when he stated that as far as concerns language, "Shakespeare walks with the Macedonian swineherd, and Plato with the wild savage of Assam." In fact, it sometimes seems that languages spoken by preindustrial societies are much more complex grammatically than languages such as English (example: English has about seven tense forms and three noun genders; Kivunjo, a Bantu language spoken on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, has 14 tenses and about 20 noun classes.) There are no primitive languages, nor are any known to have existed in the past--even among the most remote tribes of stone age hunter-gatherers. 

      Nevertheless, it is impossible to prove that the first anatomically modern humans possessed creative language. It is also impossible to disprove the hypothesis that primitive languages might have existed at some point in the distant past of Homo sapiens development.

2) Natural evolution hypothesis. At some point in their evolutionary development humans acquired a more sophisticated brain which made language invention and learning possible.  In other words, at some point in time humans evolved a language acquisition device, whatever this may be in real physical terms.  The simple vocalizations and gestures inherited from our primate ancestors then quickly gave way to a creative system of language--perhaps within a single generation or two. /Mention the hypothesis about rewiring the visual cortex of the brain into a language area./  According to the natural evolution hypothesis, as soon as humans developed the biological, or neurological, capacity for creative language, the cultural development of some specific system of forms with meanings would have been an inevitable next step. 

      This hypothesis cannot be proven either.  Archeological evidence unearthed thus far, seems to indicate that modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged within the last 150,000 years.  By 30,000, BC all other species of humanoids seem to have been supplanted by Homo sapiens.  Could the success of our species vis-a-vis other hominids be explained by its possession of superior communicative skills?  Speaking people could teach, plan, organize, and convey more sophisticated information.  This would have given them unparalleled advantage over hominid groups without creative language.  Of course, no one knows whether other species of humanoids--Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalis -- used creative language.  Perhaps they also did. In any case, Homo sapiens, "the wise human," should perhaps really be called Homo loquens, "the speaking human" because language and humans are everywhere found together, whereas wisdom among humans is much more selectively distributed.

Invention hypotheses. Moving on to our second question, if humans acquired the capacity for language either by divine gift or by evolution, then exactly how might humans have devised the first language? There are several hypotheses as to how language might have been consciously invented by humans based on a more primitive system of hominid communication.  Each hypothesis is predicated on the idea that the invention of language and its gradual refinement served as a continuous impetus to additional human mental development. None of the invention hypotheses I will mention is convincing and most sane linguists agree that the origin of language is still a mystery.  But the inventive, sarcastic names given these hypotheses by their critics prove that even linguists can at times be creative.

      First, there are four imitation hypotheses that hold that language began through some sort of human mimicry of naturally occurring sounds or movements:

1) The "ding-dong" hypothesis.  Language began when humans started naming objects, actions and phenomena after a recognizable sound associated with it in real life.  This hypothesis holds that the first human words were a type of verbal icon, a sign whose form is an exact image of its meaning: crash became the word for thunder, boom for explosion.  Some words in language obviously did derive from imitation of natural sounds associated with some object: Chinook Indian word for heart--tun-tun, Basque word for knife: ai-ai (literally ouch-ouch).  Each of these iconic words would derive from an index, a sign whose form is naturally associatied with its meaning in real space and time.

      The problem with this hypothesis is that onomatopoeia (imitation of sound, auditory iconicity) is a very limited part of the vocabulary of any language; imitative sounds differ from language to language: Russian: ba-bakh=bang, bukh= thud.  Even if onomotopoeia provided the first dozen or so words, then where did names for the thousands of naturally noiseless concepts such as rock, sun, sky or love come from? 

2) The "pooh-pooh" hypothesis holds that the first words came from involuntary exclamations of dislike, hunger, pain, or pleasure, eventually leading to the expression of more developed ideas and emotions.  In this case the first word would have been an involuntary ha-ha-ha, wa-wa-wa These began to be used to name the actions which caused these sounds.

      The problem with this hypothesis is that, once again, emotional exclamations are a very small part of any language.  They are also highly language specific. For instance, to express sudden pain or discomfort: Eng. ouch; Russ. oi.;  Cherokee eee.  Thus, exclamations are more like other words in that they reflect the phonology of each separate language.  Unlike sneezes, tears, hiccoughs or laughter, which are innate human responses to stimuli, the form of exclamations depends on language rather than precedes language.  Also, exclamations, like most other words are symbols, showing at least a partially arbitrary relationship between sound and meaning.

3) The "bow-wow" hypothesis (the most famous and therefore the most ridiculed hypothesis) holds that vocabulary developed from imitations of animal noises, such as: Moo, bark, hiss, meow, quack-quack.  In other words, the first human words were a type of index, a sign whose form is naturally connected with its meaning in time and space. 

      But, once again, onomotopoeia is a limited part of the vocabulary of any language. The linguistic renditions of animal sounds differ considerably from language to language, although each species of animal everywhere makes essentially the same sound:  

a) Dog:bow-wow; Chinese:wu-wu; Jap.wan-wan Russ gaf-gaf, tyaff-tyaff

b) Cat-meow, Russ.myaoo, Chin--mao, Jap.nya-nya  purr in French is ron ron.

c) Pig: oink-oink; Russ. hryu-hryu;  Chin.--oh-ee-oh-ee;  Jap. bu-bu.

d) Russian rooster: kukareiku.  Japanese kokekoko

e) Russian owl:ukh; Cherokee goo-ku  Spanish, Japanese-- no special word

Thus, the human interpretation of animal sounds is dependent upon the individual language, and it seems unlikely than entire vocabularies derived from them.

4) A somewhat different hypothesis is the "ta-ta" hypothesis.  Charles Darwin hypothesized (though he himself was sceptical about his own hypothesis) that speech may have developed as a sort of mouth pantomime: the organs of speech were used to imitate the gestures of the hand.  In other words, language developed from gestures that began to be imitated by the organs of speech--the first words were lip icons of hand gestures. 

      It is very possible that human language, which today is mostly verbal, had its origin in some system of gestures; other primates rely on gesture as an integral part of communication, so it is plausible that human communication began in the same way.  Human gestures, however, just like onomotopoeic words, differ from culture to culture.  Cf. English crossing the finger for good luck vs. Russian "fig" gesture; nodding for yes vs. for no in Turkish and Bulgarian; knocking on wood vs. spitting over the left shoulder three times.

      A second set of hypotheses on language origin holds that language began as a response to some acute necessity in the community.  Here are several necessity hypotheses of the invention of language:

1) Warning hypothesis.  Language may have evolved from warning signals such as those used by animals.  Perhaps language started with a warning to others, such as Look out, Run, or Help to alert members of the tribe when some lumbering beast was approaching.  Other first words could have been hunting instructions or instructions connected with other work. In other words, the first words were indexes used during everyday activities and situations.

2) The "yo-he-ho" hypothesis.  Language developed on the basis of human cooperative efforts. 

      The earliest language was chanting to simulate collective effort, whether moving great stones to block off cave entrances from roving carnivores or repeating warlike phrases to inflame the fighting spirit. 

      It is fairly certain that the first poetry and song came from this aspect of beginning speech.  Songs of this type are still with us: Volga boatmen, military marching chants, seven dwarfs working song.  

      Plato also believed that language developed out of sheer practical necessity.  And Modern English has the saying: Necessity is the mother of invention.           Speech and right hand coordination are both controlled in the left hemisphere of the brain.  Could this be a possible clue that manual dexterity and the need to communicate developed in unison? 

3) A more colorful idea is the lying hypothesis.  E. H. Sturtevant argued that, since all real intentions or emotions get involuntarily expressed by gesture, look or sound, voluntary communication must have been invented for the purpose of lying or deceiving.  He proposed that the need to deceive and lie--to use language in contrast to reality for selfish ends-- was the social prompting that got language started. 

      There are no scientific tests to evaluate between these competing hypotheses.  All of them seem equally far-fetched.  This is why in the late 19th century the Royal Linguistic Society in London actually banned discussion and debate on the origin of language out of fear that none of the arguments had any scientific basis at all and that time would be needlessly wasted on this fruitless enquiry.  Attempts to explain the origin of language are usually taken no more seriously today either.  Recently, commedian Lily Tomlin came up with her own language invention hypothesis: she claimed that men invented language so that they could complain. 

        Each of the imitation hypotheses might explain how certain isolated words of language developed.  Very few words in human language are verbal icons.  Most are symbols, displaying an arbitrary relationship of sound and meaning. (Example: the word tree in several languages: Spanish árbol; French arbre; Slovak strom; Georgian he; Ket oks; Estonian puu; German Baum; Russian derevo; Latvian koks; Hawaiian lä'au)

      And each of the necessity hypotheses might explain how involuntary sounds made out of need in certain contexts might have come to be manipulated as words for an object even out of context.  However, the extended use of natural indexes still leaves unexplained the development of grammar--the patterns in language which have definite structural functions but no specific meaning. The creative, generative aspect of human language that we call grammar is language's most unique feature.  Where did grammar come from? There is nothing like grammar (patterns with definite functions yet no set meaning) in animal systems of communication.

      In isolated instances it can be shown that a grammatical pattern developed from chance lexical combinations:

a) suffix -hood from OE word haeda= state.  childhood, boyhood, puppyhood

b) Continuous action: form of verb to be + main verb comes from a locative phrase I am working > I am at working-- cf. the song I'm a working on the railroad

But these are isolated instances.  How language developed a complex grammar remains a complete mystery.  This means that how language developed is equally a mystery.  We simply don't know how language may have actually evolved from simple animal systems of sounds and gestures.

Hypotheses regarding Language Diversity

      Regardless of whether language was a special gift from the gods, a natural evolutionary acquisition, or an ingenious, conscious human invention made at some specific moment in our species' distant past, the fact remains that language does exist.  And since so many languages exist today, a second question arises: Was there one or more than one original language? Was there one or more than one invention of language?  There are about 5,000 languages spoken on Earth today.  We know that there were even more spoken in the past, when most people lived in small bands or tribes rather than in large states.

      There are two age-old beliefs regarding the origin or the world's present linguistic diversity.

1) The oldest belief is that there was a single, original language.  The idea of a single ancestor tongue is known today as monogenesis.  In Judeo-Christian tradition, the original language was confused by divine intervention, as described in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. There is a similar story from the Toltecs of pre-Columbian Mexico, who tell of the building of the great pyramid at Cholula, and the dispersal of the builders by an angry god.  And similar stories are found in other parts of the world. 

      It may be interesting to note here that people who believe in a single origin for language have different hypotheses as to what that first language may have been. 

      a) A Basque scholar claimed that the first language was Basque.

      b) A German philologist of the last century maintained that German was the first language and that all other languages are inferior corruptions of it. Other European linguists conferred the same exalted status on Greek or Sanskrit. 

      c) One Swedish philologist claimed that in the Garden of Eden God spoke Swedish, Adam spoke Danish and the serpent spoke French.

2) There is a second hypothesis of human origin and, consequently, of the origin of human language: the hypothesis of parallel evolution.  This hypothesis holds that, as humans evolved parallel in more than one location; each group developed its own unique language.  The hypothesis of the multiple origin of humankind is sometimes called the Candelabra theory.  The candelabra hypothesis tends to be favored in East Asia and by a smaller number of scientists in the West.  The hypothesis of multiple linguistic origins that often goes along with this hypothesis is known as polygenesis.  Each of the original languages then would then have diverged into numerous forms.  The major language families of today would be descended from these separate mother tongues.

3) Scientific monogenesis: The Mother Tongue theory.

      Theories of monogenesis do not necessarily derive from religious belief. Many modern scholars believe in a theory of monogenesis that has come to be called the Mother Tongue Theory. This theory holds that one original language spoken by a single group of Homo sapiens perhaps as early as 150 thousand years ago gave rise to all human languages spoken on the Earth today. As humans colonized various continents, this original mother tongue diverged through time to form the numerous languages spoken today.  Since many scientists believe that the first fully modern humans appeared in Africa, the mother tongue theory is connected with a more general theory of human origin known as the Out of Africa theory. Currently, the theory of evolutionary monogenesis tends to be favored by a group of linguists working in the United States.

      Regardless of the origin of language, the fact remains that there are over 5,000 mutually unintelligible forms of human speech used on Earth today. And, although many are radically different from one another in structure--the differences are superficial since each and every one of these languages can be used creatively.

      Languages do not differ in terms of their creative potential but rather in terms of the level upon which particular distinctions are realized in each particular language. What is expressed concisely in one language requires a phrase in another language. (Examples of aspect and evidentiality; also words like Swahili mumagamagama "a person who habitually loses things" and Russian zajchik "the rainbow reflection from glass." Linguists study how each particular language structures the expression of concepts. Such cross-language comparisons fall under a branch of linguistics called language typology.

      If the structural diversity of human languages is superficial, then why in language typology important? Why do so many linguists spend so much time studying language diversity?

      1) First, to try to trace the original mother tongue (or mother tongues). Linguists who compare modern languages try to reconstruct ancient languages are called comparative linguists.

      2) Second, because languages change more slowly than the environment in which they are spoken, languages contain all sorts of indications of bygone culture. For historians and anthropologists, language provides a special window into the past: ursus/bear/ medvedtime/tide/vremya.  Study a language--any language--and you will learn much about the history of the people who speak that language. You will also be taking a crucial step toward understanding the contemporary culture of the speakers.  Linguists who study language from this cultural standpoint are called anthropological linguists.          

      Remember that--contrary to the hypothesis of linguistic determinism--studying a language will not help you predict the future for the people who speak that language. The future will happen with little regard for language structure, and language will be shaped by that future, not the other way around.

      And this is why will we spend the next four weeks studying the morphology, syntax and phonology of diverse languages. And during the second half of the course we will return to questions of language in society and the connection between language and the brain.