Language and Linguistics

The Origins of Human Language

The Origins of Human Language: One of the Most Complex Enigmas of Science

The Origins of Human Language: One of the Most Complex Enigmas of Science

How human language was born is a question that has been tormenting researchers for centuries. One of the biggest obstacles in trying to answer it is that we still have no empirical evidence in spite of our great technological advances. This lack of concrete evidence even led at some point to the Linguistic Society of Paris to prohibit any debate about the origins of communication within it. Despite the unknowns, various researchers, including psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and linguists, continue to study this issue. Consequently, the numerous studies on the birth of communication can be divided into two broad categories: vocalization and gestures. In this article we will focus on vocalization.

Our Hyoid Brain and Bone Complexes: Part of What Helps Us Do Something More Than Chatting Like Chimpanzees

Since spoken language is by its very nature somewhat transitory, the best empirical test in this field of study is the hyoid bone. This bone as it appears and works in modern Homo Sapiens is believed to only be found among the following among our predecessors: Homo Heidelbergensis, about 300,000 years ago and our prehistoric “cousins” the Neanderthals. However, the appearance of the Kebara 2 hyoid in both species does not definitively prove that they were trained to make use of speech or complex language.

That said, many researchers believe that in the hyoid bone lies the birth of speech for humans, and that without our hyoid bones with their specific shape and in the exact place, functioning alongside a larynx that has descended precisely, it is believed that the sounds that we would be able to emit would be very similar to those of chimpanzees.

Therefore, we have a wonderfully complex and precise anatomy in our throat, but along with this valuable part of our anatomy we also need brains complex enough to have something to talk about. The researchers believe that our former ancestors already had what Noam Chomsky calls LAD (Language Acquisition Mechanism), the ability to learn a language and use it creatively. This creativity is evident in the art created between 300,000 and 700,000 years ago by our Paleolithic predecessors.

The Hardware and Software are already in place: Ready to Start?

Combining these two ideas, perhaps our human ancestors were already prepared to start talking (or at least to emit well-modulated sounds for the purpose of communicating some idea) about 300,000 years ago. Despite this, most speech theories pose a much later start date – only 100,000 years ago, when an increase in brain volume also took place. So far a summary of the evolutionary version of language acquisition.   

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Opposite to the evolutionary point of view, there is also debate about whether language was a divine gift or perhaps a conscious invention by the first humans. Both theories are based on the complexity of human language.

Apart from trying to specify the date, continuity and origin of the first word spoken by a human being, another very important question to which specialists have tried to answer is: What did our oldest ancestors say?

The First Theories on the Origin of Spoken Language: La-la, Bow-Wow …

There are six main theories that were formulated between the early 19th and early 20th centuries that claim to explain the origins of the words we use in spoken language. They have funny names that allude to the idea that underlies each theory.

1. The Bow-Wow Theory: This theory suggests that the first words were onomatopoeic (words formed from the sounds related to the objects or actions to which they refer) such as: gargling, cheating, whispering or tic-tac . The Bow-Wow theory has been discredited by the fact that many “onomatopoeic” words are different depending on the language, they are not actually derived from the original sounds, and were recently created.

2. Ding-Dong Theory: According to this theory, harmony with the natural environment gave rise to the need for language, and sounds and their meanings would be connected through nature immediately. Although it is true that there are examples of “phonetic symbolism” (for example, words that begin in English with fl- and are related to light and speed), the studies carried out have not been able to prove an innate connection between Phonetics and the meaning of a word.

3. Pooh-Pooh theory: suggests that language was born thanks to interjections (expressions such as “Oh!”, “Oh!”, “Ha!”). A drawback of this theory is that it can be argued that many animals emit these sounds and others very similar and that is why they do not create words or even less a language. Another weakness of the Pooh-Pooh theory is the lack of interjections that occurs in most modern languages.

4. The Yo-He-Ho Theory: This is a theory based on the grunts and groans that the human being emits when he is doing some hard physical work. Although these sounds can be related to part of the rhythm of some language, the theory cannot really explain the origin of most words.

5. La-La Theory: Consists of the idea that spoken language arose from play, singing and love. An objection to this theory is that it does not explain the origin of other words with less emotional charge.

6. Ta-Ta theory: states that words arose from the desire to imitate gestures using the tongue and mouth. For example, the word Ta-Ta would be a language saying goodbye. The obvious difficulty of this theory is that many gestures cannot be represented solely by mouth and tongue.

Despite their failures, most of these theories are still taught today as a starting point for research in the area of ​​spoken human language.

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Extension of the Ding-Dong Theory:

A recent study on the iconicity of both gestures and vocalizations as possible origins of language suggests that there may be something similar to the concept of phonetic symbolism. In the study conducted by Perlman, Dale and Lupyan, participants were asked to create words for 18 different meanings (such as rough, small, fast, etc.). The participants then communicated these sounds to a partner who had to guess the meaning of the “word / sound.” They discovered that through repetition of the word-meaning pairs the participants were able to interpret the vocalization sounds quickly and easily. . Later the researchers reproduced recordings of the words to other people not present in the sound generation session,

Evolutionary Theory of Language and Protolanguage

Nowak and Krakauer are two researchers who used game theory to try to explain the origins of language. Believing that misunderstandings would be frequent at the beginning of spoken language, they created a model that described this problem and limited the number of objects that could be described. Then they tried to discover how to overcome possible communication failures. The results showed that a greater number of sounds did not help to overcome the “limit of errors”, but rather the creation of “words” by combining small groups of easy-to-interpret sounds.

An Original Language or Many?

Another issue that brings researchers interested in the origins of spoken language upside down is whether there was a single original language or many. Observing the current diversity of languages, the dispersion of our ancient ancestors and studying how modern languages ​​and other factors are acquired, different hypotheses have been reached by both parties: Monogenesis and Polygenesis.

The belief that there was only one original language (monogenesis) is the oldest of these two theories. It has been proposed by those who believe that language was a divine creation. Monogenesis is also the hypothesis preferred by the followers of the Mother Language Theory – connected with the African Origin Theory of the human species. Polygenesis theorists argue against a possible singular origin based on the high number of languages ​​spoken today as well as the diversity of the location of our ancient ancestors.

Since no concrete evidence has been provided by specialists on the appearance of spoken language, we cannot be completely sure which of these two theories is correct.

An Old Issue Without Fossil Record

In fact it could happen that we were never able to definitively explain the origins of spoken language. As Christine Kenneally wrote in her book The First Word : In Search of the Origins of Language (2007):

“Because of its great power to hurt and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation; It is little more than air, it leaves the body in a series of exhalations and dissipates quickly in the atmosphere. […] There are no verbs preserved in amber, or ossified nouns, and no prehistoric shriek will be printed on the lava that caught him by surprise. ”

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