Language Origins (Theories)


caveman holding a 'no clubbing' sign
"'Tik.' This could be one of the first words ever spoken on the earth. It means 'one' or 'pointing finger' or just plain 'finger.' ... [This is the claim] of a small but outspoken group of linguistic researchers. ... '[R]idiculous' is the word that many linguists use to describe that claim" (Jay Ingram, Talk Talk Talk: Decoding the Mysteries of Speech, 1992). (Alashi/Getty Images)

The expression language origins refers to theories pertaining to the emergence and development of language in human societies.

Over the centuries, many theories have been put forward—and almost all of them have been challenged, discounted, and ridiculed. (See Where Does Language Come From?) In 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned any discussion of the topic: "The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language." Contemporary linguist Robbins Burling says that "anyone who has read widely in the literature on language origins cannot escape a sneaking sympathy with the Paris linguists.

Reams of nonsense have been written about the subject" (The Talking Ape, 2005).

In recent decades, however, scholars from such diverse fields as genetics, anthropology, and cognitive science have been engaged, as Christine Kenneally says, in "a cross-discipline, multidimensional treasure hunt" to find out how language began. It is, she says, "the hardest problem in science today" (The First Word, 2007).

Observations on the Origins of Language

"Divine origin [is the] conjecture that human language originated as a gift from God. No scholar takes this idea seriously today."

(R.L. Trask, A Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, 1997; rpt. Routledge, 2014)

"Numerous and varied explanations have been put forth to explain how humans acquired language—many of which date back to the time of the Paris ban. Some of the more fanciful explanations have been given nicknames, mainly to the effect of dismissal by ridicule.

The scenario by which language evolved in humans to assist the coordination of working together (as on the pre-historic equivalent of a loading dock) has been nicknamed the 'yo-heave-ho' model. There's the 'bow-wow' model in which language originated as imitations of animal cries. In the 'poo-poo' model, language started from emotional interjections.

"During the twentieth century, and particularly its last few decades, discussion of language origins has become respectable and even fashionable. One major problem remains, however; most models about language origins do not readily lend themselves to the formation of testable hypotheses, or rigorous testing of any sort. What data will allow us to conclude that one model or another best explains how language arose?"

(Norman A. Johnson, Darwinian Detectives: Revealing the Natural History of Genes and Genomes. Oxford University Press, 2007)

Physical Adaptations

- "Instead of looking at types of sounds as the source of human speech, we can look at the types of physical features humans possess, especially those that are distinct from other creatures, which may have been able to support speech production. . . .

"Human teeth are upright, not slanting outwards like those of apes, and they are roughly even in height. Such characteristics are . . . very helpful in making sounds such as f or v. Human lips have much more intricate muscle lacing than is found in other primates and their resulting flexibility certainly helps in making sounds like p, b, and m. In fact, the b and m sounds are the most widely attested in the vocalizations made by human infants during their first year, no matter which language their parents are using."

(George Yule, The Study of Language, 5th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2014)

-  "In the evolution of the human vocal tract since the split with other apes, the adult larynx descended to its lower position. Phonetician Philip Lieberman has persuasively argued that the ultimate cause of the human lowered larynx is its function in producing different vowels. This is a case of natural selection for more effective communication. . . .

"Babies are born with their larynxes in a high position, like monkeys. This is functional, as there is a reduced risk of choking, and babies are not yet talking. . . . By about the end of the first year, the human larynx descends to its near-adult lowered position. This is a case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, the growth of the individual reflecting the evolution of the species."

(James R. Hurford, The Origins of Language. Oxford University Press, 2014)

From Words to Syntax

"Language-ready modern children learn vocabulary voraciously before they begin to make grammatical utterances several words long. So we presume that in the origins of language a one-word stage preceded our remote ancestors' first steps into grammar. The term 'protolanguage' has been widely used to describe this one-word stage, where there is vocabulary but no grammar."

(James R. Hurford, The Origins of Language. Oxford University Press, 2014)

The Gesture Theory of Language Origin

- "Speculation about how languages originate and evolve has had an important place in the history of ideas, and it has been intimately linked to questions about the nature of the signed languages of the deaf and human gestural behavior in general. It can be argued, from a phylogenetic perspective, the origin of human sign languages is coincident with the origin of human languages; sign languages, that is, are likely to have been the first true languages. This is not a new perspective--it is perhaps as old as nonreligious speculation about the way human language may have begun."

(David F. Armstrong and Sherman E. Wilcox, The Gestural Origin of Language. Oxford University Press, 2007)

- "[A]n analysis of the physical structure of visible gesture provides insights into the origins of syntax, perhaps the most difficult question facing students of the origin and evolution of language . . .. It is the origin of syntax that transforms naming into language, by enabling human beings to comment on and think about the relationships between things and events, that is, by enabling them to articulate complex thoughts and, most important, share them with others. . . .

"We are not the first to suggest a gestural origin of language. [Gordon] Hewes (1973; 1974; 1976) was one of the first modern proponents of a gestural origins theory. [Adam] Kendon (1991: 215) also suggests that 'the first kind of behaviour that could be said to be functioning in anything like a linguistic fashion would have had to have been gestural.' For Kendon, as for most others who consider gestural origins of language, gestures are placed in opposition to speech and vocalization.

. . .

"While we would agree with Kendon's strategy of examining the relationships among spoken and signed languages, pantomime, graphic depiction, and other modes of human representation, we are not convinced that placing gesture in opposition to speech leads to a productive framework for understanding the emergence of cognition and language. For us, the answer to the question, 'If language began as gesture, why did it not stay that way?' is that it did. . . .

"All language, in the words of Ulrich Neisser (1976), is 'articulatory gesturing.'

"We are not proposing that language began as gesture and became vocal. Language has been and always will be gestural (at least until we evolve a reliable and universal capacity for mental telepathy)."

(David F. Armstrong, William C. Stokoe, and Sherman E. Wilcox, Gesture and the Nature of Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995)

- "If, with [Dwight] Whitney, we think of 'language' as a complex of instrumentalities which serve in the expression of 'thought' (as he would say--one might not wish to put it quite like this today), then gesture is part of 'language.' For those of us with an interest in language conceived of in this way, our task must include working out all the intricate ways in which gesture is used in relation to speech and of showing the circumstances in which the organization of each is differentiated from the other as well as the ways in which they overlap. This can only enrich our understanding of how these instrumentalities function. If, on the other hand, we define 'language' in structural terms, thus excluding from consideration most, if not all, of the kinds of gestural usages I have illustrated today, we may be in danger of missing important features of how language, so defined, actually succeeds as an instrument of communication. Such a structural definition is valuable as a matter of convenience, as a way of delimiting a field of concern. On the other hand, from the point of view of a comprehensive theory of how humans do all the things they do by means of utterances, it cannot be sufficient."

(Adam Kendon, "Language and Gesture: Unity or Duality?" Language and Gesture, ed. by David McNeill. Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Language as a Device for Bonding

"[T]he size of human social groups gives rise to a serious problem: grooming is the mechanism that is used to bond social groups among primates, but human groups are so large that it would be impossible to invest enough time in grooming to bond groups of this size effectively. The alternative suggestion, then, is that language evolved as a device for bonding large social groups--in other words, as a form of grooming-at-a-distance. The kind of information that language was designed to carry was not about the physical world, but rather about the social world. Note that the issue here is not the evolution of grammar as such, but the evolution of language. Grammar would have been equally useful whether language evolved to subserve a social or a technological function."

(Robin I.A. Dunbar, "The Origin and Subsequent Evolution of Language." Language Evolution, ed. by Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby. Oxford University Press, 2003)

Otto Jespersen on Language as Play (1922)

- "[P]rimitive speakers were not reticent and reserved beings, but youthful men and women babbling merrily on, without being so particular about the meaning of each word. . . . They chattered away for the mere pleasure of chattering . . ..  [P]rimitive speech . . . resembles the speech of little baby himself, before he begins to frame his own language after the pattern of the grownups; the language of our remote forefathers was like that ceaseless humming and crooning with which no thoughts are as yet connected, which merely amuses and delights the little one. Language originated as play, and the organs of speech were first trained in this singing sport of idle hours."

(Otto Jespersen,Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin, 1922)

- "It is quite interesting to note that these modern views [on the commonality of language and music and of language and dance] were anticipated in great detail by Jespersen (1922: 392-442). In his speculations about the origin of language, he arrived at the view that referential language must have been preceded by singing, which in its turn was functional in fulfilling the need for sex (or love), on the one hand, and the need for coordinating collective work, on the other. These speculations have, in turn, their origins in [Charles] Darwin's 1871 book The Descent of Man:

we may conclude from a widely-spread analogy that this power would have been especially exerted during the courtship of the sexes, serving to express various emotions. . . . The imitation by articulate sounds of musical cries might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions.

(quoted from Howard 1982: 70)

The modern scholars mentioned above agree in rejecting the well-known scenario according to which language originated as a system of monosyllabic grunt-like sounds that had the (referential) function of pointing at things. Instead, they propose a scenario according to which referential meaning was slowly grafted upon nearly autonomous melodious sound."

(Esa Itkonen, Analogy as Structure and Process: Approaches in Linguistics, Cognitive Psychology and Philosophy of Science. John Benjamins, 2005)

Divided Views on the Origins of Language (2016)

"Today, opinion on the matter of language origins is still deeply divided. On the one hand, there are those who feel that language is so complex, and so deeply ingrained in the human condition, that it must have evolved slowly over immense periods of time. Indeed, some believe that its roots go all the way back to Homo habilis, a tiny-brained hominid that lived in Africa not far short of two million years ago. On the other, there are those like [Robert] Berwick and [Noam] Chomsky who believe that humans acquired language quite recently, in an abrupt event. Nobody is in the middle on this one, except to the extent that different extinct hominid species are seen as the inaugurators of language’s slow evolutionary trajectory.

"That this deep dichotomy of viewpoint has been able to persist (not only among linguists, but among paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, cognitive scientists, and others) for as long as anyone can remember is due to one simple fact: at least until the very recent advent of writing systems, language has left no trace in any durable record. Whether any early humans possessed language, or didn’t, has had to be inferred from indirect proxy indicators. And views have diverged greatly on the matter of what is an acceptable proxy."

(Ian Tattersall, "At the Birth of Language."  The New York Review of Books, August 18, 2016)

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