X-Files: The Mystery Of The Origins of Language

There are over 5,000 known languages in the world today. What events transpired that have allowed humans to speak, while animals continued to remain silent?  The teachings of evolution say that speech evolved as a natural process over time but still the origins of speech are one of the oldest mysteries to date. No one is quite sure how speech was created, and there are no known animals that are in a transition phase from non-speaking to speaking. Was the Tower of Babel true, or just an exaggerated story in the Old Testament? Join the X-Files today as it examines this highly controversial subject and takes a look at the various expert theories on the origins of language.

Over the centuries there have been many debates on the origins of language, so much so that in 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris went so far as to ban debates on the subject because they were never ending and frustrating to all participants. That prohibition remained influential across much of the western world until late in the twentieth century. In today’s society there are many theories about how, why, when and where language might first have emerged. In fact a growing number of professional linguists, archaeologists, psychologists, anthropologists and others have attempted to address with new methods what they are beginning to consider ‘the hardest problem in science’.


The Biblical Theory

According to the biblical account, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.” God came down to see what they did and said: “They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.” So God said, “Come, let us go down and confound their speech.” And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel “because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.”(Genesis 11:5-8).

Bow-Wow or Onomatopoetics Theory

This theory holds that language originated in man’s imitation of natural sounds (c.f. the rustling of the wind among the leaves, the murmur of a river, the booming of the thunder, the gong of a bell, etc) and more specifically the sounds uttered by animals (c.f. the barking of the dog, the roar of a lion, hiss of a snake, etc.) and birds (c. f. the sounds of a cuckoo, upupu, hupoe, peewit, curlew, etc.). It thus speaks that there is a natural connection between the production of a sound in nature and the sensory impressions in man, i.e., language is a tonal stimuli and a matter of chance. This theory is specifically concerned with the language of the children (c.f. a child calling a lamb ‘ba-ba’ or a locomotive ‘chou-chou’ or cow ‘mou’.)

The origin of this theory is traced to the German philosopher J. G. Herder. Max Mueller, the Anglo-German scholar, irreverently called it ‘Bow-Wow Theory’. Boas, the American anthropologist and linguist, points out that in Chinook Jargon of British Columbia and in the language of the South African Bantu, formation of new words by imitation of natural sounds in a live process. The American Indian languages–Aztek and Mohawk–and Zulu of Africa delight in onomatopoetic words.

It may be pointed out that creation of new words due to onomatopoeia is a very insignificant part of the vocabulary of any language. It leaves out of account the symbolic and abstract quality type of words which are the core of any language. In the language of the Alaskan tribe of the Mackenzie river in America, words of onomatopoetic origin seem to be almost nil. Onomatopoetic words differ from language to language (c.f. Eng. Wow-Wow, Fr. oua-oua, It. bu-bu, also cock-a-doodle-doo, etc.). So far we know that language did not originate with a process of naming the animals. Sound-groups indicating meanings are not always helpful. Besides, most of the echo words (a term coined by O. Jespersen) are not old but of recent origin. The words used by the children turn out on examination to be words taught to them by adults. Echo words played a significant role when non-linguistic means of communications had something to do in the society. With the formation of symbolic speech, echo words receded into the background.

Pooh-Poor (or Interjectional Theory)

According to this theory language originates in spontaneous exclamations or instinctive ejaculations of human beings (c. f. the cries of fear, surprise, pain, anger, despair, joy, disgust, etc.). It thus stands that interjections are involuntary expressions of affective states (c.f. facial or limb movements and the like). It is a direct movement of a physical or mental state and lacks communicative value. It is inarticulate and differs from language to language. It plays a very important part in the life of a savage. The conversations of Greenlandish woman in interjectional utterances: are illuminating.

This theory had its adherents in the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurean, followed by Rousseau. Max Mueller, W. Wundt, L. Geiger, Noire, Bechterew, etc. This theory merely suggests the materials language uses but never explains the processes through which language evolved. Before the emergence of speech, cries and not vocal sounds existed. Language began when interjections ended but that man still utters cries and uses interjections and that their significance is merely affective, i.e., expressing fear, surprise, etc.

Ding-Dong (or Pathogenic Theory)

This theory speaks of a mysterious or prior coincidence between a sound and its sense, i. e., for every expression within, there is a manifestation outside. “Everything which is struck rings. Each substance has its peculiar ring” (M. Mueller). This theory is reiterated in the ideas of Pythagoras (C. 500 B.C.) and later supported by Heracleitus and Plato.

This theory is merely a conventionalised representation of the sound of a bell and is not self-evident to anyone but the speaker who has learnt to connect the sound ‘ding-dong’ with the ringing of the bell. This association does not tell us how man came to attribute his conventionalised speech sounds with facts of experience.

Ye-he-ho Theory

This theory enunciates that language originates in reflex vocal utterances–(c. f. the gasps, the grunts and other sounds) accompanied by strong muscular efforts, such as drawing a heavy log through the underbush or making up a carcas. The nineteenth century scholar Noire was a strong supporter of this theory. He saw that language originated in joint or common work requiring physical efforts during which course natural sounds emit. This theory errs that language never originated in joint work of a speechless anthropoid.

Ta-Ta or Mouth Gesture Theory

Speech arose as a vocal accompaniment of gesture. Sir Richard Paget was an exponent of this theory and Charles Darwin and Prof. Alexander Johannesson supported it. Paget thought that language originated in gestures followed by the movement of the tongue, lips and jaws. Due to pressure from some quarters the hand retires and the tongue, lips and jaws accompanied by pantomine art ultimately became prominent and vocal expressions came out.

Sing-Song Theory

This theory was put forward by the distinguished Danish linguist Otto Tespersen who held that language originated in song. He thought that early language was of tooth-breaking sounds. It had tones and pitches and a wider range of musical intervals and passionate expressions. It was merely expressive and not communicative. It was not practical but poetic and emotional. Love played a great part in eliciting jets of music and song. “Love” he says “was born in the courting days of mankind; the first utterances of speech I fancy to myself like something between the mighty love-lyrics of puss upon the tiles and the melodious love-song of the nightingales.” The earliest utterances were whole sentences rather than words. They emphasise rhythm as the all-pervading activity.

Darwin traced the origin of language in the musical utterances of man. He drew a parallel from the instinctive sounds of birds which as a species utter the same instinctive sounds to express the same emotions. This theory finds its echo in Herbert Spencer’s theory of music.

Language of Early Man

A question is sometimes asked whether modern man alone possessed language or is it attributable to his supposed ancestors–the Homo Neanderthalensis or to the early forms of Homo Sapiens–the cro-Magnon Man or the Aurignation Man.

The answer to this question was once sought through methods of comparative anatomy. Cubic capacity of the skull is sometimes taken as a guide for higher intelligence and Neanderthal Man was pointed out as a species of higher intelligence. Our knowledge regarding the anatomical and morphological formation of the brain of a fossil is too scanty to admit of a scientific conclusion. Moreover, it is difficult to determine the level of intelligence from such insufficient data. Under these circumstances how can we ascribe the same intelligence to early and modern man?

Language of the savages

The language of the uncivilised peoples has sometimes been assigned as the oldest linguistic evidence in the world. Nothing can be more unconvincing than this. Savages are not the oldest peoples nor their languages. Some savage languages are thought to be very complex while others are simple. Both types are the result of changes. The point of departure between the civilised and the non-civilised languages lies not in the ideas they express but in the method of expression itself. The language of the primitive people may provide us with a body of information, i. e. on the relation between language and thought but not on the origin of language.

Child Language Theory

The language of the child is sometimes taken as the prototype of the original language. The child in the process of learning a new language does not invent anything. The language is already there and existed also for thousands of years before. The child therefore does not help us at all. It can only inform us about an original language. The child merely imitates what he learnt from his environment. He is not a creator but an imitator and lacks spontaneity and novelty. It bears therefore no meaning that a child left to itself would invent a language. A Bengali child would not speak Bengali if transported to London.

Theory of animal sounds

It has been urged that animal cries are the antecedents of language and that man has borrowed his phonetic utterances from the sounds of the animals of his environments. The study of the animal psychology avers that animals of any sort do not possess any language. The language of an animal has no definite sequences of sounds nor does it possess a definite meaning not any variations properly so called in the cries they utter. It is strange that a body of zoologists and some animal psychologists still cling to the idea of an animal language. Descartes denied the possibility of an animal language.

Theory of the Priority of Gesture Language

This theory states that phonetic language developed from gesture language. It asserts that inner urge and external stimuli were indicated by a system of mortor sign which was later replaced by a phonetic sign, i.e., a transposition for natural and conventional gesture to phonetic symbols, i.e., a system of natural gesture.

This expression is challenged on the ground that emotional expression is indicated as much by audible sounds as by bodily movements. This does not prove that gesture language preceded phonetic language. The advocates of theory refer to the language of the deaf-mutes. But it forgets that a deaf-mute does not hear his own sound not to speak of others. It asserts that primitive man was not deaf.

To say that a child uses gesture in his pre-linguistic stage in order to be understood does not accord with the principles of psychology. Linguistic ontogeny speaks of the simultaneous use of two kinds of language. The first gesture of a child came probably after it learned to understand a few words.

There are no people on earth who use gesture exclusively for the purpose of communication. It is true that gesture is widely current among many primitive tribes. It is also a fact that all these peoples use a highly developed form of phonetic language for the purpose of communication. It is recognised that among members of same linguistic community two kinds of speech are used supporting and supplementing each other. Should any communication take place without the use of vocal expression the reason for non-use of phonetic speech is to be sought either in the adequacy of gesture or in the suitability of the spoken medium.

It is notable that the development of gesture language depends on sound language and not vice versa. This is amply proved from the inadequacy of the language of the deaf-mutes. From the practical point of view the primacy of gesture language is taken as absurd. From experience it is observed that gesture language is only resorted to when the question of understanding each other’s language comes to the forefront. It thus results that the evidences furnished by ethnology, child or animal psychology do not demonstrate the priority of gesture language Biologically early man is destined to use both vocal and gesture symbols.

Reconstruction from old documents

Linguists deal with both spoken and written languages. They try to trace the ancestry of these languages by examining the oldest accessible documents. Whatever back in time they may push their inquiry, they will always be found dealing with developed languages. The idea that by the comparison of oldest evidences origin of language would be solved is nonsensical. This notion has now been abandoned.

Divine Origin Theory

It was once supposed that God created man as a talking animal i.e., immediately after his birth, he could utter the rudiments of speech, in other words the faculty of speech was inherent in the very nature of man himself. This opinion originated the view that Hebrew as the language of the Jews was the earliest language of man. In the Bible (Genesis, ii) we have–“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature that was the name thereof.” This is the simple story of the Hebrew writers, on the birth of language.

The Vedas refer to “vaak” as a creation of the Gods, i.e., language, a divine gift and an achievement for which man has no reason to be proud of. This faculty of speech has been given to man simply to distinguish him from other Aloga or speechless beings. The Hindu Shastras attributed articulated sounds to Self-born Being (Brahma) and traced the origin of the Vedas and all other branches of learning including the primordial sound ‘Pranava’ to the Supreme Being.

Man is the only animal which possesses this wonderful gift–the gift of language. Man has also acquired the unique power of naming and classifying things of the world.

The poetic statement of the facts narrated in the Bible as also described in the Hindu scriptures may not have any importance but that man has named the animals which apparently not any beasts can do. Language is not a divine creation. Had it been so, all languages of the world would have been the same. From the modern point of view the theological view may be naive but that we cannot deny that the faculty of speech (the physiological organs) is a direct gift from God.

Social Contact Theory

This theory is popular in political science but cannot be take as convincing in linguistics. As to the origin of language we cannot say that a body of men met together and invented language

Contact Theory

This theory was propounded by G. Revesz, Prof of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam. He thought that language originated in man’s instinctive desire to contact his fellows. He carefully worked out a series of stages through which language progressed:

  • i. First came Contact Sounds – merely expressive but not communicative (c. f. the noises made by the gregarious animals).
  • ii. Then came the Cry – communicative and directed to the environment but not to any particular individual (c. f. the mating call and cries of young ones in danger).
  • iii. Next came the call – directed to the individual and point out the satisfaction of some desire, a starting point for music and language.
  • iv. Finally came the word, symbolic and found only in man.

Revesz thought that the early speech of man was originally imperative consisting merely of commands and then of statements and questions. He never tried to explain how language came to be articulated. He placed undue emphasis on instinctive needs as the motive power and neglected the practical co-operative labour as the impelling force for language.

Biological origin of speech

Human speech owes its origin to certain physiological organs – the lungs, the larynx, the vocal chords, etc. The production of sound (which results ultimately into language) is physiological and in association with faculties–eyes, ears, nose, etc., gives rise to speech. Moreover, the development of speech depends on a number of special centres in the brain (c.f. the Broca’s Centre). Human speech therefore is gradual and physiological in nature.

Pathological Theory of speech

This theory indicates that language passes through ‘speechless’ stage followed by a ‘agrammatical’ stage and then by a ‘paragrammatical’ and finally by a ‘grammatical’ stage. It also takes into account speech defects or aphasia. This pathological theory based as it is on defective grounds, hardly furnishes us with any positive evidence for valid reasoning.

Ethnological Theory

This is based on the language of primitive peoples. Theoretically it may be possible to reconstruct the early language but practically a lot of difficulties intervene. Primitive languages have long histories behind them. They, moreover, appear before us as mature languages with a complete set of phonology, grammatical rules and a vocabulary adapting to the needs of the time. These primitive languages sometimes exhibit a good deal of concrete vivid imageries which give rise to a scope for spontaneous invention of words.

Language Experiments

Experiments were made both in antiquity and in mediaeval times to ascertain the origin of language. One such experiment referred to by the Greek historian Herodotus may be alluded to here. It is said that the Egyptian King Psammetikos made an experiment to decide what was the earliest language. He selected two babies, erected a thatch, put them under the charge of a shepherd with the strict instruction not to utter any sounds before the children but to watch them until they were heard to speak, Sometime later they were found to utter a sound like “Bekos” (c.f. Eng. bake.). The king was informed of the matter who at once in consultation with the pandits came to know that the meaning of the word was ‘bread’ and that it belonged to the Phrygian language. The king at once came to the conclusion that Phrygian was the earliest language. Other experiments by King Frederick II of Germany (1196-1250) and James IV of Scotland (C. 1500 A. D.) are worth-mentioning. It is also reported hat one such experiment was made by a Mughal king of India.



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