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Origin of language

By Kamil Wiśniewski, Feb. 18th, 2007

Language in a communication system that has undergone a number of evolutionary changes which continue as we speak. While the development of language has been thorouhgly examined and described, its origin still remains unknown. Obviously, it is difficult to discover how it actually came to being, but philosophers and linguists are continuously making attempts to make that discovery, coming up with numerous theories of language origin.

The divine source:

The Bible is the first example of the endavours to uncover the origin of human language. According to it, Adam received the ability to speak from God and "whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof" (Genesis 2:19). In most major religions there seems to be the Almighty who blesses mankind with means of communication. This so-called 'divine source' theory was tested many times in the ways which presently might seem as extremely inhumane. In ancient times it was thought that if new newborn babies were brought up by mutes they would sooner or later start spaeking the original language of God. In the XVI century Scottish king James IV carried out such an experiment and the children were said to have spoken in Hebrew. For this reason Hebrew was considered the language of God. None of the subsequent similar experiments revealed that children living whitout any contact with actual speech can aquire a language.

Natural sounds:

Apart from the divine source theories, there have been a number of perhaps more scientific, yet still unlikely proposals. There are several hypotheses which attempted to explain the emergence of speech on the basis of sound imitation, or unintentional sound production. Although they seem more persuasive, they fail to answer many questions and therefore are mere speculations. Natural sound theory will never account for the porigin of words such as obsolete semiconductors or treaty of Waitangi.

Bow-wow theory proposes that people imitated sounds they heard around them, thus creating first onomatopoeic words from which the rest of the language evolved. This theory seems to be supported by the fact that the majority of modern languages have onomatopeic expressions, it does not, however, explain how words for inanimate objects such as hills and rivers came to exist.

Yo-heave-ho theory on the other hand proposes that human language is a result of the first human sounds made by people taking part in some physical effort. At the dawn of civilisation when people worked in groups the grunts and groans they made while performing difficult manual tasks enabled them to develop a way of communicating which with time evolved into more elaborate form of conveying meaning. This idea emphasises a very important notion, namely social context crucial for the development and the use of language.

The oral-gesture source:

This theory goes further back in time when people used physical gestures to communicate their ideas. It is thought that over time they started to use not only their hands, but also movement of the mouth, lips and tongue which subsequently developed into speech as we know it.

All of these theories do not explicitly explain how language originated, but linguists and anthropologists could agree on when and why that was possible. It is now clear that our ancestors, Neanderthals, were only able to produce few sounds, as it could be examined from their remains dating back to about 60,000 BC. The reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton dating about 35,000 years resembles the modern humans being, which indicates the approximate time of when the oral communication begun.

Yule G. 1996. The study of language. Cambridge:CUP.