Page 1 of 1
The origins of language
by Philippa Law
How did language begin?In the 19th century, the origin of language was one of the most popular areas of linguistic study, although the theories produced were speculative to say the least. In 1893, the American linguist William Dwight Whitney said:
We often wonder what the origins of a certain word are - where does the word 'pyjamas' come from, for example? The answer is we borrowed it from Hindi, which took it from the Persian for 'leg' and 'garment'. But where did those words come from? Where did Persian come from, for that matter? And where did Persian's ancestors come from? How far back can you trace languages? Do they have a common ancestor? Was the first full language spoken or signed or a mixture? How long did it take a grammar to develop? What were the first words? Which came first, speech or language? And how long ago did all this begin?
"The greater part of what is said and written upon is mere windy talk, the assertion of subjective views which commend themselves to no mind save the one that produces them."Some people believed that Chinese or Hebrew or German was the original language of humanity. Others thought that humans had deliberately copied speech from birdsong. Many linguists agreed with the biblical account that God gave Adam a language. In the early 20th century, one writer even made the topsy-turvy suggestion that priests and magicians invented spoken language as a secret code.Nowadays, many people believe that language may have grown from ungrammatical, 'natural' gesturing. Communication expert Mike Beaken (1996) supports this claim by pointing out that two people who don't share a common language "are forced to invent a visual system of communication for the exchange of essential messages." He also points out that there are still things today which are better expressed with gesture than speech, for example size, shape, direction and nearby objects.What were the first words?
Most of a baby's first words are names of objects, so in that sense, naming things can be seen as the most basic use of language. In the 1860s, the German linguist August Schleicher believed that the world's first spoken words must have been nouns.Beaken prefers the idea that early words described actions - humans could point to objects, but they needed a better way to communicate actions so that they could work together towards a goal - building a pile of rocks, perhaps.Another view is that the earliest use of language was in establishing relationships. The important thing is to let the other person know where you stand. Are you friends or enemies? Robin Dunbar (1996) and Hurford et al (1998) see language as a bonding process that's less time-consuming than picking nits out of each other's hair.How did we get from no language to these first words?
Speculating about the nature of early language doesn't answer the question of how we came to have language in the first place. Presuming that there was a time when humans did not have language, what happened to make us able to link arbitrary sound (or gesture) with meaning, and work with grammatical rules?Noam Chomsky has suggested that language may have been a handy by-product of other changes in the human brain. Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom on the other hand, argue in a thought-provoking paper that language came about through Darwinian natural selection.What next?
Before we can make real inroads into the question of the origins of language, we need to fathom out what is useful evidence and what is a red herring. Does babies' behaviour, or the gesturing of foreigners, both cited above, actually have anything to do with the origins of language?The biggest problem however, is the amazing breadth of knowledge that needs to be ploughed into even the tiniest speculation. Linguists can't do this alone. They need the help of psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, archaeologists and many others to engage with the question seriously.