The origin of language (glottogony) is a topic that has attracted considerable speculation throughout human history. The use of language is one of the most conspicuous and diagnostic traits that distinguish Homo sapiens from other species. Unlike writing, spoken language leaves no trace. Hence linguists have to resort to indirect methods in trying to decipher the origins of language.
Linguists agree that there are no existing primitive languages, and all modern human populations speak languages of comparable complexity. While existing languages differ in the size of and subjects covered in their lexicons, all possess the grammar and syntax needed, and can invent, translate, or borrow the vocabulary necessary to express the full range of their speakers' concepts. All humans possess similar linguistic abilities, and no child is born with a biological predisposition favoring any one language or type of language.
Speech versus language
It is necessary to make a minor distinction between speech and language. Speech involves producing sounds from the voicebox. Talking birds, such as some parrots, are able to imitate human speech with varying ability. However this ability to mimic human sounds is very different from the acquisition of syntax. On the other hand, the deaf generally do not use speech but are able to communicate effectively using sign language, which is considered a fully-developed, complex, modern language. What this implies is that the evolution of modern human language required both the development of the anatomical apparatus and also neurological changes in the brain.
Though all animals use some form of communication, researchers generally do not classify their communication as language. However, the communication systems of a few animal species do share some attributes in common with modern human language. Dolphins, for example, are able to communicate like humans by calling each other by name.
Not much is known about great ape communication in the wild, but in captivity they have been taught rudimentary sign language and to use lexigrams (keyboards with symbols). Some apes such as Kanzi have reportedly been able to learn several hundred words. However, they do lack grammar or syntax. Furthermore the anatomical structure of their larynx does not enable apes to make many of the sounds that humans do..
In the wild, the communication of vervet monkeys has been the most studied. They are known to make up to ten different vocalizations. Many of these are used to warn other members of the troupe about approaching predators, and include a "leopard call", a "snake call", and an "eagle call". Each alarm triggers a different defensive strategy. Scientists were able to elicit predictable responses from the monkeys using loudspeakers and prerecorded sounds. Other vocalizations may be used for identification. If an infant monkey calls, its mother turns toward it, but other vervet mothers turn instead toward that infant's mother to see what she will do.
- See also Neanderthal language
There is considerable speculation about the language capabilities of ancient hominids. Some scholars believe the advent of hominid bipedalism around 3.5 million years ago would have brought changes to the human skull, allowing for a more L-shaped vocal tract. The shape of the tract and a larynx positioned relatively low in the neck are necessary prerequisites for many of the sounds humans make, particularly vowels. Other scholars believe that, based on the position of the larynx, not even the Neanderthals had the anatomy necessary to produce the full range of sounds modern humans make.
The recent discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid bone suggests that Neanderthals may have been anatomically capable of producing sounds similar to modern humans, and studies indicate that by 400,000 years ago the hypoglossal canal of living hominids had reached the size of that in modern humans. The hypoglossal canal transmits nerve signals to the brain and its size is said to reflect speech abilities. Hominids who lived earlier than 300,000 years ago had hypoglossal canals more akin to those of chimpanzees than of humans.
However, although Neanderthals may have been anatomically able to speak, many scholars doubt that they possessed a fully modern language. They largely base their doubts on the fossil record of archaic humans and their stone tool kit. For 2 million years following the emergence of Homo habilis, the stone tool technology of hominids changed very little. Richard G. Klein, who has worked extensively on ancient stone tools, describes the crude stone tool kit of archaic humans as impossible to break down into categories based on their function, and reports that Neanderthals seem to have had little concern for the final form of their tools. Klein argues that the Neanderthal brain may have not reached the level of complexity required for modern speech, even if the physical apparatus for speech production was well-developed. The issue of the Neanderthal's level of cultural and technological sophistication remains a controversial one.
Anatomical features such as the L-shaped vocal tract have been continuously evolving as opposed to appearing suddenly. This gradual evolution must have taken place for a reason. Even though archaic humans used crude stone technology, it was still more advanced than that of chimpanzees or gorillas. Hence it is most likely that archaic humans possessed some form of communication intermediate between humans and primates.
- See also: Behavioral modernity
Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record 200,000 years ago in Ethiopia. But while modern anatomically, these humans continued to behave just as the hominids who existed before. They used the same crude stone tools and hunted inefficiently. However, starting at about 100,000 years ago, there is evidence of more sophisticated behaviour, and by 50,000 years ago fully modern behaviour is thought to have developed in various parts of Africa. After this point, stone tools show regular patterns that are reproduced or duplicated with more precision, and tools made of bone and antler appear for the first time. The artifacts are also now easily sortable into many different categories based on their function, such as projectile points, engraving tools, knife blades, and drilling and piercing tools. Teaching offspring how to manufacture such detailed tools would have required complex language.
The greatest step in language evolution would have been the progression from primitive, pidgin-like communication to a creole-like language with all the grammar and syntax of modern languages. Many scholars believe that this step could only have been accomplished with some biological change to the brain, such as a mutation. It has been suggested that the a gene such as FOXP2 may have undergone a mutation allowing humans to communicate. Evidence suggests that this change took place somewhere in Africa around 50,000 years ago, which rapidly brought about significant changes that are apparent in the fossil record. There is still some debate as to whether language developed gradually over thousands of years or whether it appeared suddenly.
According to the Out of Africa hypothesis, around 50,000 years ago a group of humans left Africa and proceeded to colonize the rest of the world, including Australia and the Americas, which had never been populated by archaic hominids. Some scientists believe that Homo sapiens did not leave Africa before that, because they had not yet attained modern brain and language and did not have the skills or the numbers required to migrate.
Linguistic monogenesis (the "Mother Tongue Theory") is the hypothesis that there was one single protolanguage (the "Proto-World language") from which all other languages spoken by humans descend. All human populations from the Australian aboriginals to the Fuegians living at the Southern tip of Argentina possess language. This includes populations, such as the Tasmanian aboriginals or the Andamanese, who may have been isolated from the old world continents by as long as 40,000 years. Thus, the multiregional hypothesis would entail that modern language evolved independently on all the continents, a proposition widely rejected as implausible.
Genetic studies have revealed that the San people of southern Africa were the first group to branch off from the ancestral population and have the oldest mitochondrial DNA lineages, and until recently they may have remained genetically and culturally relatively isolated from other African populations. Their languages are unusual in that they employ extensive use of click consonants. It has been suggested by some scholars, including Merritt Ruhlen, that click sounds may have been a component of the first languages. Many others, however, have disputed this conclusion.
All humans alive today are descended from Mitochondrial Eve, a woman estimated to have lived in Africa some 150,000 years ago. This raises the possibility that the Proto-World language could date to approximately that period. There are also claims of a population bottleneck, notably the Toba catastrophe theory which postulates human population at one point some 70,000 years ago was as low as 15,000 or even 2,000 individuals. If accepted, such a bottleneck would be an excellent candidate for the date of Proto-World, which at the same time illustrates that Proto-World is not at the beginning of linguistic evolution, but would rather have been a fully evolved language which just happened to be that which survived the population bottleneck and so could diversify further.
Proponents of the proto-world language hypothesis include Merritt Ruhlen. They have produced hypothetical reconstructions of the proto-languages of the world's major language families in an attempt to reconstruct the proto world language. However this hypothesis is highly controversial, since many linguists believe that languages change so rapidly that is impossible to reconstruct any language after 10,000 years evolution. Ruhlen contends that similarities found between any two languages can arise by three mechanisms - convergence, borrowing or common origin. Convergence entails that two distant languages can evolve similar sounding words for the same object. Consequently the probability of convergence is relatively low, and it is more likely that the two languages have a common origin. For example the root word "Akwa" for water is found in the proto languages of Eurasiatic, Afro-Asiatic and Amerind languages.
Ruhlen also suggests a common origin from Africa. He argues that Africa has very divergent language families confined to a comparatively small geographic region. The language families include Afro-Asiatic, such as the semitic languages, Niger-Kordofanian languages, the Nilo-Saharan and the Khoisan languages, that use clicks.
Scenarios for language evolution
The gestural theory states that language developed from gestures that were used for communication. During the time language developed, humans lived in social groups, and provided for themselves by hunting and foraging. Some kind of communication system was needed, which was the drive to develop language.
Two types of evidence support this theory.
- Gestural language and vocal language depend on similar neural systems. The regions on the cortex that are responsible for mouth and hand movements are bordering to each other.
- Nonhuman primates can use gestures or symbols for at least primitive communication.
Research found strong support for the idea that verbal language and sign language depend on similar neural structures. Patients who used sign language, and who suffered from a left-hemisphere lesion, showed the same disorders with their sign language as vocal patients did with their spoken language. Other researchers found that the same left-hemisphere brain regions were active during sign language as during the use of vocal or written language.
There is also evidence for the use of gestures by primates. The theory assumes that if spoken language evolved from gestures used by our ancestors, those gestures are likely to have been transferred genetically rather than culturally. In this case, the same gestures should still be transferred genetically in humans and should still be found in all human groups, and also apes should use some of this group of gestures. A likely example of this gesture is the begging gesture that both humans and chimpanzees use, with their hands stretched out.
The important question for gestural theories is why there was a shift to vocalizing. There are two likely explanations:
- Our ancestors started to use more and more tools, meaning that their hands were occupied and could not be used for gesturing.
- Gesturing requires that both can see each other. There are many situations in which individuals need to communicate even without visual contact, for instance when a predator is closing in on somebody who is up in a tree picking fruit.
Humans still use hand and facial gestures when they speak, especially when people meet who have no language in common.
Since children are largely responsible for creolization of a pidgin, scholars such as Derek Bickerton and Noam Chomsky concluded that humans are born with a Universal grammar hardwired into their brains. This universal grammar consists of a wide range of grammatical models that include all the grammatical systems of worlds' languages. The default settings of this universal grammar are represented by the similarities apparent in creole languages. These default settings are overridden during the process of language acquisition by children to match the local language. When children learn a language they first learn the creole-like features more easily than the features that conflict with creole grammar.
Another issue that is often cited as support for the Universal grammar theory is the recent development of Nicaraguan Sign Language. Beginning in 1979, the recently installed Nicaraguan government initiated the country's first widespread effort to educate deaf children. Prior to this there was no deaf community in the country. A center for special education established a program initially attended by 50 young deaf children. By 1983 the center had 400 students. The center did not have access to teaching facilities of any of the sign languages that are used around the world; consequently, the children were not taught any sign language. The language program instead emphasized spoken Spanish and lipreading, and the use of signs by teachers limited to fingerspelling (using simple signs to sign the alphabet). The program achieved little success, with most students failing to grasp the concept of Spanish words.
The first children who arrived at the center came with only a few crude gestural signs developed within their own families. However, when the children were placed together for the first time they began to build on one another's signs. As more younger children joined the language became more complex. The children's teachers, who were having limited success at communicating with their students, watched in awe as the kids began communicating amongst themselves.
Later the Nicaraguan government would solicit help from Judy Kegl, an American sign-language expert at Northeastern University. As Kegl and other researchers began to analyze the language, they noticed that the young children had taken the pidgin-like form of the older children to a higher level of complexity, with verb agreement and other conventions of grammar.
According to Steven Pinker:
|“||We've been able to see how it is that children, not adults, generate language, and we have been able to record it happening in great scientific detail. And it's the first and only time that we've actually seen a language being created out of thin air.||”|
Pidgins and creoles
- See also: creoles
A pidgin is a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups who do not share a common language, in situations such as trade. The vocabulary of the pidgin is derived from the shared languages. Each group has its own native language which it uses when communicating within the group. The pidgin would only be used to communicate with members of other groups. The manner in which pidgins develop is of interest in understanding the origin of human language.
Pidgins are generally invented by adults, who have since lost much of the capabilities that young children have to quickly learn a new language. Consequently they are very much simplified languages with rudimentary grammar and restricted vocabulary. In its early stage pidgins mainly consist of nouns, verbs and adjectives with few or no articles, prepositions, conjunctions or auxiliary verbs. The grammar consists of words with no fixed word order and the words have no inflectional endings.
for example a pidgin from Hawaii:
- wai you go dakta?
- Why are you going to the doctor? The pidgin lacks the words "are", "to" and "the".
Pidgins often die out if the two language groups cease to have contact. However, if contact is maintained for longer periods the pidgins may become more complex over many generations. If the children of one generation adopt the pidgin as their native language it develops into a creole language, which in subsequent generations may supplant the original languages it was derived from. The creole then becomes fixed and acquires a more complex grammar, with fixed phonology, syntax, morphology, and syntactic embedding. The syntax and morphology of such languages may often have local innovations not obviously derived from any of the parent languages.
Studies of creole languages around the world have suggested that they display remarkable similarities in grammar and are developed uniformly from pidgins in a single generation. These similarities are apparent even when creoles do not share any common language origins. In addition creoles share similarities despite being developed in isolation from each other. Syntactic similarities of creoles include Subject Verb Object word order. Even when creoles are derived from languages with a different word order they often develop the SVO word order. Creoles tend to have similar usage patterns for definite and indefinite articles, and similar movement rules for phrase structures even when the parent languages do not.
There have also been accounts of twins who spoke an unintelligible language that only their sibling understood. These cases are better documented; in the 1970s, the Kennedy twins, whose given names were "Grace" and "Virginia", called each other Poto and Cabengo; it was determined that their idiosyncratic speech was a deeply altered form of English, with some influence from their grandmother's German. It appeared to be a well-formed language, with rules governing grammar and syntax. Similarly idiosyncratic speech patterns were reported from the twin writers June and Jennifer Gibbons.
Even in the absence of the unusual social lives of twins, many people have found it relatively easy and natural to construct new languages, with lexicons either derived from pre-existing languages, or wholly imagined. The author J. R. R. Tolkien and his several languages of Middle-earth is one well known creator; there are many others.
The search for the origin of language has a long history, rooted in mythology.
Eurocentric 18th to 19th century scholarship assumed that the languages of the world reflected various stages in the development from primitive to advanced speech, culminating in the Indo European family seen as the most advanced. Modern linguistics does not begin until the late 18th century, and the romantic or animist theses of Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Christoph Adelung remained influential well into the 19th century. The question of language origins proved inaccessible to methodical approaches, and in 1866 the famously banned discussion of the origin of language, deeming it to be an unanswerable problem. A systematic approach to Historical linguistics became only possible with the Neogrammarian approach of Karl Brugmann and others from the 1890s, but scholarly interest in the question has only been re-kindled from the 1950s (and then controversially) with ideas such as Universal grammar, mass lexical comparison and glottochronology.
History contains a number of anecdotes about people who attempted to discover the origin of language by experiment. The first such tale was told by Herodotus, who relates that Pharaoh "Psamtik" (probably Psammetichus I) caused two children to be raised by deaf-mutes; he would see what language they ended up speaking. When the children were brought before him, one of them said something that sounded to the pharaoh like bekos, the Phrygian word for bread. From this, Psamtik concluded that Phrygian was the first language. King James V of Scotland is said to have tried a similar experiment; his children were supposed to have ended up speaking Hebrew. Both the medieval monarch Frederick II and Akbar, a 16th century Mughal emperor of India, are said to have tried a similar experiment; the children involved in these experiments did not speak.
In religion and mythology
- See also: Divine language and Adamic language
Religions and ethnic mythologies often provide explanations for the origin and development of language. Most mythologies do not credit humans with the invention of language, but know of a language of the gods (or, language of God), predating human language. Mystical languages used to communicate with animals or spirits, such as the language of the birds, are also common, and were of particular interest during the Renaissance.
One of the best known examples in the West is the Tower of Babel passage from Genesis in the Bible or Torah. The passage, common to all Abrahamic faiths, tells of God punishing man for the tower's construction by means of the confusion of tongues.
- And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language;
- and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them,
- which they have imagined to do.
- Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may
- not understand one another's speech.
Local variations of this passage are found to have followed Christian missionaries on their journeys across the world, although the extent to how much of the tradition existed prior to the arrival of the missionaries is still discussed.
A group of people on the island of Hao in Polynesia tell a very similar story to the Tower of Babel, speaking of a God who, "in anger chased the builders away, broke down the building, and changed their language, so that they spoke divers tongues" .
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- ^ LANGUAGE SAMPLES FROM PIDGIN SPEAKERS
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