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Origins of language
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The origins of language
by Philippa Law

How did language begin?
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?

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:

"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.

Your Comments
What stories do you know about word origins?

Mark Alexander from Memphis, TN, USA
I can't believe you've missed something so simple. There was one common language until we decided to build a tower to make a name for ourselves rather than worshipping God, who created us. God put a stop to it by confusing the language so that no one could understand another. That put a stop to it. People then scattered around the earth. Modern languages descend from the original confusion. It's really a rather interesting story. You can read it for yourself in Genesis, Chapter 11.

Ben from Bracknell
I find this subject fascinating, & my feeling is that the actual "naming" process might have been totally instinctive. i.e. Before me stands an object (say, a tree) & I, on this particular day decide to give it a name...But then how evolved was speech, & would this word be documented in some way? Did the formation of words, speech & writing come together? It was neccessary for basic communication between humans to have words that described the things around them. There must be,hopefully some record, somewhere that gives us some idea when and which body of people began the process..but if there is, how might words have been written? And how did writing itself evolve? I'd love to know more about this period. How exciting it must have been,to be living in a time when one was "responsible" for creating the initial stages of language...

Liam from Inverness
In response to Nick P, I have to contest the theory that we started with just one language. I'm a student of chinese, and speak english fluently, and the grammar is so different, beyond just different - it's exactly opposite sometimes. There are words which cannot be translated (such as 才 or 就, the first one used with a verb to imply that it happened at a later time than expected or than usual, the latter meaning it happened earlier then desired or expected, or the immediacy of an action), verbs do not conjugate (是 to be, am, are, was, will be, used to be etc), word order is completely different, there is no word for "and" to link two verbs etc. Gaidhlig doesn't have a verb 'to have', you can't say, "I have a house," instead you say, "A house is at me." To me, this says that languages didn't come from one root, but perhaps 5 or 6 and evolved from there.

nat O, china
just a note: western babies may have their first words as nouns, asian babies however, start with verbs.

John from Peterborough
When is the BBC going to give us a programme about this fascinating subject? How much is known already about languages? Most languages, like Latin, for example, seem so grammatically precise, that it's as though somebody has invented them! Or do verb endings and cases come about naturally? What are the stories behind the language winners and losers and the tribes that spoke them? How many languages can we attach to the languages family tree?

anipaq from Alaska
I think a study of language has to be preceeded by a study of sound. I have heard that the Ancients could sit by an object (for instance, a tree) and hear the vibration of that tree, and so he/she imitated that vibration to form a word. I'm hearing more these days about OM as the Sound of Creation, and by saying or chanting it we can unite ourselves with all that exists. I have a theory that language is simply what the human mind has created in order to make meaningful contact with the rest of creation--other human beings included, of course. The mystics would probably tell us to just 'shut up' and experience what already exits; namely,a natural union with all that IS--to become so still (released from the chatter around us and the mind chatter within) so that we could feel the vibration (that sound is) and experience Total Union.

Nick P from Dorset
Some thoughts on this fascinating, and possibly unknowable subject. Most languages fall into families- Indo-European, Semetic, Turkic etc, which links them in a sometimes very tenuous manner. Icelandic being related to Bengali for example. However there seems to be an underlying universal grammar, which means that totally unrelated languages can be translated with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Does this mean that really all languages are related? This would be the case if the earliest humans had speech, and a common language, before even we left Africa to colonise the world, and everything which deveoped after that was just variations on a theme. If however speech was developed by independant groups of humans afterwards that would explain why apparently unrelated groups of languages developed, and implies that speech is an instinctive part of human nature. I don't know the answer by the way!

I had an interesting insight into languages when my son was a toddler, and starting to babble. I noticed that he had a much wider range of sounds than I did as an adult- I couldn't imitate what he was saying. Anyone who's tried to learn a foreign language as an adult will know what I mean. Some sounds you just can't get- for example I can't say the double r in Spanish, even though I speak the language well, because the sound doesn't exist in English. The obvious conclusion is that babies start with a wide range of sounds they are able to make, but as they become fixed into picking up a particular language, English, Spanish, Chinese, whatever, the sounds they don't need get filtered out because they don't need them any more.

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