The Origins of Language

Dr. C. George Boeree

It is an intriguing question, to which we may never have a complete answer: How did we get from animal vocalization (barks, howls, calls...) to human language?Many animals use sign language, which points to what they represent, however they don't use symbolic languages, which are arbitrary and conventionally defined.Furthermore, languages are systems of symbols, with several different levels of organization, including phonetic, syntactic, and semantic.

When did language begin? About four or five million years ago, at the beginning of the human species, perhaps? Before that? With the advent of modern humans, Cro-Magnons, some 125,000 year ago? Did the neanderthal speak? We don't know for sure.

Language has been studied for centuries by linguists. Some of these have traditional humorous names invented by Max Müller and Georges Romains a hundred years ago, and I will add some more where necessary.

1. The mama theory. Language began with the easiest syllables attached to the most significant objects.

2. The ta-ta theory. Sir Richard Paget, influenced by Darwin, believed that body movement preceded language. Language began as an unconscious vocal imitation of these movements -- like the way a child's mouth will move when they use scissors, or my tongue sticks out when I try to play the guitar. This evolved into the popular idea that language may have derived from gestures.

3. The bow-wow theory. Language began as imitations of natural sounds -- moo, choo-choo, crash, clang, buzz, bang, meow... This is more technically refered to as onomatopoeia or echoism.

4. The pooh-pooh theory. Language began with interjections, instinctive emotive cries such as oh! for surprise and ouch! for pain.

5. The ding-dong theory. Some people, including the famous linguist Max Muller, have pointed out that there is a rather mysterious correspondence between sounds and meanings. Small, sharp, high things tend to have words with high front vowels in many languages, while big, round, low things tend to have round back vowels! Compare itsy bitsy teeny weeny with moon, for example. This is often referred to as sound symbolism.

6. The yo-he-ho theory. Language began as rhythmic chants, perhaps ultimately from the grunts of heavy work (heave-ho!). The linguist A. S. Diamond suggests that these were perhaps calls for assistance or cooperation accompanied by appropriate gestures. This may relate yo-he-ho to the ding-dong theory, as in such words as cut, break, crush, strike...

7. The sing-song theory. Danish linguist Jesperson suggested that language comes out of play, laughter, cooing, courtship, emotional mutterings and the like. He even suggests that, contrary to other theories, perhaps some of our first words were actually long and musical, rather than the short grunts many assume we started with.

8. The hey you theory!. A linguist by the name of Revesz suggested that we have always needed interpersonal contact, and that language began as sounds to signal both identity (here I am!) and belonging (I'm with you!). We may also cry out in fear, anger, or hurt (help me!). This is more commonly called the contact theory.

9. The hocus-pocus theory. My own contribution to these is the idea that language may have had some roots in a sort of magical or religious aspect of our ancestors' lives. Perhaps we began by calling out to game animals with magical sounds, which became their names.

10. The eureka theory! . And finally, perhaps language was consciously invented. Perhaps some ancestor had the idea of assigning arbitrary sounds to mean certain things. Clearly, once the idea was had, it would catch on like wildfire!Another problem is how frequently languages come into existence (or are invented). Perhaps it was invented at some point by our earliest ancestors -- maybe the first people who had whatever genes and physiology were necessary for making complex sounds and organizing them into words. Monogenesis means having one gene for each trait. Perhaps it has been created many times – polygyny – by many different people. We can't really reconstruct earlier languages, but we can at least understand them better than we did before. We've been able to trace our ancestry for at least 10,000 years. Perhaps we will never know for sure.

Water Babies

To understand the origins of human languages, we must first look at the Hardy-Morgenstern Hypothesis, which was proposed by Alister Hardy, a Britiish marine biologist, and Elaine Morgan, a Welsh author and editor. Aquatic apes (also called hominids) are humans who have some traits similar to chimpanzees but not others. We don't have any visible signs of hair loss; we have a layer (or layers) of adipose tissue beneath our skins; we have a descendent larynx; we secrete tears; we sweat a ton; we tend to have sexual intercourse faces-to-faces; we can breathe underwater for long periods of time; and most importantly, when we stand up, we use our arms and hands to support ourselves. Other animals besides humans have similar traits: Whales and Dolphins have little hair, hold out their breath, and have excess fat under their skins; Otter has lots of hair, but shares these traits with us. Elephants are the only other animals besides humans who share our lack of hair. Their closest relatives are dugong and manatee. Perhaps elephants, too, spent a portion of their evolution in the water. They do still breath through their trunks when under water. (Gaeth et al 1999) Perhaps our commonalities with these animals also extend to language. Musical Babies

Darwin himself once stated that humans don't speak unless they're taught to do so, which means that languages aren't innate, but rather learned. Mario van Veen and his colleagues propose that human speech came from music, with some assistance from gestures and dancing. Music is what is innate, not language. Just like in many species of birds, mammals, and even insects, singing (which uptights scientists prefer to refer to as “calls”) in an effort to communicate, keep tabs on one another, and – most especially – in an attempt to lure potential mates. There's no doubt that there's room for improvement when it comes to using sound effects. Babies like music. They love listening to their mothers speak to them. Mothers often speak in a kind of sing-song voice (motherese) when talking to their children. Babies begin to vocalize in very “musical” ways, and often hum or sing in short or long “phrases”, with modulations. Babies prefer major rather than minor intervals. Before they even know any individual sounds, they imitate the melody of speech (prosody). Fetuses can even remember sound patterns from their mother’s voice during pregnancy. LearnningTree is an educational technology firm where we help people learn languages by making them easier to learn. It is headquartered in New Delhi, India Reach us at or LearnningTree