Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Origins of Human Language: One of the Hardest Problems in Science

Ancient Origins 


How human language began has been a question pestering researchers for centuries. One of the biggest issues with this topic is that empirical evidence is still lacking despite our great advances in technology. This lack of concrete evidence even once led to the prohibition of any future debates regarding the origins of communication by the Linguistic Society of Paris. Despite the obstacles, a number of researchers including psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists continue on studying the topic. The results of the numerous studies on early communication can be divided into two major categories of communication: vocalizations and gestures. Here the focus is on vocalization.

Our Hyoid Bones and Complex Brains: Part of What Helps Us Do More than Chatter Like Chimps

As spoken language is by nature impermanent, the best empirical evidence for this field of thought is the hyoid bone. This bone as it appears and functions in modern homo sapiens is only believed to be found in our predecessors, Homo heidelbergensis, as of 300,000 years ago and in our prehistoric "cousins" the Neanderthals.  Nevertheless, the appearance of the Kebara 2 hyoid in both species does not definitively prove that they were set to use speech or complex language.

That being said, the hyoid bone is believed by many researchers to be the foundation of speech for humans and without our specifically shape hyoid bones in exactly the right place, functioning alongside a precisely descended larynx, it is believed that we would sound much like chimpanzees.
Thus, we had a nicely complex and precise throat anatomy, but alongside this part of the anatomy we also had to have sufficiently complex brains to have something to talk about. Researchers believe that our ancient ancestors had, what Noam Chomsky calls the LAD (Language Acquisition Device), the ability to learn language and to use it in a creative way. This creativity can be evinced by the art created some 300,000 to 700,000 years ago by our Paleolithic predecessors.

Hardware  and Software in place: Ready To Begin?

Combining these two ideas, perhaps our human ancestors were all set to begin speaking (or at least making well-constructed sounds with a thought-out purpose) around 300,000 years ago. Despite this, most vocal theories say the date was much later - only 100,000 years ago when there was an increase in brain volume as well. This is a summary of the natural evolutionary acquisition of language.


Opposed to the evolutionary point of view, there is also debate on if the language was a divine gift, or perhaps a conscious invention by early humans. Both of these theories are based on the complexity of human language.

Apart from trying to pinpoint the date, continuity, and provider of the first spoken word, another very important question which scholars have tried to explain is: What did the early ancestors say?

The Early Theories on Vocal Language Origins:  La-la, Bow-wow...

There are six principal theories that were made between the late 1800s to the early 1900s which were meant to explain the origins of the words used in vocal language. They have humorous nicknames attached which provide a hint into the idea behind the theory.

1. The Bow-Wow Theory: This theory suggests that the first words were onomatopoeic (words that use sounds associated with objects/actions they refer too) - such as hiss, bang and splash. The Bow-Wow theory has been discredited by the fact that many "onomatopoeic" words are different across languages, not really derived from natural sounds, and recently created.

2. The Ding-Dong Theory: is a theory that harmony with the natural environment created the need for language, and sound and meaning are innately connected through nature. While it is true that there are some examples of "sound symbolism" (fl- words in English associated with light and quick), studies have not been able to prove an innate connection between a sound and a word's meaning.

3. The Pooh-Pooh Theory: Suggests that language began with interjections (expressions such as "Ow!" "Oh!" "Ha!"). One problem with this theory is that it can be said that many animals make these/similar sounds yet they do not create other words. Another issue with the Pooh-Pooh theory is found in the lack of interjections currently found in most modern languages. 

4. The Yo-He-Ho Theory: This is a theory based on the grunts and groans people make when doing heavy physical labor. While these sounds can be related to some of the rhythm of some language, it does not really explain the origins of most words.

5. The La-La Theory: Is an idea that vocal language came about through play, song, and love. A counterpoint is that the theory does not explain words that are less emotional.

6. The Ta-Ta Theory: believes that words arose from a desire to imitate gestures via the use of the tongue and mouth. For example, ta-ta would be a tongue waving goodbye. An obvious difficulty in this theory would be that many gestures could not be reproduced solely by the mouth and tongue.

Despite their drawbacks, most of these theories are still taught today as a starting point for research into the area of human speech.


Read more: Ancient Origins