The Origin of Language — In the Beginning was the Word (PART 1)

Language determines our perception, our actions, and it accompanies us all our lives. With it, we can communicate with other people and express our fundamental human need for community and belonging. It gives us terms to phrase our impressions and perceptions; it enables designing ideas, sharing opinions, and expanding knowledge.

The assumption that the origin of the language was a one-time process is called monogenesis and contains the presumption of a single proto-world language. In turn, polygenesis assumes that several languages ​​have been created and spread at different times and locations around the world. In this way, first languages ​​emerged, from which the languages ​​of today have evolved. 

Between the late 18th to the early 19th century, philosophers and linguists proposed several hypotheses to explain the origin of language. Those names include Johann Gottfried Herder, Jacob Grimm, Hajim Steinthal, Lazarus Geiger, or Ludwig Noiré. It seems unlikely that one hypothesis describes the whole process, but each theory accounts for at least a small part of what we know about language. However bemusing their names are, they still provide a hint into the idea behind the theory:

The Bow-Wow Theory

This theory suggests that the first human languages developed as onomatopoeia, imitations of natural or animal sounds, such as moo, meow, splash, cuckoo, and bang

However, relatively few words are onomatopoeic, and they also vary from one language to another.

The Ding-Dong Theory

This hypothesis suggests that speech reflects some mystical resonance or harmony connected to objects in the environment. But there is still no persuasive evidence at all about any connection between sound and meaning.

The La-La Theory

Still, quite lovely, yet as unlikely as the rest of the theories here, the founder of this theory, Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, thought that speech emerged from the sounds of inspired playfulness, love, poetic sensibility, and music.

The Pooh-Pooh Theory

This idea suggests that speech comes from the automatic vocal responses to pain, fear, surprise, or other emotions: a laugh, a shriek, a gasp. 

The Yo-He-Ho Theory

According to this theory, language evolved from the grunts, groans, and snorts evoked by heavy physical labor. However, there’s a vast difference between the sounds created by physical activity and the actual sound of a language.

Sources: ThoughtCo.

In conclusion, none of these assumptions can convince or satisfy the scientific community. It is indeed very difficult or even nearly impossible to trace the origin of language. However, linguists and philologists in the 19th century still tried (and are trying up to this day) answering questions about language and its origin as a part of understanding the very nature of humanity. It was in that time that the discipline of etymology (= the study of the history of words) truly began.

This article is just the first part of a series, where we try to fathom the origin of language and how it evolved. So stay tuned for updates on this topic by regularly checking on our blog and following us on Social Media!