The Origin of Language | Part 2

It’s here! Part 2 of the series about humanity’s greatest “invention” of all time: language. In the previous part, we talked about several hypotheses philosophers and linguists of the 18th/19th century came up with to explain the origin of language. However, today’s scientists and linguists aren’t convinced or satisfied with any of these assumptions. So, let’s figure out why!

Languages Today

We can safely assume that today there are more than 6,000 different languages ​​or main dialects worldwide. They are distributed relatively unevenly across the continents. And to maintain an overview of this sheer amount, we’ve come up with the idea of assigning them to individual linguistic families that reflect similar grammatical characteristics and constructions. All major European languages ​​such as Russian, Spanish, Greek, and English belong to the Indo-European language family, along with many smaller ones such as Irish, Sorbian, and Rhaeto-Romanic also many Asian languages ​​such as Persian, Hindi, and Bengali to Pashto and Tajik. In Europe itself, we also know languages ​​from other families: the Uralic languages ​​Finnish and Hungarian, the Caucasian languages ​​like Georgian and the isolated language Basque (with three main dialects), whose grammar is very different from that of the Indo-European ones. 

So as of today, we’ve got a population of 7.8 people globally – 12% of them living in Europe. However, they only speak 3% of all languages. 60% of all people live in Asia and speak 1/3 of all languages. Less than 1% of people live on the many islands of the Pacific region but speak almost 20% of all languages. (Source: Dieter Wunderlich, “Tag der Forschung,” 4th of November 2001)

Even though we know that the population has drastically increased over a couple of millennia, it’s safe to say that this wide variety of languages has always been there, even though they’re most probably not the same anymore. During all this time, new languages ​​have emerged, while others died out. At present, almost half of all languages ​​have hardly more than 50 speakers and will probably not exist for long without creating a correspondingly large number of new languages. 

The Ability to Speak vs. The Creation of Language

There are, in fact, various factors that played a part in the development of human language. The anatomical development of the human being, the development of his brain, and, consequently, his cognitive and cultural abilities were crucial. But the physical ability to speak is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for language since people with hearing loss are also capable of human language (e.g., sign language). And vice versa, being able to speak is not enough either, because parrots have the anatomical requirements for speaking, but are incapable of creating a language like we do. However, this doesn’t mean that animals aren’t able to communicate with each other and also us humans. They simply do it in their own ways. Moreover, it is essential to mention that animal communication is situational, meaning that it is related to what is happening in the speaking situation. In contrast, humans don’t experience this kind of limitation. 

Credits: Romina Veliz

All at once or Step-by-Step?

Most researchers suspect that the unique characteristics of language evolved in stages (perhaps over some millions of years), like the evolution of humankind itself. Our ancestors most probably have used sounds to name various objects and actions in the environment. (Which brings us back to the several hypotheses we’ve discussed in the previous article). Some individuals might’ve even been able to invent a primitive form of vocabulary. But this mainly consisted of unstructured calls. To create discrete speech sounds, like consonants and vowels, it was inevitable for the body and brain to change sooner or later. And even when those early versions of us humans were capable of using consonants and vowels, their form of communication was far from our modern language. But over time, we’ve gained the ability to string together several ‘words’ and create a message built out its meanings – highly rudimentary, however. This form of “protolanguage” is still noticeable in two-year-old children. At our final stage of changes, we’ve added a richer structure to this “protolanguage,” such as grammar, tenses, relative clauses, and complement clauses. But this long process of language development was also accompanied by cultural and social influences. Social intelligence seems to have been one of the main reasons for the increase in brain volume in early humans over the past few million years – and ultimately led to language skills. 

Speech vs. Writing

What is a language without writing? The invention of written words and sentences caused a tremendous increase in linguistic quality. It is believed today that the first writing began with bookkeeping in ancient Mesopotamia. This lets us think that the writing’s impact on culture is even more significant than its effect on language structure. Writing shapes culture and forms society. Languages have always been untied to a distinct situation and were far more complex even before the introduction of writing. 

With all that being said, it is still nearly incomprehensible for us to recognize a connection between the very early stages of language and today’s expressive and powerful linguistic masterpieces of Homer, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and others. But once you start to connect all the dots of humankind’s history with the evolution of language, it is an overwhelming feeling to acknowledge how far we’ve come.