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 Study of Languages
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.
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.
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.
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.