How did humans come to speak a language is one of the intriguing questions which has come to every human’s mind. The origin of a language is one of the greatest mysteries in human science to which we never find a complete answer. Scholars and scientists have been arguing for centuries about the origin of language. The sad thing is that we may never have a complete answer to all the questions which tie to the origin of the language topic.
The origin of language has been such a huge heated hot topic of debate for years. The Linguistic Society of Paris was an organization dedicated to studying languages. This organization actually banned any debate related to the origin of language in 1886 and did not resume it for years.
But why the origin of language is such a heated topic of debate. It is because we don’t have any evidence about how language actually originated. Spoken language doesn’t leave any fossils through which we can find out all the details about its origin.
Some researchers claimed that language came in a single leap. It is created through one mutation the complete system in the brain. Through this system, humans can express complex meanings by using combinations of sounds. They also think that only a few aspects of language which humans have and animals don’t. Other researchers suspect that language did not happen all at once rather some special properties evolved in stages for millions of years. All we have is assumptions, hypotheses, and guesses that scientists and scholars have made over the years. Let’s see what we know about the origin of language.
Language is a system of symbols. It has several levels of organization which include phonetics, syntax, and semantics. Phonetics is the sounds of language, the syntax is the grammar of the language and semantics is the actual or hidden meaning of language.
No one knows exactly when and how human beings came up with the spoken language, but there is some hypothesis about it. One hypothesis about spoken language is that it must have developed between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. This is well before the invention of the written language. It is claimed by researchers that the evolution of written language is about 5000 years ago.
But before these above-mentioned years, definitely use language to communicate, but we never find any direct evidence or artifacts relating to the speech of our distant ancestors which might tell us about how language was back in the early stages.
Due to the absence of direct physical evidence, there is no shortage of speculation about the origins of human language.
Charles Darwin’s Vision of Origin of Language
Through Charles Darwin’s vision of the origin of language, we come to know about a unique point of view. According to him, prior to language, early humans had already developed musical ability and used it to charm each other. This point of view may not show a typical image that most of us have about our early ancestors. But it is definitely interesting speculation about how language may have originated. However, it always remains speculation.
“The suspicion does not appear improbable that the progress of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before they had acquires the power of articulate language to express their mutual love, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.”–Charles Darwin 1871
Sources about the origin of the language
Here are some speculated sources about the origin of the language which have been made over the years by researchers and scholars:
1. The Divine Source
There are following some references from religious books traditions and beliefs which give the idea that the origin of language comes from a divine source.
Book of Genesis
This book of Genesis told us about biblical traditions. It is said that God created Adam and “whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” (Genesis 2/19)
In the holy Quran, it is said that “O Adam, inform them of their names.” And when he had informed them of their names… (Surah Al Baqarah, 2/31-33)
Hindus believe that language has come from Sarasvati who is the wife of Brahma. Brahma was the creator of the universe in Hindu beliefs.
In most religions, there are beliefs that there is a divine source that provides humans with language. So to discover the divine source some experiments have been carried out that rather had conflicting results.
- Psamtik carried out an experiment with 2 babies. He deprived them of human contact just to know that any divine source is there or not that provides these babies with language. Babies uttered the word bekos which means bread in Phrygian. But children learned this word from sheep, not from some divine source.
- King James the Fourth of Scotland also did a similar kind of experiment. Children started to speak Hebrew which confirmed the king’s belief that Hebrew was the language of Eden.
But the real fact is that children who are isolated and deprived of any language contact, cannot be able to learn any language.
2. The Natural Sound Source
The natural sound source gives the idea that language emerged from natural sounds. It gives the basic view that primitive words are considered the imitations of natural sounds that early men and women heard around them. When an object flew in front of them and make a caw-caw or coo-coo sound, they use these sound to associate with the thing. This association criterion was for everything which makes any sound whether it is a bird, animal, or any other thing. This theory is supported by the fact that all modern languages have some words with pronunciations that seems to echo naturally occurring sounds.
3. The Social Interaction Source
This source gives another proposal that human language develops in a social context. Early people lived in groups. So, some kind of communication was required for them to interact with each other. Especially when they were involved in some physical activity together. They might develop a set of grunts, groans, and curses. This idea is important to show the uses of humanly produced sounds. But it does not answer the questions regarding the origins of sound. Apes and other primitives lived in groups and used grunts and social calls. But it did not seem that they had developed the capacity for speech.
4. The Oral Gesture Source
This oral gesture source gives an idea that originally a set of physical gestures was developed as a means of communication. Then after that, a set of oral gestures were developed for expressing ideas.
5. The Physical Adaption Source
This source tells us that human beings have genetically some physical features. These features are responsible for producing speech sounds.
6. The Genetic Source
We can also call this source an innateness source. According to Chomsky, language is partly innate and partly we have to acquire it.
So in the end we come to know that these sources do not precisely demonstrate what the origin of language was. These sources have some kind of relatedness but are not complete. One thing is clear-cut from these sources that past people were only able to do some gestures to communicate and produce a few sounds.
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