Language Origins

The origins of language have been hotly debated or contemplated for thousands of years. The Bible presents the story of the Tower of Babel, where God is said to have disrupted unifying work among humans by dividing the partners into separate linguistic communities that went on to distinguish themselves as tribes. Plato seriously considered the possibility that language was consciously invented by man versus the possibility that it developed naturally. Today, some religions maintain there is a holy language, whereas some followers of Judaism believe Hebrew is the original human language from which other tongues are derived.

It has been hypothesized that there is a single common origin for all human dialects going back to some undetermined time in the past. Many disciplines have been employed to trace two commonly referred to "origins" of language. The first is the geographic and temporal origin, i.e. the place and time at which language branched out and subdivided into multiple dialects and later into mutually unintelligible forms that would, by definition, be called distinct languages.

One argument traces modern languages to some arbitrary linguistic point in the past through the default of common geography, languages rules and distribution. The so-called Indo-European language is theorized to have served as the linguistic ancestor of languages such as Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. Modern tongues such as the Romance languages are more easily traceable because of the obvious imperial influence of Latin on their areas of origin and the extant vestiges of Latin in the vocabulary and grammar of the modern dialects.

But the lack of clear origins for other languages, such as Basque, Hungarian and Finnish, that are distributed over the same Indian-European region, have led other theorists to speculate that Indo-European was more a family than a single dialect and was consequently related to other languages in Central Asia. There are other super families of languages, such as the Amerind category in the Americas, Uralic in northwestern Russia and Altaic in central Asia. Russian linguists have been major proponents of the ancient family hypothesis. Consequently, with similar research on other language families and super families, evidence of common roots distributed around the world has fostered the idea that all languages are ultimately related.

Evidence for a single linguistic origin is seen in the common distribution of roots like TIK, which might form the basis for the words "hand" and or "finger" in tongues all over the world, for example "digitus" in Latin and "te" in Japanese. Other examples are the use of the sounds "m" and "t" for the first and second person in pronominal language devices: for example, "me" and "te" as object pronouns in Spanish. Another is the frequent formation of words for "mother" and "father" using "m" for mother and a continual variation of v/f/p/b ("Vater" in German, "father" in English, "padre" in Spanish and "ab" in Semitic languages).

Problems with this theory could lie in the idea that many human migrations existed and several language families, however closely related they were, existed long ago and even prior to a theoretical common language. The idea that contemporary tongues share a common ancestor is bolstered by research indicating less linguistic diversity in non-African languages that evolved from African migrants who left the continent and inhabited the rest of the world. This might indicate that a select group of migrants existed and their presence constituted a human monopoly on language development outside Africa.

Other disciplines, notably archeology and anthropology, have suggested that language developed in tandem with the advancement and migration of humans. More specifically, theorists point to significant changes in the archeological record when humans began to incorporate recognizable features of modern humans, including ritual and the sophistication of tools. The suggestion is that this indicated the point when language began to manifest, evidenced by the probable need for sophisticated communication to instruct others in conducting traditions and mastering craftsmanship. This might also lend weight to the idea that humans spread throughout the world from a common epicenter within a few thousand years.

The biological origins of languages are disputed, but most researchers favor an idea of a gradual development of language, despite what might appear as sudden changes in the archeological record. The basic idea is that language is too complex to have developed suddenly and must have had long, drawn-out origins.

Noam Chomsky believes that humans are born with an innate, universal grammar that allows language to function as it does. He also provides examples of a common, limited set of rules that all human languages follow. These rules allow for the variation we have today in over 6,000 languages, which in and of itself indicates a certain structural proclivity without which language, as we know it would be unintelligible. Others theorize that language developed out of animal cognition. Steven Pinker believes language is an adaptation to natural selection as opposed to a by-product of the manifestation of universal grammar.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

How Is Language Possible? Philosophical Reflections on the Evolution of Language and Knowledge
J. N. Hattiangadi.
Open Court, 1987
The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth
Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy.
Oxford University Press, 1999
New Essays on the Origin of Language
Jürgen Trabant; Sean Ward.
Mouton de Gruyter, 2001
How the Brain Evolved Language
Donald Loritz.
Oxford University Press, 2002
The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form
Chris Knight; Michael Studdert-Kennedy; James R. Hurford.
Cambridge University Press, 2000
Communicating Meaning: The Evolution and Development of Language
Boris M. Velichkovsky; Duane M. Rumbaugh.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996
Affect and Cognition in Two Theories of the Origin of Language
Shanahan, Daniel.
Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 36, No. 3, Summer 2000
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Language, Culture & Society: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology
Zdenek Salzmann.
Westview Press, 1998 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Language Origins"
The Inheritance and Innateness of Grammars
Myrna Gopnik.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Rank and Relationships in the Evolution of Spoken Language
Locke, John L.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 7, No. 1, March 2001
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Linguistic Evolution through Language Acquisition
Ted Briscoe.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
On Language Change: The Invisible Hand in Language
Rudi Keller.
Routledge, 1994
The Evolution of Human Languages: Proceedings of the Workshop on the Evolution of Human Languages, Held August, 1989 in Santa Fe, New Mexico
John A. Hawkins; Murray Gell-Mann.
Addison-Wesley, 1992
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