Question: what do aliens, cannibalism and evolution all have in common? In the context of language and linguistics, all of these ideas have been touted as being the origin of human language. Some of these ideas are based entirely on myth and religion, while others are based on scientific inquiry. Today, we’re going to explore them all!
When Did Language Happen?
When talking about the origins of human language, it is interesting to think about just when exactly we as humans began to speak.
If you subscribe to the theory of evolution, which I will adopt for this part of the post, it is postulated that homo sapiens, also known as the modern human, emerged 300,000 years ago. However, it is not clear if we spoke right away.
Given the fact that speech left no real artifacts back then, and there were no writing systems until 5000 years ago, it is very difficult to figure out when language actually came into existence. Estimates, however, place the development of human speech at around 200,000 to 100,000 years ago due to the fact that we can trace the development of a gene called FOXP2, sometimes called “the language gene”, to that time period. According to some, this gene supposedly gave humans the ability to speak, so in theory, we’ve been speaking since between 200,000 and 100,000 BCE.
Aliens, Cannibals & Gods, Oh, My!
Some of the earliest theories for human language development were those known as “Divine Source” theories. In these theories, humans were given the ability to speak by the gods. For example, according to the Bible, God gave Adam the task of naming all the creatures on Earth, and that gave rise to our language. One Swedish philologist even claimed that God spoke Swedish, Adam spoke Danish and the snake spoke French. You can tell which ethnicity that philologist didn’t like…
Je suis navré, mes amis français.
Further, the Bible also says that God apparently got angry one day that humans were building the Tower of Babel, so he gave us all different languages so that we couldn’t communicate with each other anymore, and then he scattered us all around the world. This biblical story accounts for the linguistic diversity that exists today.
According to Greek mythology, the first humans spoke the language of Zeus himself. In Norse Mythology, language was a gift from the god, Vé, himself a brother to the god Odin. According to the Wa-Sania people from East Africa, all humans spoke a single language, but then a sickness came over them that caused them to go crazy and speak new words, developing into different languages. Even in one Aboriginal Australian myth, an old woman named Wurruri passed away, and different tribes of people came to eat her corpse. With each tribe eating a different part of her body, they came away speaking different languages.
But language myths aren’t confined to ancient civilizations and religions.
According to a man named Alex Collier, the first human language was Tamil. As we evolved, humans got too powerful, so extraterrestrials got threatened by us and taught us a multitude of alien languages to confuse us. It is worth nothing, however, that Alex Collier not a linguist and has no real scientific background: instead, he claims he has been in repeated contact with blue aliens called the Andromedans. It’s also important to point out that many people have accused Alex Collier of being a fraud and a conman for decades, and Alex Collier may not even be his real name.
What Does the Science Say?
Leaving outer space and returning back to Earth, science has been attempting to figure out where human language came from for hundreds of years. The earliest theories of this nature can be traced back to a German philologist named Max Müller in 1861. According to him there were five possibilities for the origin of human language. Be warned, the names of these theories are as wacky as Alex Collier’s contact with the Andromedans.
- The Bow-Wow theory: Humans imitated animal sounds that became increasingly more and more complex to accommodate our communication needs. Think of English’s imitation of a dog, “bow-wow”, or a cat, “meow”. How that got onto abstract ideas such as single-payer health care and string theory is a stretch.
- The Pooh-Pooh theory: Language started as emotional responses to things like pain, pleasure, and surprise. This could account for all the *ahem* naughty words we have in languages.
- The Ding-Dong theory: This one is an almost mystical belief that all things in the world vibrate or “speak” a language and humans learned their languages from.
- The Yo-He-Ho theory: Humans developed language through coordinated chanting in order to get work done, to hunt for food, and to alert kinsmen to potential threats. Think a bunch of construction workers yelling, “heave, ho!”
- The Ta-Ta Theory: Language began as tongue movements mimicking hand gestures. An example would be the word “ta-ta” itself—the mouth almost “waves” just like the hand does when saying “goodbye”.
Aside from the almost comical names of these theories, it is thought that it was probably a combination of all of these theories to create complex languages.
However, many other theories have been developed since the 1860s. One of the most interesting is called the “Putting the Baby Down” theory. This theory proposes that when humans evolved, mothers lost the ability to have enough body hair for their bodies to cling to them while they gathered food and did other tasks. This resulted in mothers effectively putting their babies down on the ground. Consequently, the babies would get upset, and the mother began to develop a sort of “motherese”, or a collection of vocal and non-vocal ways to console the baby while continuing with a given task. The idea is that language continued to develop from that.
However, the most complex modern theory comes from Noam Chomsky, a renowned scientist and linguist. According to him, human language came about from a single random mutation in the human brain, a theory called the “Single Step Theory”.
This mutation gave way to what Chomsky calls “complex thought”, which gave rise to the development of human language. Chomsky presumes that this mutation created a small group of homo sapiens who had the ability to speak, and through natural selection and evolution, this mutation eventually spread to all humans. Further, Chomsky also maintains that there was no such thing as a primitive “proto-language”. This mutation, he says, gave humans the innate ability to communicate with complex language due to the “generative grammar” that Noam Chomsky is famous for having hypothesized.
In short, generative grammar is a theory that says that language follows predetermined rules set out by the brain, and these rules are recursive, meaning that humans can create an infinite number of unique sentences within the confines of an inherent, grammatical structure.
Okay, this got really science-y. I apologize. Maybe I’ll do a video or a post on Chomsky’s theories another time. Anyway, what do you think? Where did language come from? Is there a theory I missed? Leave me a comment below.