Language is a means of communication that is made up of signs, symbols, and sounds or a combination of them. Signs represent something else like aroma and coffee, scent and flower, dark clouds and rain. Symbols are words we use to denote a thing or a being, such as man to mean person, dog to refer to an animal. Sounds are vocal emissions like laughter, sobbing, and groans suggestive of joy, sorrow, and pain. A more complex form of language is its organized system of semantics, syntax and phonetics. Spoken language is exclusive to humans.
Language in whatever form continues to draw the interests of linguists, researchers, scientists and academicians, especially in the area of its origin. There are references in the Bible about language and communication. As early as the time of Adam and Eve, there was already some kind of communication and language between God and the both of them. In the temptation of Eve, the serpent communicated with her. There was only one language between Noah and his family. In the Tower of Babel, God was displeased with the people who refused to obey his command for them to spread out across the earth and so He gave them different languages.
In the end they were forced to disperse to all corners of the world. This explains the why each geographic location have their own language. (Harub, 2003). Two contradicting theories on the origin of language are the Theory of Natural Selection and the Exaptation Theory. The Exaptation Theory simply put is when a body part is used for another purpose other than for which it was originally intended. An example of this theory is the feathers of a bird which is basically used to cover its body but later is made to glide and trap insects with.
The brain processes from its cognitive structures were used by pre-historic ancestors to hunt and gather food. Language depends on cognitive processes and could have been possibly exapted in much the same way as the feathers. The Natural Selection Theory on the other hand provides that our language skills may have been from the brain structures that our ancestors may have possessed in their time. Brains have two neural pathways used for language and cognition. Humans use the ventral stream or pathway for linguistics. While both humans and non-humans, such as the chimps, possess the same neural makeup it is only the humans who have language. Cromm, 2003). Another theory of origin of language is the Theory of a Proto-Language.
There are several stages in this theory: (1) the gesture-prior to-sound stage where body language is combined with sound. An example would be the index finger pressed on the lips with a hush sound, is a request to be quiet. (2) words-prior to-sentence stage where single words are connected with others to form a sentence and convey a thought or idea. I / have / three / red / apples are five separate words that connect to form a sentence and convey the thought about possessing three red fruits. 3) phrases-prior to-words stage is where a phrase with a single idea and each word is taken apart individually.
An example is: a high and majestic mountain. Individual words are – high / majestic / mountain. The Proto-Language is original, distinct and has no precedent language. (AMNH, 2008). Different linguists each had their own theories. Jean Aitchison, author of “The Seeds of Speech” believed that physiologically, the human brain which had grown bigger in size than his primate ancestors’, made man capable of developing speech and language.
John McCrone who supported the Evolution Theory of Language, was of the opinion that man was able to speak because they descended from the apes who themselves were able to speak when they found enough food to feed their enormous brains. Michael Corballis in his book “From Hand to Mouth: The Origin of Landscape” theorized that it was a gradual development for language, beginning with gesturing from the apes. With the bipedal hominids language evolved to a more complex body movement. Syntax and melodic sounds were the later developments with the emergence of the larger-brained homos.
With the homo sapiens it was a combination of gestures and vocals, the gestures as enhancement and not as foundation. Carl Zimmer, another evolutionist, emphasized that the timeline of the origin and development of language can not be specifically traced because human skeletons leave very few significant clues. Many evolutionists maintain that languages today must have originated from only one ancient language characterized by different animal grunts and sounds. The development of language was a natural and not an intentional process.
Noam Chromsky the eminent linguist from MIT, explained that different languages that we have now came from a common and universal language and that the human brains has a fixed and exclusive structure for language. (Harub, 2003). There are several other theories on the origin of language: Theory 1, it may have begun with the use of ordinary symbols to refer to significant objects. A scoop of earth refers to the land, a leaf to the tree, a drop of water to the rain. Theory 2, it may have originated from hand and body movements.
One’s palm on one’s heart means me or I, pointing at whatever object means that object. Theory 3, it may have come from the imitation of the sounds of nature, like the splash of water, howling of the wind, the bark of the dog, Theory 4, it may have been from the emotive sounds of natural instinct and reaction, like grrr from anger, ahhh for satisfaction or comprehension, hmmm for agreement. Theory 6, it may have been because of the use of sounds to correspond to intended meanings, like long vowel sounds of o for moon and long e for creek, tree, sea.
Theory 7, it may have originated from the grunts due to heavy loads, rhythmic monotones of work accompanied by gestures seeking assistance, like hand signals waving towards the one asking help as he makes the repetitive sounds of ugh ugh ugh. Theory 8, it may have been from words that were almost musical, uttered in cooing such as uhuhmm hmmm hummm hmmm, and laughter like hahahaha, hahahaaa. Theory 8, it came from sounds to advise or make known one’s presence as in yahooo, or to cry out for help as in heyyy.
Theory 9, it originated from magical chants from religious rituals, similar to the Maori wish of good health (kia ora ra) and welcome (haere mai). Theory 10, it was an invention of some ancestors when they assigned certain sounds to mean certain things, beating of the drums to gather people. (Boeree, 2003). Michael C. Corballis made note of the stages of development of language. The earliest began over 6 million years ago with the apes and their simple body language as their means of communicating. This developed into a more complicated body gestures with the hominids.
During this period sounds were used only in extreme cases as in highly emotional cries and distress calls. 5 million years back, a more sophisticated form of hand gestures by the early hominids were used. 2 million years ago, researches found an increase in the brain size of the homos believed to be the reason of the human’s higher development and facility in language. Vocals became permanent in communication and gestures were a good part of grammar. 100,000 years ago, speaking was in its fully developed stage that it became the main means of communication by homo sapiens.
Gesturing was still in use but only as an embellishment. In the modern times with telecommunications technology verbal language become routine and common. It is interesting to note that in the advent of modern technology, with the shift from manual signals to spoken language, man is able to use his hands to work and his mind and vocals to communicate. (cited in Science Week, 2004). The search for the origin of language remains to be a continuing quest for scholars. Researches always lead to the theory of evolution. There is no way to know exactly when language began and where language came from.
Scientific evidences such as fossils, DNA, comparative studies on animals and ancient languages can only provide clues but not enough traces. For a while, in 1866 the Society of Paris, the prominent academic language institute of the era, had given up in finding out more about language’s origin. It was taken as a retreat from the battle but not for long. To this day, forward thinkers such as the evolutionists are convinced that they must find convincing proof in the upcoming theories that should attempt to answer the query on the origin of language.
Courtney from Study Moose
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