It is tough to envisage an intellectual trend that is more important than the growth and expansion of language. No human feature proffers less decisive and certain substantiation and proof regarding its origins. The absence of such evidence certainly has not discouraged assumptions about the origins of language. Over the centuries, many theories have been put ahead, challenged, mark downed and time and again mocked.
Here are five of the oldest and most common theories of how language began.
- The bow-wow theoryAccording to this theory, language began when our ancestors started imitating the natural sounds around them. The first speech was onomatopoeic—marked by echoic words such as moo, meow, splash, cuckoo, and bang.
- The ding-dong theoryThis theory, favored by Plato and Pythagoras, maintains that speech arose in response to the essential qualities of objects in the environment. The original sounds people made were supposedly in harmony with the world around them.
- The la-la theoryThe Danish linguist Otto Jespersen suggested that language may have developed from sounds associated with love, play, and especially song.
- The pooh-pooh theory
- The yo-he-ho theoryAccording to this theory, language evolved from the murmur, moans, and snorts evoked by grave physical work and toil.
From the Latin, “tongue”
What is language? A generally accepted definition of language or the criterion for its use does not exist. This is one of the reasons for the divergence among scientists about whether non-human species can use language. In nature, we find plentiful kinds of communication systems, many of which emerge to be exclusive to their possessors, and one of them is the language of the human species. Fundamentally, the purpose of communication is the conservation, development, and progress of the species. The skill to swap information is shared by all communication systems, and a number of non-human systems share some features of human language. The fundamental difference between human and non-human communication is that animals are believed to react impulsively, in a stereotyped and expected way. Mostly, human behavior is under the voluntary control and human language is original and unpredictable. It is commonly assumed that only humans have language. Parts of the problem of differentiating man from the other animals is the problem of describing how human language differs from any kind of communicative behavior carried on by non-human or pre-human species.
Alternative Definitions of Language
- “Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols.”
(Edward Sapir, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921)
- “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates.”
- From now on I will consider a language to be a set (finite or infinite) of sentences each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements.”
(Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, 1957)
- “Language is a behavior which utilizes body parts: The vocal apparatus and the auditory system for oral language; the brachial apparatus and the visual system for sign language. Such body parts are controlled by none other than the brain for their functions.”
(Fred CC Peng, Language in the Brain: Critical Assessments. Continuum, 2005)
- “A language consists of symbols that convey meaning plus rules for combining those symbols, that can be used to generate an infinite variety of messages.”
(Wayne Weiten, Psychology: Themes And Variations, 7th edition Thomson Wadsworth, 2007)
- “We can define language as a system of communication using sounds or symbols that enables us to express our feelings, thoughts, ideas, and experiences.”
(E Bruce Goldstein, Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience, 2nd edition Thomson, 2008)
As Peter Farb says in Word Play: What Happens When People Talk (Vintage, 1993), “All these speculations have serious flaws, and none can withstand the close scrutiny of present knowledge about the structure of language and about the evolution of our species.”
Over the past 20 years, scholars from such diverse fields as genetics, anthropology, and cognitive science have been engaged, as Kenneally says, in “a cross-discipline, multidimensional treasure hunt” to find out how language began. It is, she says, “the hardest problem in science today.”
FIVE COMMON MYTHS ABOUT LANGUAGE
In the book “Language Myths” edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (Penguin, 1998), a team of leading linguistics set out to challenge some of the conventional wisdom about language and the way it works. Of the 21 myths or misconceptions they examined, here are five of the most common.
Myth 1: The Meanings of Words Should Not be Allowed to Vary or Change
The history of the word nice to illustrate the English language is full of words which have changed their meanings slightly or even dramatically over the centuries. Derived from the Latin adjective nescius (meaning ‘not knowing’ or ‘ignorant’), nice arrived in English around 1300, meaning ‘silly,’ ‘foolish,’ or ‘shy.’ Over the centuries, its meaning gradually changed to ‘fussy,’ then ‘refined,’ and then (by the end of the 18th century) ‘pleasant’ and ‘agreeable’.
Myth 2: Children Cannot Speak or Write Properly anymore
Though keeping educational standards is imperative, says linguist James Milroy, “there is in reality nothing to suggest that today's youngsters are less competent at speaking and writing their native language than older generations of children were.”
Going back to Jonathan Swift (who blamed linguistic decline on the “licentiousness which entered with the restoration”), Milroy notes that every generation has complained about deteriorating standards of literacy. He points out that over the past century general standards of literacy have, in fact, steadily risen.
Myth 3: America Is Ruining the English Language
John Algeo, professor emeritus of English at the University of Georgia, demonstrates some of the ways in which Americans have contributed to changes in English vocabulary, syntax and pronunciation. He also shows how American English has retained some of the characteristics of 16th century English that have disappeared from present day Britain.
Present day British is no closer to that earlier form than present-day American is. Indeed, in some ways, present day American is more conservative, that is, closer to the common original standard than is present day English.
Myth 4: TV Makes People Sound the Same
JK Chambers, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, counters the common view that television and other popular media are steadily diluting regional speech patterns. The media do play a role, he says, in the spread of certain words and expressions. “But at the deeper reaches of language change, sound changes and grammatical changes, the media have no significant effect at all.”
The biggest influence on language change, Chambers says, is not Homer Simpson or Oprah Winfrey. It is, as it always has been, face-to-face interactions with friends and colleagues: “It takes real people to make an impression.”
Myth 5: Some Languages are Spoken More Quickly than Others
Peter Roach, now an emeritus professor of phonetics at Reading University in England, has been studying speech perception throughout his career. And what has he found out? That there is “no real difference between different languages in terms of sounds per second in normal speaking cycles.”
But surely, you are saying, there is a rhythmical difference between English (which is classed as a “stress-timed” language) and, say, French or Spanish (classed as “syllable-timed”). Indeed, Roach says, “it usually seems that syllable-timed speech sounds faster than stress-timed to speakers of stress-timed languages. So Spanish, French, and Italian sound fast to English speakers, but Russian and Arabic do not.”
However, different speech rhythms do not necessarily mean different speaking speeds. Studies suggest that “languages and dialects just sound faster or slower, without any physically measurable difference. The apparent speed of some languages might simply be an illusion.”
The term constructed language was coined by linguist Otto Jespersen in An International Language, 1928.
“A standard international language should not only be simple, regular, and logical, but also rich and creative. Richness is a difficult and subjective concept. The supposed inferiority of a constructed language to a national one on the score of richness of connotation is, of course, no criticism of the idea of a constructed language. All that the criticism means is that the constructed language has not been in long-continued use.”
(Edward Sapir, “The Function of an International Auxiliary Language.” Psyche, 1931)
“The traditional hypothesis has been that because a constructed language is the language of no nation or ethnic group, it would be free of the political problems that all natural languages bring with them. Esperanto materials frequently claim (incorrectly) that this is true of Esperanto. A distinction is usually made between auxiliary languages (auxlangs), designed with international communication as a deliberate goal, and ‘conlangs,’ usually constructed for other purposes. (The Elvish languages showcased by Tolkein in his epic Lord of the Rings and the Klingon language constructed by linguist Mark Okrand for the Star Trek television series are conlangs rather than auxlangs).”
(Suzette Haden Elgin, The Language Imperative. Basic Books, 2000)
English is derived from Anglisc, the speech of the Angles (one of the three Germanic tribes that invaded England during the fifth century).
- “English has borrowed words from over 350 other languages, and over three-quarters of the English lexicon is actually classical or romance in origin.”
- “The vocabulary of English is currently 70 to 80 percent composed of words of Greek and Latin origin, but it is certainly not a Romance language, it is a Germanic one. Evidence of this may be found in the fact that it is quite easy to create a sentence without words of Latin origin, but pretty much impossible to make one that has no words from old English.”(Ammon Shea, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. Pergee, 2014)
- “English is a growing language, and we have to let out the tucks so often, that no last season's model will ever fit it. English is not like French, which is corseted and gloved and clad and shod and hatted strictly according to the rules of the immortals. We have no academy, thank heaven, to tell what is real English and what is not. Our grand Jury is that ubiquitous person, usage and we keep him pretty busy at his job.”(Gelett Burgess, Burgess Unabridged: A Classic Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed. Frederick A. Stokes, 1914)
- “The English language is like a fleet of juggernaut trucks that goes on regardless. No form of linguistic engineering and no amount of linguistic legislation will prevent the myriads of change that lie ahead.”(Robert Burchfield, The English Language. Oxford University Press, 1985)
- “I am as thrilled by the English language as I am by a lovely woman or dreams, green as dreams and deep as death.”(Richard Burton, The Richard Burton Diaries, edition by Chris Williams. Yale University Press, 2013)
“How many people in the world today speak English?
First-language speakers: 375 million
Second-language speakers: 375 million
Foreign-language speakers: 750 million
“There are now estimated to be 1.5 billion English speakers globally: 375 million who speak English as their first language, 375 million as a second language and 750 million who speak English as a foreign language. The elites of Egypt, Syria and Lebanon have dumped French in favor of English. India has reversed its former campaign against the language of its colonial rulers, and millions of Indian parents are now enrolling their children in English-language schools—in recognition of the importance of English for social mobility. Since 2005, India has had the world's largest English-speaking population, with far many more people using the language than before independence. Rwanda, in a move dictated as much by regional economics as post-genocide politics, has decreed a wholesale switch to English as its medium of instruction. And China is about to launch a colossal program to tackle one of the few remaining obstacles to its breakneck economic expansion: A paucity of English-speakers.
“English has official or special status in at least 75 countries with a combined population of two billion people. It is estimated that one out of four people worldwide speak English with some degree of competence.”
(Tony Reilly, “English Changes Lives.” The Sunday Times [UK], November 11, 2012)
The term script refers to the graphic form of the units of a writing system, and the individual units are called letters.
According to Henry Rogers, “writing is systematic in two ways: It has a systematic relationship to language, and it has a systematic internal organization of its own”.
“In our study of writing systems, we might assume that there is a simple, one-to-one relationship between written symbols and language: For example, that a writing system has a distinct symbol for each phoneme and that these symbols are used to write utterances. In such a situation, an automatic conversation would, in principle, be possible between writing and language. Anyone who has learned to write English, however, is more than aware that this situation does not hold for English. We need only consider such pairs as one and won with exactly the same pronunciation and very different spellings to confirm this. There are, to be sure, some writing systems which are fairly regular, but none is perfect. Varying degrees of complexity are the norm.”
(Henry Rogers, Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach. Blackwell, 2005)
The First Writing System
“So far as we know, the first true writing system was invented by the Sumerians, in what is now Iraq, about 5200 years ago. The use of writing spread out from there, and writing was much later independently invented in a few other places, including at least China and Mexico.
“In a true writing system, any utterance of the language can be adequately written down, from On this day the King crushed his enemies to I love you, snugglebunny. If you cannot write down anything you can say, then you do not have a true writing system.”
(Robert Lawrence Trask, Language: The Basics, 2nd edition. Routledge, 1999)
The Alphabet as a Writing System
“Most alphabetic systems in use today derive from the Greek system. The Etruscans knew this alphabet and through them it became known to the Romans, who used it for Latin. The alphabet spread with Western civilization, and eventually most nations of the world had the opportunity to use alphabetic writing.
“According to one view, the alphabet was not invented, it was discovered. If language did not include discrete individual sounds, no one could have invented alphabetic letters to represent them. When humans started to use one symbol for one phoneme, they were making more salient their intuitive knowledge of the phonological system of the language.”
(Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams, An Introduction to Language, 9th edition, Wadsworth, 2011)
Origins of Language: The East Side Story
“Language began in Africa, though exactly where is a matter of controversy. East Africa was the birthplace, according to a scenario sometimes known as the ‘East Side story.’ Around 3 million years ago, a major earthquake created the Great Rift Valley, splitting Africa's inhabitants into two major groups. Our cousins, the chimps, were left living and playing in the lush and tree-rich terrain of the humid West. But our ancestors, the proto-humans, were stranded in the increasingly arid East, where they were forced to adapt or die. They were forced to broaden their diet, and began scavenging for meat. Better nourishment led to a bigger brain, a greater degree of social organization and, eventually, to language.
“But more important than the exact location of language within Africa is the fact that all human languages are remarkably similar to one another, indicating a common origin. Any human can learn any other human language. This contrasts with, say, bird communication, where the quacking of a duck has little in common with the trilling of a nightingale.”
(Jean Aitchison, The Word Weavers: Newshounds and Wordsmiths. Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Remarks on Language
- “Would I have phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange, in new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken?”(Ancient Egyptian inscription)
- “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.”(Walt Whitman)
- “A language can be compared to a sheet of paper. Thought is one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side. Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut one side of the paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible in a language to isolate sound from thought, or thought from sound.”
- “Language is the mother of thought, not its handmaiden.”(Karl Kraus)
- “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”(Ludwig Wittgenstein)
- “But behavior in the human being is sometimes a defense, a way of concealing motives and thoughts, as language can be a way of hiding your thoughts and preventing communication.”(Abraham Maslow)