Some believe that language is a divine gift given to humans by God, while others argue that language is simply the product of many years of natural selection. How did language begin? Words don’t leave artifacts behind and writing began long after language did, so theories of language origins have generally been based on hunches. For centuries there had been so much fruitless speculation over the question of how language began until when the Paris Linguistic Society was founded in 1866, its bylaws banned any discussion of the topic: “The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language.”
It’s hard to imagine a cultural phenomenon that’s more important than the development of language. And yet no human attribute offers less conclusive evidence regarding its origins. Over the centuries, many theories have been put forward and just about all of them have been challenged, discounted, and often ridiculed. Each theory accounts for only a small part of what we know about language.
These are the 6 early theories behind the origin of language which were identified by their disparaging nicknames.
- The ding-dong theory
Language began when humans started naming objects, actions, and phenomena after a recognizable sound associated with it in real life. This hypothesis holds that the first human words were a type of verbal icon, a sign whose form is an exact image of its meaning: crash became the word for thunder, boom for an explosion. Some words in language obviously did derive from imitation of natural sounds associated with some object: Chinook Indian word for the heart–tun-tun, Basque word for the knife: ai-ai (literally ouch-ouch). Each of these iconic words would derive from an index, a sign whose form is naturally associated with its meaning in real space and time.
The problem with this hypothesis is that onomatopoeia (imitation of a sound, auditory iconicity) is a very limited part of the vocabulary of any language. Imitative sounds differ from language to language: Russian: ba-bakh=bang, bukh= thud. Even if onomatopoeia provided some of the words for a speech, then where did names for the thousands of naturally noiseless concepts such as rock, sun, sky or love come from?
- The Pooh-Pooh Theory
This theory holds true to the involuntary nature of human speech that began with interjections. Spontaneous cries of pain (“Ouch!”), surprise (“Oh!”), gross (“yuck!”) and other emotions (“Yabba dabba do!”).
The problem with this hypothesis is no language contains very many interjections, and, David Crystal points out in his notes in How Language Works (Penguin, 2005), “the clicks, intakes of breath, and other noises which are used in this way bear little relationship to the vowels and consonants found in phonology.”
- The Bow-Wow Theory
The “bow wow” hypothesis is the most popular but perhaps the most far-fetched hypothesis of them all. Basically, it is the idea that human language and vocabulary originated as a form of imitation. It is said that language came from the imitation of animal sounds.
The problem that arises in this hypothesis is that a lot of words that describe animal sounds in different languages are similar. For instance, in English, a pig makes the sound “oink-oink.” In Russian the sound is translated as “hyru-hyru” and in Chinese, the sound is translated as “oh-ee-oh-ee.” Similarly, a dog’s bark is heard as “au-au” in Brazil, “ham-ham” in Albania, and “wang-wang” in China. As one can see, these words represent the sound of a single animal in different languages. The sound and pronunciation of these words are not similar. The overall idea is that one’s language determines how one interprets a sound, and since we have many languages, one cannot prove that human vocabulary comes from them.
- The Yo-he-ho theory
According to this theory, the origin of language happened from the grunts, groans, and snorts evoked by heavy physical labor. 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!”
But, though this notion may account for some of the rhythmic features of the language, it doesn’t go very far in explaining where words come from. There’s a pretty big difference between this kind of thing and what we do most of the time with language.
- The ta-ta theory
As commonly seen in primates, hand gestures and body movement are important aspects of interaction and cooperation within societies. Charles Darwin hypothesized (though he himself was skeptical about his own hypothesis) that speech may have developed as a sort of mouth pantomime: the organs of speech were used to imitate the gestures of the hand. In other words, the language developed from gestures that began to be imitated by the organs of speech–the first words were lip icons of hand gestures.
It is very possible that human language, which today is mostly verbal, had its origin in some system of gestures; other primates rely on gesture as an integral part of communication, so it is plausible that human communication began in the same way. Human gestures, however, just like onomatopoeic words, differ from culture to culture.
- The la-la theory
The idea that speech emerged from the sounds of inspired playfulness, love, poetic sensibility, and song. What’s wrong with this theory? As David Crystal notes in How Language Works (Penguin, 2005), this theory still fails to account for “the gap between the emotional and the rational aspects of speech expression.”
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.”
But does this mean that all questions about the origin of language are unanswerable? Not necessarily. About a century after the banishment of the language origin question, scientists started to consider it again, but this time using evidence from paleontology about the likely brain and vocal tract features of early humans and hominids. Rather than speculate about which kinds of vocalizations gave rise to speech sounds, they consider which physical, cognitive, and social factors must first be in place in order for there to be language.