Issue 12 / October - December 1995
The Origin Of Language
Language is what makes humans human. It is so much part of us that we rarely pause to describe it.
We express and communicate our feelings, ideas and wishes through language. Cultural transmission and education from generation to generation is through language.
Linguists do not know how many languages there are. There is not even agreement about the number of languages in India. They do not agree on how to define a language and how to differentiate it from other linguistic codes such as dialects or sociolects. We know that languages change according to social context and that each individual has his or her own ideolect, or repertoire of linguistic codes. We also know that the dominance of some linguistic codes over others is related to political and economic power. It has been said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that a language is spoken by a people with an army and a navy. Philosophers and linguists have for centuries debated (and differed) about the origin and development of language.
Secular linguists have proposed four theories, all related in some way to an evolutionist account of human development for the origin of language. Linguists who draw on religious sources have a fifth alternative, namely the idea that language is a Divine gift to human beings -an idea shared by the three major monotheistic religions.
The secular theories of language
Secular linguists at least agree that the question of the origin of human language is still unsolved. After much discussion, they have concluded that the data available on the subject yield little or no evidence about the origin of human language. By means of comparative and reconstructive techniques, they have presented some information about early stages of the development of particular languages.
However, these techniques are applicable only for a period of up to about four to six thousand years. This is far less than the million years that they themselves believe human language to have existed.
Unlike other so-called sciences, linguistics and philosophy of language cannot pretend to have access to data related to the origin of their subject of study. There are no tape recordings which can be served up as â€˜the missing linkâ€™ between men and monkeys. Therefore, their theories are based on what is observable around them-animal cries, the languages of what they consider â€˜primitiveâ€™ groups and the speech of infants.
The gap between the meaningful behaviour of animals and human speech is so wide that available evidence does not furnish a bridge. Animal cries are characterized by invariability and monotony. Human language, by contrast, displays infinite variability. If we take animal cries as our starting point and suppose that language developed out of something similar, we face a number of problems. How could an ordered phonemic system grow out of the disorderly monotony of animal cries? How did the meanings of most speech forms come to be arbitrary? How did linguistic structure develop out of the undifferentiated cry? In short, animal cries are so vastly different from human language, it is inconceivable that speech could have evolved from them. Animals, according to Professor James (1938), have all the necessary speech organs but do not have language. Human, speech is obviously and only human.
It was once thought that the speech of â€˜primitiveâ€™ societies was something halfway between animal cries and human language, and that by studying them we could learn how language evolved. But the very notion of â€˜primitiveâ€™ peoples has long been thought questionable. In any case, their languages are, as a rule, only â€˜primitiveâ€™ with reference to the vocabulary of modern civilizations; their structures (grammar and syntax) show at least as much (often more) complexity and sophistication than â€˜non-primitiveâ€™ languages.
The speech of infants
Study of the speech of infants has not yielded any clear results either. From birth, children are under the influence of adult speech, which they proceed to imitate. If all that is needed for language is a process of imitation, why are apes, who imitate humans so well in other respects, linguistically â€˜inferiorâ€™ to birds, who can imitate us in respect to linguistic sounds? Why do cats and dogs, who have been living with us and observing us for many centuries, fail to imitate the sounds we make when we imitate theirs so well?
Despite these manifest errors in the assumptions on which the theories were based, some linguists still promote four onomatopoeic theories.
The bow-wow theory
This theory suggests speech was invented by attempting to imitate the characteristic sound of the thing referred to. The characteristic that differentiates a dog from other creatures is its bark. That is why, it is said some children call dogs â€˜bow-wowâ€™. Another example: the â€˜first manâ€™ heard the whistling of the wind and the hissing of the snake and named them â€˜windâ€™ and â€˜snake.â€™
The ding-dong theory
This theory, associated with the German philologist, Max Muller, holds that the origin of language is connected to rhythm. Like bow-wow, it relies on the idea that humans imitate what is around them. It suggests we imitate the rhythms around us developing first a simple hum and later words. The only evidence proposed is the â€˜war dancesâ€™ and â€˜balladsâ€™ which, it is claimed, are common to all â€˜primitiveâ€™ people.
The pooh-pooh theory
This theory traces language back to the emotional interjections evoked by pain, pleasure, disgust, etc.
Even secular theorists who believe in evolution like Wilbur Urban (1939) dismiss the above theories for being their assumptions and insufficient evidence.
The gesture theory
The idea that the earliest method of communication was through gesture which later developed into language was first proposed by Wilheim Wundt and elaborated by Paget (1935). They suggest that as most of our hand gestures are accompanied by movements of the jaw and many of our verbal expressions are supported by bodily actions, sign and spoken language are intrinsically connected. Among the bits of evidence offered for this hypothesis is the fact that, in English, I and me both involve drawing air inwards whereas you and thou involve the opposite.
This theory has the same weaknesses as the others. The few samples of so-called data are not enough to justify the assumptions that are built on them. All these theories are attempts to contrive â€˜evidenceâ€™ for what is essentially a belief-a belief that humans evolved from monkeys. Those who do not believe in evolution, but believe that humans were created by an Almighty God do not subscribe to the above theories. They look to revelation.
Language as a divine gift
Language is one of the greatest gifts of the Creator. The Merciful Creator gave his Prophets miracles as evidence for their holy mission. The greatest miracle of prophet Adam was use of language. The event is alluded in the verses of the Qurâ€™an, itself a linguistic miracle:
He taught Adam the names of all things and then set them before the angels, saying: â€˜Tell Me the names of these, if what you say be true.â€™ Then said He: â€˜Adam, tell their names.â€™ And when Adam had named them, He said: â€˜Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of the heavens and the earth, and all that you reveal and all that you conceal? (al-Baqara, 2.31-33)
It maybe understood from these verses that man did not invent language, as some scientists claim, but that he received it as a direct gift from God. There was no time that people were without language. We had the potential for speech from the beginning of our existence. On this point, Quintilian said: â€˜God, that All-Powerful Creator of nature and architect of the world, has impressed man with no greater characteristic to distinguish him from other creatures, than the faculty of speech.â€™
This view of language is common to all the monotheistic peoples. The Bible says about language and its origin too:
Whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof (Genesis, 2.19).
Because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth (Genesis, 11.19).
Human speech makes humans human. God created them and honoured them with the ability to speak, thereby distinguishing them from animals. He distinguished them from the angels by teaching the first man, Adam, the names of all things. In doing so, He gave him the key to understanding the world over which he and his offspring were to be made vice-gerents.
JAMES L. (1938) Our Spoken Language
PAGET R. (1935) Human Speech
URBAN W. (1939) Language and Reality