Aug 23, 2015

The Origins of Human Language: One of the Hardest Problems in Science

Cro-Magnon man communicating with each other and producing cave drawings

How human language began has been a question pestering researchers for centuries. One of the biggest issues with this topic is that empirical evidence is still lacking despite our great advances in technology. This lack of concrete evidence even once led to the prohibition of any future debates regarding the origins of communication by the Linguistic Society of Paris. Despite the obstacles, a number of researchers including psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists continue on studying the topic. The results of the numerous studies on early communication can be divided into two major categories of communication: vocalizations and gestures. Here the focus is on vocalization. 
Our Hyoid Bones and Complex Brains: Part of What Helps Us Do More than Chatter Like Chimps

As spoken language is by nature impermanent, the best empirical evidence for this field of thought is the hyoid bone. This bone as it appears and functions in modern homo sapiens is only believed to be found in our predecessors, Homo heidelbergensis, as of 300,000 years ago and in our prehistoric "cousins" the Neanderthals. Nevertheless, the appearance of the Kebara 2 hyoid in both species does not definitively prove that they were set to use speech or complex language.



Bronze statue of male Homo heidelbergensis, Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C., USA (Tim Evanson/Flickr)

That being said, the hyoid bone is believed by many researchers to be the foundation of speech for humans and without our specifically shape hyoid bones in exactly the right place, functioning alongside a precisely descended larynx, it is believed that we would sound much like chimpanzees.



Image depicting the location of the hyoid bone and larynx in a modern human (Lasaludfamiliar)

Thus, we had a nicely complex and precise throat anatomy, but alongside this part of the anatomy we also had to have sufficiently complex brains to have something to talk about. Researchers believe that our ancient ancestors had, what Noam Chomsky calls the LAD (Language Acquisition Device), the ability to learn language and to use it in a creative way. This creativity can be evinced by the art created some 300,000 to 700,000 years ago by our Paleolithic predecessors.



The oldest example of "art": the cupule and meander design at Bhimbetka, India (290,000-700,000 BC) (Collado Giraldo)

Hardware and Software in place: Ready To Begin?

Combining these two ideas, perhaps our human ancestors were all set to begin speaking (or at least making well-constructed sounds with a thought-out purpose) around 300,000 years ago. Despite this, most vocal theories say the date was much later - only 100,000 years ago when there was an increase in brain volume as well. This is a summary of the natural evolutionary acquisition of language.

Opposed to the evolutionary point of view, there is also debate on if language was a divine gift, or perhaps a conscious invention by early humans. Both of these theories are based on the complexity of human language.



The Creation of Adam (1511), Michelangelo (Wikimedia Commons)

Apart from trying to pinpoint the date, continuity, and provider of the first spoken word, another very important question which scholars have tried to explain is: What did the early ancestors say?  
The Early Theories on Vocal Language Origins: La-la, Bow-wow...

There are six principal theories that were made between the late 1800s to the early 1900s which were meant to explain the origins of the words used in vocal language. They have humorous nicknames attached which provide a hint into the idea behind the theory.

1. The Bow-Wow Theory: This theory suggests that the first words were onomatopoeic (words that use sounds associated with objects/actions they refer too) - such as hiss, bang and splash. The Bow-Wow theory has been discredited by the fact that many "onomatopoeic" words are different across languages, not really derived from natural sounds, and recently created.

2. The Ding-Dong Theory: is a theory that harmony with the natural environment created the need for language, and sound and meaning are innately connected through nature. While it is true that there are some examples of "sound symbolism" (fl- words in English associated with light and quick), studies have not been able to prove an innate connection between a sound and a words meaning.



Illustration of paleoindians hunting a glyptodon, an animal supposedly brought to extinction by the arrival of ancient humans in South America (1920) Heinrich Harder (Wikimedia Commons)

3. The Pooh-Pooh Theory: Suggests that language began with interjections (expressions such as "Ow!" "Oh!" "Ha!"). One problem with this theory is that it can be said that many animals make these/similar sounds yet they do not create other words. Another issue with the Pooh-Pooh theory is found in the lack of interjections currently found in most modern languages.

4. The Yo-He-Ho Theory: This is a theory based on the grunts and groans people make when doing heavy physical labor. While these sounds can be related to some of the rhythm of some language, it does not really explain the origins of most words.

5. The La-La Theory: Is an idea that vocal language came about through play, song, and love. A counterpoint is that the theory does not explain words that are less emotional.

6. The Ta-Ta Theory: believes that words arose from a desire to imitate gestures via the use of the tongue and mouth. For example, ta-ta would be a tongue waving goodbye. An obvious difficulty in this theory would be that many gestures could not be reproduced solely by the mouth and tongue.

Despite their drawbacks, most of these theories are still taught today as a starting point for research into the area of human speech.

Expanding on the Ding-Dong Theory:

One recent study on the iconicity of both gestures and vocalizations as the origins of language suggests that there may be something to the concept of sound symbolism. In the study conducted by Perlman, Dale, and Lupyan they asked participants to create vocalizations for 18 different meanings (such as rough, small and fast). The participants then communicated these sounds to a partner who had to guess the meaning of the "word/sound." They found that through repetition pairs were able to interpret the meanings of the vocalizations quickly and easily. Then the researchers played recordings of the vocalizations for people not present in the generation of sounds and here too they found that a higher percentage than by chance (36% correct) were able to interpret the meanings.



Conversation (1881) Camille Pissarro (Wikimedia Commons)

Evolutionary Game Theory and Protolanguage

Nowak and Krakauer are two researchers who used game theory to try to explain the origins of language. As they believed that misunderstanding would be common in early language they created a model depicting this problem which limited the number of objects that could be described. Then they tried to find out how to get past the miscommunication. Their results show that increasing sounds did not help in passing the "error limit," instead combining small sets of the sounds that could be understood created "words."
One Original Language or Many?

Another issue plaguing researchers interested in the origins of vocal language is, was there one original language or many? Looking at the diversity of languages today, the dispersion of our ancient ancestors, studying modern language acquisition, and other factors have led to hypothesis on both sides: Monogenesis and Polygenesis.

The belief that there was one original language (monogenesis) is the older of the two theories. It has been proposed by believers that language was a divine creation. Monogenesis is also the preference of supporters of the Mother Tongue Theory - associated with the Out of Africa Theory (both based on one human evolutionary origin from Africa). The polygenesis theorists go against this singular origin based on the high number of languages that are spoken today as well as the diversity of location of the early ancestors.



Route and date of migration according to the Out of Africa Theory (Wikimedia Commons)

As scholars have yet to provide concrete evidence of the first spoken word no one can be completely certain which of these theories is correct.
An Ancient Question with No Fossil Record

The fact is that we may never be able to explain definitively the origins of human vocal language. As Christine Kenneally said in her book The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (2007):


"For all its power to wound and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation; it is little more than air. It exits the body as a series of puffs and dissipates quickly into the atmosphere. . . . There are no verbs preserved in amber, no ossified nouns, and no prehistorical shrieks forever spread-eagled in the lava that took them by surprise."

Featured Image: Cro-Magnon man communicating with each other and producing cave drawings (public domain).

By Alicia McDermott

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