Monday, July 23, 2018

The origin of language

Paraphrasing Plato, one could say that man is a language speaking biped. But then Diogenes could take a gibbon and say: “Look, by the Way’s man!”, since, unlike other apes, gibbons walk bipedly when they are on the ground. Therefore I should add “without a fur” (see my blogs dated 7 December 2009 and 25 January 2016). Be it as it may, speaking is an essential part of man’s identity. So, when we want to understand man, we should know how language developed, but until now the origin of language is cloaked in mystery. Maybe it always will. Speech organs quickly decompose after death and even more so the brain, where language development takes place; unlike human bones, which can be conserved for millions of years. Therefore, the origin of language is subject to much speculation, even to that extent that already in 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris didn’t want to receive communications on the theme any longer, since it was only open to serious scientific discussions.
Recently the question has got more attention and nowadays there are several serious hypotheses about the origin of language. Some have such funny names like ding-dong or bow-bow hypothesis. Nevertheless, most are still speculative, so let me look at the facts. The supposed dates of the origin of languages are as diverse as three millions ago, when man begun to make stone tools, till the making of the first cave paintings some 50,000 years ago. There is something to say for the view that a kind of language existed already millions of years ago. If we accept that the Australopithecus could not communicate on a level that deserves the label “language”, already the first Homo might have been that smart. It is known that then stone tools were often not produced where the flints were found but somewhere else. Say a Homo, 2.5 million years ago, wants to say to a friend: “Hey man, this afternoon I found a heap of flints over there 5 km from here. Let’s collect them tomorrow and bring them here.” Does he need a language in the modern sense for this question? Bees use a kind of language for this. But maybe our Homo can express his thought by means of gestures and some grunts. Or say that this Homo wants to teach his son how to make stones tools. Making stone tools is not as difficult as many people think today, but nonetheless it requires some learning. Does this stone age man tells his son then: “First do this, than do that, etc. Look!” and he shows his son how to make a celt? However, men are wonderful imitators and maybe the son will learn the skill by copying his father’s movements guided by some positive or negative grunts by the latter.
Later Homo managed also to control fire and, moreover, the celts had become a little bit more complicated. Being able to use fire, man could cook his food and as a consequence man’s intestines became shorter through the ages. In other words, surviving and probably also social life had become more complicated. Man was no longer the animal that could live by simply following instincts and intuitions. The first steps on the road to the development of a complicated culture had been taken. Without language modern man cannot transfer the cultural achievements to the next generation. But maybe culture was then still on such a low level that imitation and a few grunts would suffice to pass it on.
Then the modern Homo Sapiens, so “we”, appeared on earth. It was some 200,000 or even 350,000 years ago. Everything changed. It was the start of a rocket evolution – so revolution –. Man’s brain was strikingly bigger than ever before and it continued growing. For what else would we use this extra capacity than for storing a huge quantity of words and a complicated grammar? Anyway, on statistical grounds, a researcher like Johanna Nichols argues that present-day languages must have begun to develop at least 100,000 years ago, otherwise they couldn’t have been as diversified as they are now. It’s a strong argument, I think, supported by other theories that ascribe the origin of modern language to the appearance of the Homo Sapiens. Although I am not an expert, I think that the thesis that places the origin of language as late as 50,000 years ago is not tenable. Making the cave paintings of that time supposes already a high level of culture and communicative abilities and before “we” could have reached that level we probably needed a long way to go.
All this is reasoned guessing. Most likely is that modern language originated with modern man. But previously? My feeling plus my lay understanding of archaeology, palaeontology and linguistics tell me that language in some form – but more advanced than simply grunting – must be older. But what is my opinion worth? What is sure is that now there are some 6-7000 languages in the world. However, probably soon two thirds of these languages will be extinct. What does this mean for man? Culture and language developed hand in hand with each other. What will the consequences be if so many languages will be lost forever? If a language expresses a world view, as I think, the loss of each language is an impoverishment for man. Can and will the existing languages take over what threatens to be lost? Maybe I should change my definition: Man is a cultural biped, as long as s/he speaks. But then maybe Diogenes would take a gibbon and say: “Look, a biped that speaks and has no culture.” Future man?

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