Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Origin of Language

Language is all around us. However, it hasn't been around since the dawn of time or the formation of the planet, unless you're some kind of linguistic creationist. We don't believe language was created in seven days, and although a deity is all-powerful and probably doesn't have to worry about the expense of producing a dictionary, we have seen enough empirical evidence of change in languages over the ages to assume that they weren't always there.

Like the origins of life and the beginnings of the universe, the origin of language is a topic of much debate and speculation. So much debate, in fact, that for a period starting in 1866, discussion of the topic was banned by the Linguistic Society of Paris. Scholars adhered to this for almost a century since such discussions tended to be fruitless anyway.

The main complaint is that unlike the first uses of tools, primitive human settlements and the invention of the wheel, the arrival of spoken language does not leave behind fossils. The first semblance of words could have been uttered by cavemen and then instantly lost in the infinite vastness of the ether and the great beyond.

Some of the older theories concerning language origin are quite interesting. The linguist Max Müller proposed a few that ranged from copying animal noises (Bow-wow), noises from pain (Poo-poo), mimicry of the natural resonance of things (Ding-dong), and the synchronisation of sound with labour, known as Yo-he-ho. Yo-he-ho could have simply been called Hi-ho had Müller seen the film.

Language capabilities "on".
A few theories are present as to why languages developed. Some believe in the idea that languages literally sprang up from nowhere. American linguist Noam Chomsky proposed, in a cheeky nod to Darwin, the idea that a random evolutionary change occurred in the human brain that subsequently became an on switch for languages. He suggests that before this change the human brain did not have the capabilities for language, but this random mutation or change enabled them.

The origin of language has been touted as "the hardest problem in science". There are undoubtedly hundreds of mathematicians and physicists laughing at this idea right now, but given the huge number of potential theories and lack of consensus amongst scholars on the topic, we can certainly see how it could be the most difficult scientific problem!