By Bryan Peacker ’18
Whether you come from the Great Plains of the Midwest, the vast expanses of the Andes Mountains in Peru, or an urban metropolis in China, you share something with all humans: you know at least one language.
The ubiquity of language can sometimes obscure the fact that it is a unique human faculty that distinguishes us from other animals. In general, human language is considered to be distinct from animal communication in that, although both use signs to convey information, animals use each signal for only one function, while humans use signs that have more than one meaning. Humans also use language creatively and in an unlimited number of ways, while animals use signs in response to stimuli and only send messages in a set number of ways (Hurford, 2004). All of these differences between human and animal communication bring about a fundamental question: How did human communication become so unique?
One of the first linguists to propose theories for the origins of language was the philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder. According to his theory of onomatopoeia, later called the “bow-wow theory”, people imitated the sounds that their surroundings made, which brought about the roots that make up speech (Thorndike, 1943). For instance, an onomatopoeic sound such as moo would have led to the association of that sound with a cow, thus forming the basis for associating a sound with an idea. However, this is an unlikely possibility, since the addition of non-mimetic sounds that symbolize more abstract ideas and events would be difficult. Although the 19th century German philologist Max Müller posited that a language could be formed through imitation, analyses of various languages suggest that none have actually been formed in that way. In addition, the mere imitation of sound makes up a very small proportion of the lexicon of most languages, which further cuts against this theory (Müller, 1861).
Another model of language development is the interjectional theory, later known as the “pooh-pooh theory” (Thorndike, 1943). According to interjectional theory, the first words were interjections and expressions of emotion, such as exclamations caused by pleasure or pain. Despite their undeniable role in language formation, interjections are only a small component of language, according to Thorndike. Other animals, he asserts, also express similar feelings through interjections, such as by groaning, barking, meowing, or shrieking, and would thus also communicate like humans if language were to have developed that way.
Although these hypotheses are plausible—albeit to varying degrees—modern-day linguists consider social and cognitive factors rather than physical vocalizations to be the foundations of speech. Consequently, the historical theories on the origins of language are now mostly discredited, though often perpetuated among the general public as widely accepted theories. Ultimately, while a lack of records makes the exact origins of language all but impossible to determine, there are several models that serve as useful explanations of the genesis of language. In subsequent posts, I intend to describe and analyze different theories on language’s origins and hopefully shed some light on what has been called “the hardest problem in science” (Christiansen & Kirby, 2003).
Christansen, M. H. & Kirby, S. (2003). Language Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hurford, J. R. (2004). Human uniqueness, learned symbols, and recursive thought. European Review, 12(4), 551-565.
Müller, F. M. (1861). The theoretical stage, and the origin of language. In Lectures on the science of language (pp. 380-436). Cambridge University Press.
Thorndike, E. L. (1943). The Origin of Language. Science, 98(2531), 1-6.
This article is the first in a recurring series of posts focusing on the origins of language. Check here throughout the rest of the semester for the rest of Bryan Peacker’s posts.