The Nature and Origin of Language

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This is the first part of Guruji’s summary of F.T. Wood’s book on the English Language.

  1. The Nature and Origin of Language
  2. The Indo-European Family
  3. The Germanic Sub-group
  4. Grimm’s Law
  5. Verner’s Law
  6. The Great Vowel Shift
  7. A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period
  8. The Evolution of Standard English
  9. Change in Meaning
  10. Growth of Vocabulary

The Nature and Origin of Language

Man alone of all mammals is capable of reaching back into the depths of time and evoking the collective knowledge of his forebears the sum total of their wisdom and folly, aspirations and achievements, triumphs, failures and dreams.  The talisman with which he effects this miracle of transcending time and death is language and it is language peculiar to the human family that has placed man at the apex of the evolutionary ladder.  Language is thus unique to man and without language “man would never have become fully human” – Weston La Barre.

What is language? How did man acquire it?  The two questions are inseparable and neither admits of an easy answer.  A classic definition of language that seemed adequate at the turn of the century stated simply, “Language is the expression of human thought by means of words.”

The ramifications of modern science have since revealed the lacunae in this description. Psychologists asked, “What is thought?”.  Linguists asked, “What is a word?”  Zoologists observed that many animals and birds and even insects have systems of communication that may be regarded in a crude sense as language.  Psychologists have pointed out that human language depends on the interplay between the highly complex vocal apparatus of a speaker and the equally intricate and remarkable auditory organs of a listener.  And, in its manifold aspects, the study of language has involved Physics, Phonetics, Acoustics, Neurology, Logic, Information theory, Semantics and the branch of philosophy known as Symbolism or theory of signs.  To complicate the matter further, the very word ‘language’ presents problems by reason of its various meanings in the English lexicon within which it must do double duty, connecting both (1) language in the abstract, as the common possession of mankind and (2) language in the specific sense of one language – English, Arabic, Urdu or any of the 4,000 discrete tongues employed by communities of men around the polyglot world.

Since only about 5% of the languages spoken on earth today have an ancillary written form, modern linguistic scientists – or structural linguists as they are known academically – concern themselves with language as a system of vocal communication.  Writing is of course, a relatively recent invention of man, dating only from the first flowering of Sumerian and Egyptian cultures, some 5,000 years ago.  There is no mystery about its origin.  Writing is our carrier-link with the past and its advent marked the beginning of civilization and the start of history.  Yet, man had been a resident of this planet for more than half a million years prior to his discovery that information could be transmitted through time and space by visual symbols impressed in clay or inscribed in Papyrus scrolls.

There is no doubt then, that Homo Sapiens had had such speech and the potential of evolving a complex system of language, though in pre-historic times, language was absolutely devoid of complexities of grammar and phonetic shadings.

Though efforts were made to solve the question of the human language by the Linguistic Society of Paris, anthropologists and students of language, nothing worthwhile has come out so far.  The quest of those who were interested in the subject was inspired in part by the Book of Genesis: “And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech” until at Babel “the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth.”  Sir William Jones, who led these questers could go as far as to say (in 1786) that most of the languages of Europe, India, Persia, including ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit were members of a single great linguistic family that must have ramified in pre-historic times from a common ancestral tongue.

In the total absence of any clue as to the speech patterns of pre-historic man, scholars could only speculate; and it was their fanciful speculations that irritated the Linguistic Society of Paris and provoked its ban on any discussion of the origin of language.  Today, linguists allude to those 19th century theories somewhat derisively by names which suggest both the essence of each theory and the attitude of its later critics.  Most notable among such efforts to penetrate the mists of the early Pleistocene were:

Pleistocene:

Geological period following the Pliocene, having the greatest proportion of fossil molluscs (a large division of invertebrates – without a vertebral column, or backbone weak, formless) of living species (GK) pleistos – numerous

  1. The Bow-Wow Theory
  2. The Pooh-Pooh Theory
  3. The Yo-He-Ho Theory
  4. The Ta-Ta Theory
  5. The Ding-Dong Theory
  6. The Sing-SongTheory
  7. The Goo-Goo Theory

The Bow-Bow Theory is so named by the Anglo-German Philologist Max Muller.  It proposed that language grew out of man’s attempt to imitate natural sounds as an infant learning to talk calls a locomotive a ‘choo-choo’ or a cow a ‘moo’.  According to this theory, man’s first words must have been Onomatopoeic or echo words, e.g., Thunder, bump, sneze, splash, sizzle, slosh, cuckoo, moan, mumble, grumble, hiss, kiss, buzz, rustle, jingle, etc.

Onomatopoeic:

The imitation of the sound of a thing or an event by the sound of an individual word – slap.

The Pooh-Pooh Theory held that speech originated from the spontaneous exclamations and interjections of the human animal; cries of fear, surprise, anger, pain, disgust, despair or joy.

The Yo-He-Ho Theory suggested that language evolved from reflex vocal utterances – grunts, gasps, glottal – contractions evoked strenuous physical exertions such as hacking up a carcass or dragging a heavy log through undergrowth.

The Ta-Ta Theory to which Darwin lent some support maintained that speech developed as a kind of ‘obbligato’ or vocal accompaniment to the system of gesture or sign language which man first communicated.  In his treatise on The Expression of Human Emotions, Darwin observed that “persons cutting anything with a pair of scissors   may be seen to  move their jaws simultaneously with the blades of the scissors.  Children learning to write twist about their tongue as their fingers move in a ridiculous fashion.”  Citing Darwin, Sir Richard Paget, Chief Exponent of the Ta-Ta theory, wrote: “Originally man expressed his ideas by gesture but as he gesticulated with this hands, his tongue, lips and jaws unconsciously followed in  a ridiculous fashion, ‘understudying’ the action of the hands.  The consequence was that, owing to pressure of other business, the principal actors (the hands) retired from the stage…..Their understudies – the tongue, lips and jaws – were already proficient in the pantomime art.  Then the great discovery was made that if, while making a gesture with the tongue and lips air was blown through the oral or nasal cavities, the gesture became audible….”.

The Ding Dong Theory postulated a kind of mystical or a prior correspondence between sound and sense.  Enunciated a century ago by Max Muller, the theory reiterated ideas first advanced by Pythagoras (500 B.C.) and later sustained Heraclitus and Plato, who held that language must have arisen out of necessity from laws of nature and especially an inevitable law of harmony, which ordained that “everything has its particular ring”.  Thus, when pre-historic man first met a dog, he said ‘dog’ and that is how the dog got its name.

The Sing-Song Theory contended that human speech arose out of primitive, rhythmic chants.  Darwin also laid the basis for this theory in his Descent of Man, where he wrote” “Primeval man or some progenitor of man,  probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences, that is, in singing as do some of the gibbon apes at the present day, and we may conclude from a widespread analogy that this power which would have been exerted, especially during the courtship of the sexes as music is the food of love, would have expressed various emotions such as love, jealousy, triumph, and would have served as a challenge to rivals”.  The Sing-Song theory found another formidable exponent in the distinguished Danish Linguist, Otto Jesperson, who in 1922 wrote: “Language was born in the courting days of mankind; the first utterance of speech, I fancy to myself, was like something between the nightly love-lyrics or puss upon the tiles and melodious love songs of the nightingale.”

The Goo-Goo Theory incorporated elements of all the others in a single eclectic package by stating in the words of Harvard’s prominent English Professor, George Lyman Kittredge: “All that is requisite for the beginning of language proper is that any sound comes to be purposefully uttered, however vaguely and actually understood, and we have the premise and potentiality of the most cultivated human speech”.  The same concept had been expressed more graphically by Darwin, whose infinitely conscientious and non-partisan intellect led him always to examine every consideration:  “May not some unusually wise ape-like animal have imitated the growl of a beast of prey, and thus told his fellow monkeys the nature of the expected danger?  This would have been the first step in the formation of language.”

Standing alone, each of these theories reveals flaws which are implicit in the baby-talk names by which they are contemptuously known.  Each has been thoroughly mooted, criticized, rebutted, tarred-and-feathered and driven out of the pale of modern linguistic science.  The Bow-Wow theory, which was among the first and certainly the most familiar of those hypotheses was born when man started to invent descriptive names or imitative ones for things he saw around him.  There exists considerable doubt, however, that language began with nouns and a great mass of evidence indicates that onomatopoeic or echoic words represent but a small element in the vocabulary of any language.  Many onomatopoeic words were evolved in relatively recent times, from roots originally devoid of sound symbolism.   Thus the English word ‘sneeze’ derives from the Anglo-saxon ‘Freosan’ which stemmed in turn, from the GK ‘Pnein’ (breath) which exhibits no symptom of hay-fever at all.  Even avowedly and admittedly echoic words vary from language to language.  Thus an English rooster greets the dawn with ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ whereas his foreign cousins cry ‘cocorico’ in France, ‘quiquiriqui’ in Spain, ‘chicherichchi’ in Italy, ‘kikkeriki’ in Germany, ‘kykeliky’ in Denmark and ‘kokke koko’ in Japan.

Much more formidable objections impugn (express doubt about) the Ding Dong theory which pre-supposes a natural, built-in-fitness of words to designate their meaning.  To accept such a metaphysical premise would raise the question of why, when pre-historic man first met pre-historic dog, he exclaimed ‘dog’ rather than ‘canis’, ‘chien’, ‘perro’ or ‘hund’.  Aristotle, father of grammar in the occidental (the countries of the West, Europe and America) world, perceived the fallacies in the Pythagorean-Platonic Theory, and advanced the opposing view that language is altogether arbitrary and functions in any society by convention and the common consent of its speakers.  No linguist disputes Aristotle’s theory today.

The chance that pre-historic man may have employed sign language before he talked, as proposed by Paget and other exponents of the Ta-Ta theory has received support from the branch of linguistic science known as ‘Kinesics’.  Studies in the field have shown that the lexicon (dictionary of an ancient language) of human gestures includes more than 700,000 distinct and expressive movements of the hands, arms, fingers and face by which information can be transferred without speech. The most highly developed gestural systems are those by deaf-mutes, that is, lip reading and finger talk.  Others include the formal sign language of the North American Indian; the highly stylized hand imagery of Hawaiian ‘hula’ and the dance of Cambodian, Bali and other Asisan (and Polynesian) lands; the Japanese flirt language of the fan; the coded arm movements of the football and hockey referees, baseball umpires and other sports officials; the signaling patterns of Semaphores; and the varied and largely impromptu (without preparation, rehearsal or thought in advance) gestures used by traders in market places the world over since travel and commerce began.

Semaphores:

System of sending signals by holding the arms or the flags in certain positions to indicate letters of the alphabet, e.g., railway signalling.

It is obvious that the more sophisticated systems of pantomime (expressive movements of the face and body used to tell a story), such as the discourse of deaf-mutes, depend on a prior knowledge of language, and they were, indeed, devised as a substitute for speech.  But it is equally evident, from studies of animal behavior, that many species communicate successfully among themselves by a variety of non-vocal methods.  Baboons (large African or Arabian monkey with a doglike face), for example, rebuke their young ones and often reduce them to howls of terror simply by fixing them with an unwavering glare.

The prevalence throughout the animal world of visual, gestural, and non-vocal communication suggests, therefore, that it must have anti-dated speech in the development of human society.  But the gulf between sign language and the language of modern articulate man is a profound one and the route by which Homo Sapiens (Latin – modern human beings regarded as a species) crossed that gulf is by no means adequately defined by the Ta-Ta Theory.  Similar shortcomings discount or depreciate each of the early hypotheses of linguistic origin for each one is narrow in scope, vague in substance and founded on flimsy knowledge of the physical and social evolution of early man; yet, scattered here and there among them lie fragmentary but sometimes suggestive clues.

To have reservations about the first valiant efforts to trace the stream of human language back to its source in the dark oubliette (secret dungeon or underground prison with an entrance only by a trapdoor in the roof) of unrecorded time is not to say that these wellsprings are, forever, undiscoverable nor that a reasonably valid theory of linguistic evolution cannot be formulated today.  Current developments in many domains of science, especially paleontology (study of fossils – remains of an animal or a plant which have hardened into rock – as a guide to the history of life on earth), zoology, and both physical and cultural anthropology (study of mankind, especially of its origins, developments, customs and beliefs), have case new light upon processes of communication in all orders of the animal world.  An understanding of some of these processes is necessary to an understanding of the nature and uniqueness of the human language.