Language Origins

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by one_raven, Oct 16, 2009.

  1. one_raven God is a Chinese Whisper Valued Senior Member

    What are some of the religious myths/legends about the origins of man's language?
    Not written language - spoken.

    What are the currently accepted theories about when language developed in man and what led them to that timeframe?
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  3. nietzschefan Thread Killer Valued Senior Member

    Just do a search on fraggle's posts for it, or wait for him to drop bombs here lol
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    * * * * MODERATOR * * * *
    It's probably time to move this thread to Linguistics.

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    The only myth I'm familiar with about the origin of language is the story of the Tower of Babel in the Jewish/Christian bible. Babel is the city we know as Babylon, and much of the material in the opening books of the bible is merely a retelling of Babylonian mythology.

    Babylon was the largest city on earth in its heyday in the 2nd millennium BCE, and was probably the first city to hit the 200,000 population mark. But it is by no means the world's first city. Damascus and Jericho go back more than ten thousand years, and one of the oldest cities, Crocodilopolis, was in the Egyptian civilization, not Mesopotamian.

    As the capital of an empire, it was natural for the citizens of Babylon to speculate about the origins of the many languages that were spoken inside and outside its walls. Many of them were Semitic languages, including Aramaic, which eventually became the dominant language of the Middle East and remained the region's lingua franca up into modern times under the Ottoman Empire. But many were not. Since writing had only recently been invented, the Babylonians didn't have much of a historical record to examine and they had no knowledge of the migrations of the peoples in their empire or the relationships among their languages. (Four thousand years later we know more about it than they did, with the sciences of archeology and linguistics at our disposal, but there are still more questions than answers.)

    So they made up a convenient story about people originally all speaking one language, and God deciding to slap them down for daring to build a tower that would disrupt his serene view in heaven, by imposing a multitude of mutually incomprehensible languages on them.

    We do not know, and perhaps never will, whether this metaphor happens to be an accurate account of history. We do not know when the technology of language was invented, and we do not know whether it was invented in one place and spread rapidly (like the domestication of dogs in China) or invented in multiple places (like agriculture).

    Linguists talk about a "ten-thousand year veil." Vocabulary, grammar, syntax and phonetics change gradually but steadily over time, rapidly enough that absolutely every element of a language can turn over and be replaced within 10,000 years. Just look at the vast differences in vocabulary, grammar, syntax and phonetics between English and Russian, which have only had about 5,000 years to diverge. We're pretty sure that 2,000 years ago, Chinese was not a tonal language!

    We have been able to group the couple of thousand surviving human languages into families that we can trace back five to ten thousand years. I don't know how many families there are, but surely more than a hundred. We can recreate the original ancestral language of one of those families to a great enough extent to satisfy ourselves that the daughter languages are indeed related. But that extent is generally pathetic. Even the recreated ancestral language of the Indo-European family, the most exhaustively studied family of all, has less than a thousand words, IIRC. When you start comparing those hypothetical recreated proto-languages against each other, there simply aren't enough data points to find convincing correlations.

    A few years ago I read a report on a computerized comparison of the vocabularies of a number of languages representing the best-known families, using massively parallel processing for brute force. It came up with something like fifty words that appeared to be common to all of them. A great cheer rose as linguists jumped to the conclusion that all languages are related. (I confess to participating in that cheer.) But wait: fifty words really aren't that many. Phonetic changes are difficult to track correctly and are easy to misread. Coincidences happen, especially over a time span of ten, thirty, a hundred thousand years. Words are also freely borrowed; neighboring peoples routinely form a Sprachbund, a group of unrelated languages that borrow from each other due to commercial and cultural contact. Fifty words just isn't enough to promote an intriguing hypothesis to the status of a canonical theory. Fifty words might not even cover a language's complete set of phonemes!

    All linguists can say for sure is that the technology of spoken language is at least ten thousand years old. And that's a really big "duh," since it's inconceivable that the planning, management and categorization of ideas required to build the first cities would have been possible without language. It is possible that language arose during the Neolithic Era (the Agricultural Revolution, which started about 12KYA), and was the key technology that made civilization (literally "the building of cities") possible.

    But it's just as reasonable to hypothesize that the planning, management and categorization of ideas required to invent the twin technologies of farming and animal husbandry, which together comprise agriculture, could also not have happened without language. The first evidence of hybridized, cultivated plants (figs) is dated 9500BCE. Did those nomadic Mesopotamian hunter-gatherers really figure out all that complex stuff without talking about it???

    Pick any memorable event in prehistory and it's hard to imagine it being perpetrated by people with no language. But one that has been singled out for special consideration is the migration out of Africa around 55KYA. Africa had been teeming with tribes of Homo sapiens for tens of thousands of years. Surely the conditions that drove humans to look for a new home had occurred before. (An ice age, which reduced rainfall and caused a famine in Africa, and also lowered sea levels making it easier to walk into western Asia.) Was the ability to speak--to relate the same complicated idea to everyone in the group and to reproduce verbatim something someone said many years ago--the catalyst for the improved planning and organization that a successful migration into unfamiliar territory would have required?

    Maybe the invention of stone tools was accomplished without speech. After all, a few species of birds have figured out how to use things they find lying on the ground to enhance their ability to manipulate their environment.

    Maybe the mastery of fire--in my model of human history that's the first Paradigm Shift because it made a massive change in our lifestyle--was accomplished without speech. If someone accidentally banged a piece of flint into another rock, created a spark, and set some weeds on fire, that might not have required a high degree of communication to do it again.

    But mounting an expedition across Suez into Asia? I couldn't go on a camping trip for a week without a written list. How could a tribe of Africans migrate to another environment, establish thriving populations, and walk all the way to Australia, without talking?

    But I haven't talked myself out of this dead end. Perhaps all the languages spoken by the descendants of the tribe that migrated out of Africa (the San or "Bushmen"--they didn't all emigrate and the descendants of the ones who stayed are easy to find from their DNA) are related. It could be.

    But there are several language families in Africa besides the one that San belongs to. It's still possible that some or all of the other families are not related.
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2009
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  7. one_raven God is a Chinese Whisper Valued Senior Member

    Beyond whether or not these complicated things are possible if people are not able to communicate complex ideas with one another - the question arises of whether or not man could even concieve of such complex things on his own without a somewhat advanced internal language.
    Sure, it is possible to (like the example you noted) strike flint against harder stone to make a spark and remember that for the next time, but would it be even possible to conceptualize the idea of tracking seasons with the position of the stars - or even simply keep some sort of local calendar for planting/harvesting seasons - without a language to think in?

    We do not think exclusively in language - but our more "advanced" thinking is not possible without language.

    Furthermore, it is impossible to relay history without language.
    How do you tell your kid or neighbor, "When the leaves fall off the trees, it is time to gather the gourds and store them" without language?

    We could not hav had an agrarian society without language.

    Before I go too far off the deep end and this DOES end up getting moved to linguistics, the purpose of this was really the religious customs regarding the development of language. The purpose of trying to determine when language actually arose, according to current scientific/linguistic theory is for correlation to the myths.

    I am well aware of the the story of the Tower of Babel and the various Mesopotamian stoies which preceed it.
    I am not, however, looking for different religious ideas of the cause of the divergence of language or the diaspora of people - at least not in this thread.
    What I am hoping for is some insight to the beliefs of the birth of language itself.

    The Greek and Roman Gods gave us everything - every human gift and trait - piecemeal. There MUST be a God who gave us language - or some myth about the birth of language.
    I also find it difficult to believe that the Native Americans don't have some myths regarding the formation of language.
  8. one_raven God is a Chinese Whisper Valued Senior Member

    I think the question that has to be answered is whether language developed because it COULD or because it HAD TO...

    For example, did we start developing agrarian concepts because we had the capacity of abstract thought or did we develop the capacity of abstract thought as a result of, for example, tracking and plotting the stars to plan for planting and harvesting seasons.

    As much as I'd hate to throw Medicine Woman a bone, I could certainly see recording of astronomy being the first step in the infancy of language.
  9. ejderha Exhausted Registered Senior Member

    There is an article that I accessed via JSTOR.

    On the Origins of Language
    Louis Carini and Alan L. Bryan
    Current Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Apr., 1970), pp. 165-167
    Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

    E: It's actually a discussion with replies between anthropologists.
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2009
  10. one_raven God is a Chinese Whisper Valued Senior Member

    I don't even know what JSTOR is, but I'm guessing it's an academic article repository of some sort. I likely don't have access.
  11. kira Valued Senior Member

    Nice post, Fraggle!

    Actually just last night I watched this movie, Jugend ohne Jugend (original title in English: Youth without Youth) from the DVD that I rent from city library. Some part of the movie is about the origin of human language. In the movie, one of the main character (a girl) is posessed and begins to speak in some ancient languages, started in Sankskrit, then an older language, ancient Egyptian, and then even older language, Babylonian, and finally some unknown language (it was unnamed, but sounds almost like a cat's sound). The movie is by Francis Ford Coppola. A very interesting movie, I have to say.

    Here is a plot about the movie. An excerpt of the link:

    This is the story of Dominic Matei around World War II. He is a smart student who becomes a professor and then a 70 year old man. The movie opens with Dominic waking up and going to his favorite bar/restaurant (Café Select) in his pajamas in the middle of winter. He is intercepted on the way to the cafe and reminded of Christmas Eve and his under dressed condition. He returns grumbling about going to someplace where no one knows him. He has apparently lived a solitary existence because he has been preoccupied by his "work" (to find the origin of human language and how it evolved).​
  12. Medicine*Woman Jesus: Mythstory--Not History! Valued Senior Member

    M*W: Come on, big boy, throw me that bone!
  13. one_raven God is a Chinese Whisper Valued Senior Member


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    I think it is worth a valid look...
    Man becoming man very well could have been his first grasp at self-determination via controlling his food source.

    Complex language, in many ways, separates man from the rest of the animal kingdom. People will talk of city building, farming, abstract thought, view of history, many different things that distinguish man from the rest of the animal kingdom, but none of these are possible without complex language – both for communicating, and even for conception of such ideas.

    Perhaps the first step of man’s becoming (certainly at the dawn of mankind) would have been an attempt to control the means of their survival. An early logical step would have been (as Fraggle discussed) would have been a step towards agrarian communes.

    Until man could ensure a fairly regular food source, could he get enough nutrients to thrive?
    Working together in communes would have built social skills. People would need to learn to cooperate, tolerate, plan and communicate.

    What’s the most important thing to communicate in an agrarian commune?

    How does early man know when to plant, harvest, turn, etc? Positions of the stars.
    Tracking the stars could very well been man’s first real attempt at planning for the future – his first attempt at abstract thought.
    Of course if he was tracking the stars as a means to keep a rudimentary calendar and there was no written language, he would have created stories about what he saw in the sky as mnemonic devices – he needed a way to pass the knowledge to others and pass it down to future generations. If he was planning for the next year, he would think to plan for the next generation.

    This is where the question I asked comes in…
    Did man develop the capacity for abstract thought as a result of attempting to control his food source, or did man’s capacity for abstract thought allow him to consider the option of controlling his food source?
  14. one_raven God is a Chinese Whisper Valued Senior Member

    Then again, did man's exodus out of Africa require forethought and planning - or were they simply migrating along the riparian zone in search for more food?
  15. Medicine*Woman Jesus: Mythstory--Not History! Valued Senior Member

    M*W: You bring up some good points. I tend to think that the migration out of Africa was a natural pursuit of food along/within the Delta. The author of Genesis would have them fleeing an evil pharaoh (could it have been Akhenaten, maybe???). The "40 years" in the desert simply meant they were nomads who wandered their entire lifetime and nothing more. That's what nomads do. I don't think it was a pre-meditated or calculated movement.

    BTW, there still hasn't been found any chariots of gold at the bottom of the Red Sea.

    Thanks for your input.
  16. one_raven God is a Chinese Whisper Valued Senior Member

  17. John Connellan Valued Senior Member

    How is this still in Religion forum?

    *tip to moderator

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  18. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    One hypothesis is that language evolved out of hunting calls. Some of the African languages still retain clicks and other phonemes that are characteristic of hunters' signals. In this scenario, the first "sentences" were of the nature, "I'm over here, hiding behind the tree, but don't tell the antelope."
    The timing (ca. 55KYA) puts it in at the nadir of an ice age. Rainfall was scarce in Africa so there was a famine. Sea level was low so it was easier than usual to walk to another continent. Due to the vagaries of the weather patterns Australia was a paradise so they kept walking (and building small boats to cross the waterways of Indonesia, much narrower than they are today) until they got there. People in the southern coastal regions of Asia today have several traces of DNA normally associated with Native Australians.
    Then he's off by fifty thousand years. Pharaoh is the Egyptian word for "house" and referred to the palaces of the rulers, but in Hebrew and Greek it was used for the rulers themselves going back to around 1500BCE.

    Judging from their language (Egyptian was an Afro-Asiatic language related to Hebrew and Arabic) there's a good chance that the Ancient Egyptians were descended from people who migrated back from Asia to North Africa, after weather patterns forced the African tribes to move south and leave the Sahara for someone else to recolonize.
  19. Walter L. Wagner Cosmic Truth Seeker Valued Senior Member


    I believe you underestimate the antiquity of language ability.

    All humans have tongues and vocal-cords perfected for articulate language. That means that Y-chromosome Adam and Mitochondrial Eve also had such language apparatus. They lived some 50,000 to 200,000 years ago, depending upon which studies you believe.

    And, that is for complex biological mechanisms for speech. We didn't just suddenly obtain them in a generation or two. They evolved. Over eons of time. And they evolved as language became more complex.

    I would suggest that the earliest primitive languages developed some 1-2 million years ago, and that by the time Homo sapiens sapiens arose, language was fully developed. Our modern languages are simply the remnant of one of those earlier pre-human primitive languages.

    Good luck on deciphering that one!
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Adam's time is usually placed at the former figure and Eve's at the latter.

    Nonetheless, possessing the physiology and psychology to do something doesn't make it happen. Environmental or social pressure can catalyze it, as can the antithesis: lots of idle time for play. There are a few (and only a few) hypotheses for dating the origin of language that are much more than speculation or worse, agenda-driven. I don't see how we'll ever be able to prove any of them beyond a reasonable doubt and elevate it to the status of a canonical theory. We can't even guess whether language is a technology that was invented once and was then spread quickly by borrowing from tribe to tribe, or arose independently in multiple places and times.

    As I have noted before (probably in this thread), when massively parallel computer processing became available it was set to work trying to find cognate words in language families that were heretofore considered unrelated. It dutifully did so and stunningly well: it appeared that all the non-African languages had a common ancestor, which pushed the origin of language back to the diaspora at 60KYA. After the pate crumbs, champagne cups, party hats and used condoms were swept up, in the light of day it had to be admitted that the number of putative cognates was small enough to be accounted for by coincidence.

    Until we invent time travel and can actually go back and hear people talking (or not), the only responsible scientific answer to these questions is, "We don't know."
  21. one_raven God is a Chinese Whisper Valued Senior Member

    Parots have the physical capacity for complex language - as far as we can tell, they do not have the mental capacity for the level of abstract thought required for complex language.
  22. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    The early migrants to North America could talk as well an anyone - and there is absolutely no evidence of agrarian, or even pastoral, culture in those extremely nomadic people.
  23. Walter L. Wagner Cosmic Truth Seeker Valued Senior Member

    An interesting point. However, I believe that humans did not acquire the physical capability for speech (well-developed vocal cords, tongue, etc.) without having had speech itself concurrently. We do not see other mammals with that capability (even dolphins/whales have only the most rudimentary of sound communication nowhere rivaling the complex sounds of human speech).

    Other close primates (chimps, etc.) have the mental capacity to understand primitive language (as determined via sign language studies), but lack the physical capability. Somewhere our ancestors acquired a primitive language capability (both physical, i.e. modified tongue and vocal cords, and the primitive languages to go along with it) and began evolving the tongue and vocal cords (and the brain centers that control them) to that which our earliest human progenitors had ("Adam" and "Eve", to whom all extant people can trace their ancestry, who would be the parents of either mitochondrial eve or y-chromosome adam, whichever came first). One can well imagine that all of the early genera of Homo (H. erectus, etc.) had language capability, just as we know many of them had fire capability as well.

    This might well prove an interesting field of study for future anthropologists. The extant languages might well have arisen from a single language of a diaspora some 50,000 years ago, but there would certainly have been more primitive languages going back hundreds of thousands of years.

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