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What is the origin of language?

origine du langage

From myths to the reality, the origin of language has long been a source of much speculation. From the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, according to which the sole original language was allegedly separated into many different ones to create discord, to current scientific research (palaeontology, psychology, molecular biology, historical linguistics), the origin of human language still continues to fascinate us…

In 1866 the Société de linguistique de Paris (Linguistic Society of Paris) began refusing all publications relative to the origin of language in order to stop speculations and theories which were considered far-fetched. It would be another century before new fields of research took up the issue again.

Language of the first people

The first forms of language gave rise to many theories which are still the cause of much doubt today.

According to American psychologist Merlin Donald, the emergence of language came from the Australopithecines with their memetic language which allowed them to refer to living beings or describe a situation. However, imitation (gestures and sounds) does not equate to human communication!

For Homo erectus, Michael C. Corballis (University of Auckland, New Zealand), suggests another theory which also identifies gestures in the origin of language. These gestures are more specific than just simple imitation; meaning that this communication could be seen as a sort of ancestor of sign language. But this theory doesn’t answer the question of how humans went from using gestures to using their voices.

The linguist, Derek Bickerton, put forward the idea of a primitive “protolanguage” based on:

  • a vocabulary limited to concrete terms (describing objects, people or actions),
  • a lack of grammar.

This language therefore enabled the expression of simple ideas and concrete scenarios (“me go hunt” or “eat beef”). It does not, however, enable the communication of abstract ideas or complex scenarios.

With these characteristics, this primitive protolanguage could well have been the basis for the evolution of human language!

Why did human language emerge and what is its true function?

For a long time, human sciences have considered that language was an “invention” of mankind in the same way the human brainpower allowed for the creation of art, technology and even writing.

Human language has a social capacity and purpose, with its richness enabling the communication of symbolic thought which goes well beyond the tangible.

Conversely, the author, Steven Pinker, recently voiced the instinct theory. According to him, the emergence of language is "biologically programmed, in the same way as walking on two legs".

Terrence Deacon’s research work has led him to develop a middle-ground theory. In developing the beginnings of a symbolic language, some Homo erectus created a type of new “cultural environment”. While accessing these expressions and symbolic thoughts, the cortex and areas of the brain destined for language capacity (such as Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area and Geschwind’s territory) gradually developed.

Today, for the successors of Charles Darwin, language helps to:

  • keep the peace among groups of homo sapiens (Bernard Victorri, research director at the CNRS[1], Paris France),
  • promote sociability and alleviate conflict (Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Robin Dunbar, anthropologist and evolutionary biologist specialising in the behaviour of apes and human primates, GB),
  • obtain social recognition (Jean-Louis Dessalles, professor and artificial intelligence researcher at the ENST in Paris, author of “Aux origines du langage”).

Origin of language: recent conclusions...

In 1989 a hyoid bone (or lingual bone) was discovered on the skeleton of a Neanderthal. Enabling movement of the larynx, this bone seemed to prove that articulated language was therefore possible.

Besides, Homo erectus built huts and controlled fires. These activities would have required social organization, which implies the use of language.

The origin of language is therefore believed to have two key phases:

  • Firstly, a primitive language (protolanguage) spoken by Homo erectus to describe simple and concrete situations,
  • Then, a complex language which enabled Homo sapiens to develop and communicate abstract thoughts and concepts.

Through the origins of language came speech (vocabulary, syntax, grammar, conjugation). How was the language of the first people structured in terms of speech? And why was there so much diversity? Have human and social sciences enabled us to draw reliable conclusions? To find out more, Ranka Bijeljac and Roland Breton lead us on the discovery of the eternal humanity of language in their book: “Du langage aux langues”.

Sources: Tower of Babel: S. Pinker L'Instinct du langage, 1994, trad. Odile Jacob, 1999. T. Deacon, The Symbolic Species, Pinguin Books, 1997.

“Du langage aux langues”:


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