Language is one of the key traits that differentiates humans from other living beings. It has allowed us not only to communicate about things that are here and now but also to convey complex messages, which was essential for the emergence and development of civilizations.
While many animal species have systems they use to communicate with their bodies or sounds, only humans have developed this ability to express themselves in a highly complex way. Unlike animals, whose vocabulary is typically limited to simple and life-preserving signals like warnings, gestures of aggression or submission, mating calls, and the like, humans can use language to communicate virtually anything: to discuss past, present, or future, science or religion, real or imagined things, to impart knowledge to new generations – the possibilities are endless.
Language and mythology
Since in prescientific societies, people used myths and religion to make sense of the world around them, they also did it to explain the origin and variety of languages. In different cultures, the creation of language is represented as a divine gift (for example, in the Old Testament Greek or Norse mythologies). Conversely, the diversity of languages is commonly explained as divine punishment for human arrogance or ambition. A famous example is the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. What is fascinating here is that similar myths are found in other, seemingly unrelated cultures. In Subsaharan Africa, it is said that humans sought to build a tower to reach their creator, Nyambe. However, the structure collapsed, some were killed, and chaos ensued, which divided humankind. The people of Hao Island in Polynesia have an almost identical story. In another African myth, a terrible hunger drove people to lose their minds. Because of that, villages lived in mutual isolation for a while, so when the great hunger finally passed, each village spoke its language.
What can those myths tell us? Maybe ancient humans were aware that language was a great gift, one that pulled humans out of the muck of mere survival, allowed our consciousness to evolve, and enabled civilization (as represented by the notion of "the tower”, a large-scale, complex building venture), and even brought us closer to gods themselves as the highest form of existence and mastery of the world.
And what about science?
With the emergence of the scientific method and the theory of evolution, the Western world has made attempts to provide new, evidence-based answers. However, for quite some time, the origin and evolution of language were taboo topics in the scientific community. For instance, in the mid-19th century, the Linguistic Society of Paris and the London Philological Society banned further discussion on the evolution of language as a highly controversial subject.
Due to a lack of hard evidence and controversy, it wasn’t until the 1990s that researchers started to delve deeper into this matter. There is no direct link between the human genome and the brain to explain where language came from, and archaeological remains can only shed a little light. Based on fossil remains, scientists have determined that until the anatomically modern humans appeared some 100 thousand years ago, the human vocal tract did not allow for producing sounds that are used in known or modern languages.
Our knowledge of ancient languages is mostly based on written evidence, and comparative linguistics and multidisciplinary analyses nowadays enable the origins of languages to be traced back no earlier than 10,000 years. Beyond that dark veil lie hundreds of years of evolution, during which various subspecies of hominids emerged and vanished, gradual or sudden biological changes and mutations occurred, as well as changes in habitats, environments, and lifestyles. We know little or close to nothing about all those things that could have conceivably impacted the evolution of language.
And while there is no consensus on how language came to be, researchers have come up with different theories about it:
- Continuity – a language developed from earlier, prelinguistic systems used by prehistoric humans
- Discontinuity – language is a unique trait that cannot be related to other communication systems, but rather it emerged at one point in the course of the evolution
- Innate theories – language is considered an innate, genetically encoded faculty
- Cultural theories – language is regarded as mainly a cultural system, learned through social interaction
In addition, it is unknown whether language first appeared in a single place (monogenism) or in different places and periods independently (polygenism).
One prominent theory is that of venerated linguist Noam Chomsky, who says that language was created due to an unusual genetic mutation some hundred thousand years ago, which resulted in a reorganization of certain brain circuits. This implies that language is an innate component of human brain organization, the main argument being the “universal grammar”, that is, the fact that grammars in all languages of the world have certain similarities and that the human brain organizes grammar according to the same principles, no matter the language.
Let the Mystery Be
Language is one of humanity's greatest achievements and a tool that has enabled us to work together, organize, and transfer knowledge in complex ways while developing our consciousness and awareness of the world around us. Still, the secret of its origins remains hidden in the mists of prehistory or, as Christine Keneally wrote:
"For all its power to wound and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation; it is little more than air. It exits the body as a series of puffs and dissipates quickly into the atmosphere. ... there are no verbs preserved in amber, no ossified nouns, and no prehistorical shrieks forever spread-eagled in the lava that took them by surprise."