The Origins of Language

Much has been said and speculated about the possible origin of human language. We speak about an estimated seven thousand different languages ​​around the world, though it is thought that about half of them* also have a written form, but the origin of language itself is still a great mystery.

In addition, there are no concrete answers on the open debate about where this diversity of languages ​​ originated, even though their existence is very well documented and studied all over the globe.

Over time, archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists have attempted to answer these questions, each one from the point of view of their own discipline, but, many of these issues are still waiting to be fully explained. The controversy on this subject has been so heated that during the nineteenth century, the Linguistic Society of Paris was forced to suspend indefinitely any debate on the subject.

In the past, ancient philosophers defended the thesis of phonetic imitation, modelling what is represented by the word or phoneme. Later, back in the eighteenth century, based on those old theories, the philosopher G. Wilhelm Leibniz presented a more structured thesis on this idea of ​​imitation, stating that from that natural imitation, representative of reality, a language emerges from which all the others derive. That is the thesis called "Monogenesis".

The linguists, however, insist on the theory of onomatopoeia, which states that from the imitation of the environment is where that primitive language was born, following that of animal sounds, or nature in general.

Sociologists and anthropologists agree that language emerges after the urgency of establishing effective and efficient communication. It is speculated that the primitive sounds of the Neandertal man were evolving up to the language of Homo Sapiens, 50,000 years ago in Africa, after a severe glaciation.

We do not know for sure when that system was born, what formed the linguistic signs, or the relationship between those two events. No explanation has been found for the emergence of articulated language, nor for its relation to our ability to express thoughts, feelings or sensations under the dictates of human consciousness.

In this sense, theories like the Gestalt school consider it a "biological gift", while the contemporary linguist Noam Chomsky, affirms that the language is a sort of "inherited" programme, which elaborates the speech process, even before the thought, by an associative process of the human mind.

The origin of language is a complex, difficult issue. We do not know for sure where it comes from, nor how that unique faculty we have to express our feelings and emotions through words came into existence, and also serves as a means to communicate with our peers whenever we speak the same language.

As so many questions remain unanswered, the heated but fascinating debate on the origins of language continues.


By Patricia C Prada Jimenez


* Useful info: The exact number of unwritten languages is hard to determine. Ethnologue (21st edition) has data to indicate that of the currently listed 7,097 living languages, 3,909 have a developed writing system. We don't always know, however, if the existing writing systems are widely used. That is, while an alphabet may exist there may not be very many people who are literate and actually using the alphabet. The remaining 3,188 are likely unwritten.

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