Lecture 2 The Origins of Language. The origins of language. A famous quote from Charles Darwin (1871)
The origins of language • A famous quote from Charles Darwin (1871) “The suspicion does not appear improbable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females, or both sexes, before they had acquired the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm”. • What is Darwin’s vision of language origins in this short passage?
The origins of language • No one knows exactly when or how human beings came up with spoken language. • One hypothesis is that language began between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, with the advent of modern man, i.e. homo sapiens. • This is well before the invention of the written language, about 5,000 years ago. We have direct evidence and artifacts about writing.
Origins: The divine source • Genesis 2/19: God created Adam and “whatsoever Adam called every living creature, was the name thereof.” • The Qur’an: He said, “O Adam, inform them of their names.” And when he had informed them of their names… (Al Baqarah, 2/31-33) • A Hindu belief: language came from Saraswati, wife of Brahma, creator of the universe.
Origins: The divine source (cont.) • Attempts to find a divine, God-given language • Psamtik carried out an experiment with two babies depriving them of human contact. They uttered the word bekos‘bread’ in Phrygian!! • King James the Fourth did a similar experiment and the kids were reported to speak Hebrew. • The fact is children who are deprived of any language contact cannot learn any language.
The natural sound source • Language emerged from natural sounds. • Primitive words are considered to be imitations of natural sounds that people hear around them. • The natural sound a bird makes is argued to have been used to describe that particular animal. • The fact that in many languages there are words such as drip, click, meow and honk that sound like what they mean supports this claim. • Not every sound is onomatopoeicin languages!!
The social interaction source • The sounds of a human engaged in an activity requiring physical effort could be the source. • This idea is reasonable considering that the effort involved several others and work required some interaction between people. • This theory places the development of human language in a social context. • It doesn’t explain the transition from the sounds human made to speech sounds used in language.
The physical adaptation source • It pays more attention to the physical features humans have, rather than focusing on sounds. • The physical characteristics that other creatures don’t have that would support speech production. • Teeth: They are similar in size and do not stick out. They are good for making sounds such as f and v. • Lips: They have more complex muscle interlacing and this makes it possible to produce sounds like p and b.
The physical adaptation source • Mouth: It is relatively small and can be opened and closed rapidly. • Tongue: Smaller, thicker and more muscular. It can be used to make different sounds. • Larynx “Voice box”: The position of the larynx dropped to a lower position, which created a longer cavity called pharynx. • Pharynx: It acts as a resonator for increased clarity of sounds.
The tool-making source • Tool-using and language-using abilities are somehow connected because they are evidence of a thinking and lateralized brain. • The functions that control motor movements involved in speaking and making/using tools are very close to each other in the left hemisphere of the brain. • The development of the speaking brain.
The genetic source • Every human offspring learns how to speak a language in a relatively short time. • Human child is born with a special capacity for language. It is innate, no other species have it! • Is it possible that the language capacity is hard-wired in the newborn human? • The innateness hypothesis: A crucial mutation in human genetics.
Wrap-up • We do not know for sure when or why language originated in human beings. • There are different competing theories about its origins, some more reasonable than others. • We do know that humans have the necessary physical characteristics to produce speech sounds and a unique ability to learn language.
In the next lecture • Animals and human language • What are the properties of human language? • Do animals actually have language?