Ever heard of the ‘Ding-Dong' theory? How about the ‘La-La' or ‘Put-the-baby-down' schools of thought?
If you like unsolved mysteries, here is a riveting one to whet your appetite.
Nobody knows the origins of language.
It's a puzzle that drives linguists and philosophers a little bit crazy, and they've come up with a treasure trove of theories over time.
I dug up six of the best, so come along for the ride.
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If you like watching videos, hit play on the video version of this post below. Otherwise, keep reading to discover the theories that attempt to explain the origins of language.
Why Don't We Know The Origins Of Language?
Apparently, the thorniest problem in science is not dark energy. Instead, scientists wonder how on earth did humans first discover they could speak?
And then, how did they turn this extraordinary skill into the first-ever language?
The origins of language is one of the greatest mysteries in human science because, no matter what treasures we unearth, we'll never find a fossil word.
And you can x-ray them all you want, but you won't find a trace of language on an early human skull. (Or even modern human bones, for that matter.)
I wish they did. Wouldn't it be crazy to prove what Neanderthals really sounded like when they spoke?
#1 The Bow-Wow Theory
You may have heard of Plato and Pythagorus— Greek philosophers who lived 2400 years ago and whose theories about philosophy and mathematics still ring true today. Well, at least some of them do.
Like many scientists since, these great philosophers speculated on how human language could have developed and decided that true language began when humans started naming things after sounds in everyday life.
The Bow-Wow theory reckons that early humans started mimicking sounds from nature. Think whistling winds, splashing waterfalls and buzzing insects.
After a while, the theory goes, people used those sounds to communicate important things.
Imagine a group of Neanderthal hunters out searching for dinner. One spots a wild pig and alerts his companions by grunting or squealing. Now, everyone knows there's a wild pig nearby.
It's no stretch of the imagination to speculate that after a few successful wild boar hunts, people would start naming pigs as grunts — or maybe oinks!
Does The Bow-Wow Theory Explain The Origins Of Language?
The problem with the Bow-Wow theory is that language determines how you interpret a sound. Since we have many languages, we can't prove that human vocabulary comes from copied sounds.
Also, I can just about imagine some creative person imitating the sound of the wind in the trees, but how do you replicate a cave?
Or the sun?
And what does a flower actually say?
However, imitation could well have played a part in language development. We do have words like moo, splash, bang, cuckoo and thud!
These words have a fancy label—onomatopoeia—which literally means “the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named.”
However, the Bow-Wow theory cannot explain how sentences and grammar formed to begin with.
#2 The Pooh-Pooh Theory
Have you ever stubbed your toe on a rock? It hurts, so you shout “ow!” (Or maybe, something else!)
Interjections like “ow”, “woah”, “hey” or even laughs and giggles are instinctive sounds we make during moments of pleasure or pain.
Like when you walk into a surprise birthday party or a dog starts a massive barking fit and scares you half to death.
So, the Pooh-Pooh theory speculates that maybe we discovered sounds entirely by accident. And eventually, we deliberately started using one instinctive sound to mean a particular thing.
Does The Pooh-Pooh Theory Explain The Origins Of Language?
Unlikely! Interjections depend on language, not the other way around.
You see, exclamations are language specific. In English, we might say “ow” or “ouch” when we cut a finger.
Not in China! In Chinese, you'd say, “Āiyō!”
Think about it. When did you last hear a baby say “ouch”? An English baby learns that word later, just as a Chinese baby learns to yell “Āiyō”.
If the Pooh-Pooh theory was true, everybody would have the same sounds for all their interjections.
In actual fact, the only sounds we all share are body noises like sneezing. Even laughing and crying differ in different cultures.
Isn't it amazing how you have an automatic pain response which is then filtered through your language? Did you know we even scream in our own accents?
And here's another fascinating fact. We use vowels and consonants when speaking normally, but interjections and exclamations don't care about those things.
Then, of course, there aren't many interjections, no matter what language you're speaking.
All in all, interjections cannot be the source of language, so I think we've pretty much debunked the Pooh-Pooh theory here.
#3 The Heave-Ho Theory
I'm drawn to this theory because it's all about humans cooperating and working together to achieve a goal.
The Heave-Ho theory speculates that language and speech first came from the sounds we made while doing hard work.
Grunts, groans, chants, that sort of thing.
It's all about people doing some kind of rhythmic labour, grunting, groaning, singing or chanting to keep the rhythm going.
Does The Heave-Ho Theory Explain The Origins Of Language?
Hmm. The theory gives languages social context and interaction, which is nice.
After all, we still have marching and working songs today, and most languages are rhythmic to some degree.
The Heave-Ho theory's an interesting idea, but it doesn't explain the origins of the sounds. And it does not explain how those sounds acquired meaning or how we developed the words and sentences in those songs and chants.
Anthropologists say it's unlikely that early humans even had group activities requiring rhythmic chants until they started building elaborate structures.
And some people have also pointed out that apes have social calls like grunts, screams and even blowing raspberries, yet they haven't developed languages.
#4 The Ding-Dong Theory
I do love this theory's name! Ding-Dong — it has such a ring to it.
The Ding-Dong theory suggests there's a mystic correlation between sound and meaning.
People who proposed this theory speculated that primitive people were so in touch with nature that they could sense a thing's essential quality.
For example, when they saw a snake, they instinctively called it a snake. Or when you strike a gong and get that ringing vibration, it totally sounds right to call it a gong.
There's actually an experiment about this called the Bouba-Kiki effect that's been tested in cultures worldwide.
In the test, experimenters present people with two shapes—one curvy and rounded, the other spiky like a star—and ask, “Which shape is Bouba and which is Kiki?”
Up to 90% of the time, people name the curvy shape Bouba and the spiky one Kiki. They've even shown toddlers these shapes and had the same response.
The belief is that the mind has a particular response to each aspect of the world, and maybe early humans just knew what a thing should be called.
Does The Ding-Dong Theory Explain The Origins Of Language?
Like the other theories we've explored, this one doesn't explain why or how humans decided to name emotions and other things you can't hit and get a vibration from.
No hard evidence of an innate connection between sound and meaning exists in any of the world's languages.
If we were really lucky, we'd stumble across some ancient writing system and use it to find some sort of answer to this puzzling question.
Hey, if we did that, I could even write a book in Neanderthal to add to my short story collection.
But, seriously, even the earliest examples of written languages only go back five or six thousand years. That sounds ancient — and in some ways it is. But not when we're talking about early humans who lived between 40,000 and 400,000 years ago.
#5 The La-La Theory
I love music, so it's no wonder I'm drawn to the theory that we learned to sing before we learned to talk.
Songs have such emotional power over our minds and language, so the La-La theory says language comes from sounds associated with love, singing and playfulness.
So, happy sounds turned into words. Wouldn't it be cool if language really blossomed that way?
Does The La-La Theory Explain The Origins Of Language?
Human sounds aren't a reliable way to gauge how someone's really feeling.
Cats, yes! You hear a cat purring and know it's happy and content. There's no faking a purr.
Humans? Not so much. Words and sounds are all too easy to fake.
And if language began with singing our feelings, what about our rational thought? There's a massive gap between expressing emotion and communicating a rational idea or concept.
Then there's the way some languages use the same sound to express completely different things.
Take the sound “gift.”
In English, ‘gift' means a present. But make the same sound in Norwegian, and you're talking about a wedding. What's more, you shouldn't even think about drinking ‘gift' if you're speaking German because ‘the gift sound' means poison in that language.
Besides, have you ever tried convincing your pet dog that he won't be having a bath when you plan to get him into that tub?
It never works! Your dog thinks your acting skills suck, but you might be able to fool a human with the same trick because humans have mutual language trust. Animals don't.
I think a good theory about the origins of language should explain how humans could learn to trust false signals, but animals aren't fooled.
#6 The “Putting Down The Baby” Theory
This novel theory says that language began when humans started walking upright.
Yes, the thinking is that when early humans stood up, they gradually lost all their fur. Babies could no longer cling to their mothers— like apes do today— so mothers had to hang onto their babies instead.
However, the mother also needed her hands free to forage for food. So, sometimes she just had to put the baby down. And what do you think happened?
(Go to the head of the class if you said the baby cried.)
Now mum had to find a way to reassure the baby, so she made reassuring sounds. And so, language was born.
Does The Putting Down The Baby Theory Explain The Origins Of Language?
Well, if you think about it, the mother-baby theory has some merit.
No adult language could have evolved if adults and babies hadn't communicated.
But does it really explain how language developed? I don't think so.
The Origins Of Language: The Modern Question
Nowadays, modern linguists fall into two camps regarding theories on the origins of language.
- Language development happened quickly.
- Humans evolved language slowly over time.
Professor Noam Chomsky makes the case that one of our human ancestors had a genetic mutation that gave them the ability to speak. They passed it on to their children, and we've been talking ever since.
However, many other linguists prefer the continuity theory, which says that language is so complex that it must have evolved over a very long time.
Got A Time Machine, Anyone?
Each of these intriguing theories about the origins of language has some merit, giving us clues and hints about how human language abilities may have evolved.
But unless someone invents a time machine, not one of us will ever be able to say, this is how it happened; I'm 100% right.
Truly, language may have come from all or none of these things. We'll never know for sure.
However, I do know you don't need a time machine to learn a new language. You can join thousands of other learners and start your journey with StoryLearning.
By the way, if you're into solving language mysteries, you might enjoy this post about how these European countries got their names.