The origin of language – we don’t know but here are 10 theories
An article about the origin of language, by eminent psychologist, Dr. George Boeree, introduces this vast subject very delightfully and his words are worth passing on. As Dr. Boeree states, language is a system of symbols, consisting of phonetics (the sounds), syntax (the grammar), and semantics (the meanings). When did language begin? Was it when we, home sapiens, began? Or later – whenever we developed a voice box capable of emitting these complicated sounds? We do not really know. But language began, that’s for sure. So why, and how? Here are 10 of the most popular theories of the origin of language.
Some theories about the origin of language
1. The mama theory. Language began with the easiest syllables attached to the most significant objects.
2. The ta-ta theory. Sir Richard Paget, influenced by Darwin, believed that body movement preceded language. Language began as an unconscious vocal imitation of these movements — like the way a child’s mouth will move when they use scissors, or my tongue sticks out when I try to play the guitar. This evolved into the popular idea that language may have derived from gestures.
3. The bow-wow theory. Language began as imitations of natural sounds — moo, choo-choo, crash, clang, buzz, bang, meow… This is more technically referred to as onomatopoeia or echoism.
4. The pooh-pooh theory. Language began with interjections, instinctive emotive cries such as oh! for surprise and ouch! for pain.
5. The ding-dong theory. Some people, including the famous linguist Max Muller, have pointed out that there is a rather mysterious correspondence between sounds and meanings. Small, sharp, high things tend to have words with high front vowels in many languages, while big, round, low things tend to have round back vowels! Compare itsy bitsy teeny weeny with moon, for example. This is often referred to as sound symbolism.
6. The yo-he-ho theory. Language began as rhythmic chants, perhaps ultimately from the grunts of heavy work (heave-ho!). The linguist A. S. Diamond suggests that these were perhaps calls for assistance or cooperation accompanied by appropriate gestures. This may relate yo-he-ho to the ding-dong theory, as in such words as cut, break, crush, strike…
7. The sing-song theory. Danish linguist Jesperson suggested that language comes out of play, laughter, coo-ing, courtship, emotional mutterings and the like. He even suggests that, contrary to other theories, perhaps some of our first words were actually long and musical, rather than the short grunts many assume we started with.
8. The hey you! theory. A linguist by the name of Revesz suggested that we have always needed interpersonal contact, and that language began as sounds to signal both identity (here I am!) and belonging (I’m with you!). We may also cry out in fear, anger, or hurt (help me!). This is more commonly called the contact theory.
9. The hocus pocus theory. My own contribution to these is the idea that language may have had some roots in a sort of magical or religious aspect of our ancestors’ lives. Perhaps we began by calling out to game animals with magical sounds, which became their names.
10. The eureka! theory. And finally, perhaps language was consciously invented. Perhaps some ancestor had the idea of assigning arbitrary sounds to mean certain things. Clearly, once the idea was had, it would catch on like wildfire!”