1. Education
Richard Nordquist

Bow Wow, Ding Dong, & Yabba Dabba Do: The Origins of Language

By April 21, 2008

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What was the first language? How did language begin--and where and when?

It's hard to imagine a cultural phenomenon that's more important than the development of language. And yet no human attribute offers less conclusive evidence regarding its origins. Over the centuries, many theories have been put forward--and just about all of them have been challenged, discounted, and often ridiculed.

Here, identified by their disparaging nicknames, are some of the oldest and most common theories of how language began.

For the complete article, go to Where Does Language Come From?


April 28, 2008 at 12:29 pm
(1) Cici says:

Neat article!

I ascribe to the “Big Bang” theory–our first world was “ouch.” (Kidding.)

I believe language evolved as a learning process for survival. In the stories we tell are lessons, admonitions, and comforts that keep us safe and keep us going. Social contact is one of the basic needs of most people, and whether communicated first in intoned grunts or evolved in specific words to match the diversity of our evolved surroundings, language continues to be a mechanism for description so we can all express and understand.

April 28, 2008 at 2:19 pm
(2) Jon von Gunten says:

Let’s posit that language evolved much like organisms. First in “single-cell” words from all the sources suggested in Richard Nordquist’s article: onomatopoeic, evocative, love/play, interjections, et al. Why wouldn’t *all* human activities contribute sounds that gradually acquire commonly held meanings within a local group of humans?

Building on single-celled words, “cell clusters” of words evolved: undifferentiated noun + unconjugated verb (“tree fall”); noun + adjective (“fire big”); verb + object “strike bear”).

All this while, the human brain continued to see new possibilities. People whose vocal mechanisms could most clearly communicate can be posited to rise to the top of the social structure and bear more offspring.

The mind developed oral solutions to the barriers to communication—inadvertently in new word combinations and by purposeful new constructions.

To communicate changes brought about by evolving social structures, from external threats, intra-group struggles—even migrations and tribal inter-mating—people had to develop linguistic rules: commonly held, coordinating, system-wide structures of primitive grammars to permeate and organize their entire organism of communication.

Once the concept of a local grammar was in place—much like organic Life’s first alimentary canals and neural networks—these linguistic rules and conventions became the organizing structures upon which even more words and concepts (say, abstract nouns, imperatives, subjunctives), could evolve, adapt to their places, become accepted and eventually taught.

Unlike biological evolution, which requires years of selective deaths and new births to generate change, one 50-year period in a local community—especially if spurred by integrating a symbiotic (or slave) tribe or by other challenges—could produce rapid and extensive linguistic evolution.

finally, we can’t omit the role of the occasional individual—be she a ruler or a vocal opinion leader—who learned or discovered a successful new linguistic convention and actively promulgated its wisdom.

Can’t the interactions of social and survival pressures, development of early words, word clusters, then developing grammar structures around which new linguistic ideas could find their places, and the contributions of inspired individuals encompass the evolution of language from “Yipes” to Henry James?

(I’m sure these ramblings are nothing new; I just saw a useful parallel in the “cell to cell-cluster to organic system evolution” parallel.)

May 10, 2008 at 10:32 am
(3) Salma says:

I love this article, especially because I study these theories in the linguistic syllabus of this semester in my college!

November 5, 2008 at 3:33 pm
(4) Bruno L. Giordano says:

You are forgetting the gestural-hypothesis: language evolved from our manual abilities.

I do not agree with the fact that the sounds of the environment do not carry meaning (your criticism to the “Ding-Dong” theory): both words and environmental sounds have a referential function: the sound of a dog barking means, in the mind of the listener, that a dog is indeed barking.

A basic difference between language and environmental sounds is that words are symbols of their referent, i.e., different words represent the same thing in different languages; on the other hand, environmental sounds are icons of their referent, since the structure of a sound reflects lawfully the properties of the objects and events that generated it (e.g., a small dog generates a higher pitched sound because, I believe, its vocal apparatus has smaller dimensions”)

March 2, 2010 at 9:44 am
(5) lissy jose says:

A nice as well as concise article.
Thank you Richard.This really helped me to do my assignment.
And the above comments were also informative…Thanks to you guys too.

January 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm
(6) Amal Raj(A R) says:


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