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Where Does Language Come From?

Five Theories on the Origins of Language

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Where Does Language Come From?

"Yabba dabba do!": Fred Flintstone illustrates the "Pooh Pooh Theory" regarding the origin of language (The Flinstones, © Warner Bros. Television Distribution)

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

Until recently, a sensible linguist would likely respond to such questions with a shrug and a sigh. (Many still do.) As Bernard Campbell states flatly in Humankind Emerging (Allyn & Bacon, 2005), "We simply do not know, and never will, how or when language began."

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. The mystery, says Christine Kenneally in her book The First Word, lies in the nature of the spoken word:

For all its power to wound and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation; it is little more than air. It exits the body as a series of puffs and dissipates quickly into the atmosphere. . . . There are no verbs preserved in amber, no ossified nouns, and no prehistorical shrieks forever spread-eagled in the lava that took them by surprise.
(The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. Viking, 2007)
The absence of such evidence certainly hasn't discouraged speculation about the origins of language. Over the centuries, many theories have been put forward--and just about all of them have been challenged, discounted, and often ridiculed. Each theory accounts for only a small part of what we know about language.

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

  • The Bow-Wow Theory
    According to this theory, language began when our ancestors started imitating the natural sounds around them. The first speech was onomatopoeic--marked by echoic words such as moo, meow, splash, cuckoo, and bang.

    What's wrong with this theory?
    Relatively few words are onomatopoeic, and these words vary from one language to another. For instance, a dog's bark is heard as au au in Brazil, ham ham in Albania, and wang, wang in China. In addition, many onomatopoeic words are of recent origin, and not all are derived from natural sounds.


  • The Ding-Dong Theory
    This theory, favored by Plato and Pythagoras, maintains that speech arose in response to the essential qualities of objects in the environment. The original sounds people made were supposedly in harmony with the world around them.

    What's wrong with this theory?
    Apart from some rare instances of sound symbolism, there's no persuasive evidence, in any language, of an innate connection between sound and meaning.


  • The La-La Theory
    The Danish linguist Otto Jespersen suggested that language may have developed from sounds associated with love, play, and (especially) song.

    What's wrong with this theory?
    As David Crystal notes in How Language Works (Penguin, 2005), this theory still fails to account for "the gap between the emotional and the rational aspects of speech expression."


  • The Pooh-Pooh Theory
    This theory holds that speech began with interjections--spontaneous cries of pain ("Ouch!"), surprise ("Oh!"), and other emotions ("Yabba dabba do!").

    What's wrong with this theory?
    No language contains very many interjections, and, Crystal points out, "the clicks, intakes of breath, and other noises which are used in this way bear little relationship to the vowels and consonants found in phonology."


  • The Yo-He-Ho Theory
    According to this theory, language evolved from the grunts, groans, and snorts evoked by heavy physical labor.

    What's wrong with this theory?
    Though this notion may account for some of the rhythmic features of language, it doesn't go very far in explaining where words come from.

As Peter Farb says in Word Play: What Happens When People Talk (Vintage, 1993), "All these speculations have serious flaws, and none can withstand the close scrutiny of present knowledge about the structure of language and about the evolution of our species."

But does this mean that all questions about the origin of language are unanswerable? Not necessarily. Over the past 20 years, scholars from such diverse fields as genetics, anthropology, and cognitive science have been engaged, as Kenneally says, in "a cross-discipline, multidimensional treasure hunt" to find out how language began. It is, she says, "the hardest problem in science today."

In a future article, we'll consider more recent theories about the origins and development of language--what William James called "the most imperfect and expensive means yet discovered for communicating thought."

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