Cro-Magnon man communicating with each other and producing cave drawings

The Origins of Human Language: One of the Hardest Problems in Science

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How human language began has been a question pestering researchers for centuries. One of the biggest issues with this topic is that empirical evidence is still lacking despite our great advances in technology. This lack of concrete evidence even once led to the prohibition of any future debates regarding the origins of communication by the Linguistic Society of Paris. Despite the obstacles, a number of researchers including psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists continue on studying the topic. The results of the numerous studies on early communication can be divided into two major categories of communication: vocalizations and gestures. Here the focus is on vocalization.

Our Hyoid Bones and Complex Brains: Part of What Helps Us Do More than Chatter Like Chimps

As spoken language is by nature impermanent, the best empirical evidence for this field of thought is the hyoid bone. This bone as it appears and functions in modern homo sapiens is only believed to be found in our predecessors, Homo heidelbergensis, as of 300,000 years ago and in our prehistoric "cousins" the Neanderthals.  Nevertheless, the appearance of the Kebara 2 hyoid in both species does not definitively prove that they were set to use speech or complex language.

Bronze statue of male Homo heidelbergensis, Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C., USA

Bronze statue of male Homo heidelbergensis, Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C., USA ( Tim Evanson/Flickr )

That being said, the hyoid bone is believed by many researchers to be the foundation of speech for humans and without our specifically shape hyoid bones in exactly the right place, functioning alongside a precisely descended larynx, it is believed that we would sound much like chimpanzees.

Image depicting the location of the hyoid bone and larynx in a modern huma

Image depicting the location of the hyoid bone and larynx in a modern human ( Lasaludfamiliar)

Thus, we had a nicely complex and precise throat anatomy, but alongside this part of the anatomy we also had to have sufficiently complex brains to have something to talk about. Researchers believe that our ancient ancestors had, what Noam Chomsky calls the LAD (Language Acquisition Device), the ability to learn language and to use it in a creative way. This creativity can be evinced by the art created some 300,000 to 700,000 years ago by our Paleolithic predecessors.

The oldest example of "art":  the cupule and meander design at Bhimbetka, India (290,000-700,000 BC)

The oldest example of "art":  the cupule and meander design at Bhimbetka, India ( 290,000-700,000 BC) ( Collado Giraldo )

Hardware  and Software in place: Ready To Begin?

Combining these two ideas, perhaps our human ancestors were all set to begin speaking (or at least making well-constructed sounds with a thought-out purpose) around 300,000 years ago. Despite this, most vocal theories say the date was much later - only 100,000 years ago when there was an increase in brain volume as well. This is a summary of the natural evolutionary acquisition of language.

Opposed to the evolutionary point of view, there is also debate on if language was a divine gift, or perhaps a conscious invention by early humans. Both of these theories are based on the complexity of human language.

The Creation of Adam (1511), Michelangelo

The Creation of Adam (1511), Michelangelo ( Wikimedia Commons )

Apart from trying to pinpoint the date, continuity, and provider of the first spoken word, another very important question which scholars have tried to explain is: What did the early ancestors say?

The Early Theories on Vocal Language Origins:  La-la, Bow-wow...

There are six principal theories that were made between the late 1800s to the early 1900s which were meant to explain the origins of the words used in vocal language. They have humorous nicknames attached which provide a hint into the idea behind the theory.

1. The Bow-Wow Theory: This theory suggests that the first words were onomatopoeic (words that use sounds associated with objects/actions they refer too) - such as hiss, bang and splash. The Bow-Wow theory has been discredited by the fact that many "onomatopoeic" words are different across languages, not really derived from natural sounds, and recently created.

2. The Ding-Dong Theory: is a theory that harmony with the natural environment created the need for language, and sound and meaning are innately connected through nature. While it is true that there are some examples of "sound symbolism" (fl- words in English associated with light and quick), studies have not been able to prove an innate connection between a sound and a words meaning.

Illustration of paleoindians hunting a glyptodon, an animal supposedly brought to extinction by the arrival of ancient humans in South America (1920) Heinrich Harde

Illustration of paleoindians during a burial. ( Earth Chronicles )

3. The Pooh-Pooh Theory: Suggests that language began with interjections (expressions such as "Ow!" "Oh!" "Ha!"). One problem with this theory is that it can be said that many animals make these/similar sounds yet they do not create other words. Another issue with the Pooh-Pooh theory is found in the lack of interjections currently found in most modern languages. 


Last week I read an article that places the origins of (proto-)speach even further back in time.

Alicia McDermott's picture

Thank you Gene Vincent. It is an interesting article on proto-speech and types of research on the topic, thank you for sharing.

It appears that the Lupyan lab and Marcus Perlman have been busy on the subject of early human speech... Perlman and Lupyan are two authors from the study I referenced that was published on August 5 on iconicity. This may be a lab to watch for  upcoming studies! 




This doesn't seem like a mystery to me, we started as a primate that could already communicate many things verbally with a smaller vocabulary, individuals with ability to formulate sounds better would have an advantage in war and hunting, this ability would be extended to new concepts in all the ways suggested, by copying sounds, by imitating their own grunts of effort, by combining sounds already in use and so on.

The driving force is the usefulness of a new word or new type of word in a particular situation. If you are continually using a hand gesture like a monkey to communicate a concept like "together", it will be useful to be able to say it, someone may just make a frustrated noise when he has to make that "together" gesture with his hands full again and the word "together" is born. Next time he makes the frustrated noise, they know what it means without the gesture.

We still create words and do it in all the methods suggested for it's origin but there was no origin, we've been doing it since before we climbed out of the trees. The success of language would have sparked brain development as brains that were good at language would have reproduced. We have invented whole new languages and with the much smaller vocabulary of primitive humans, a small group of people could invent a new language quite easily, language could have been very local and fluid.
Sometimes languages would replace other languages through conquest and sometimes would combine through trade or intermarriage, there is no reason to expect a uniform origin or spread of something that is a universal evolutionary process. Language spread with people, interacted as people interacted and was invented as necessity dictated with a lot of capriciousness.

Language started everywhere and spread from everywhere to everywhere in every possible way and continued to evolve and hasn't stopped yet.

Justbod's picture

Fascinating subject that I don’t know much about. Really enjoyed your article, particularly the different theories with their great names! Thank you!


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mrtkpc's picture

Interesting post. Although I think the 1920’s image of Paleoindians is depicting them burying their dead, not hunting glyptodon. Looks like they have dug a shallow grave for two people, with tribesmen standing aways off with respest and some others near the grave (immediate family?). There’s even a shaman performing a ritual. 



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