The Origins of Language


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Yorkshire, UK
It has been postulated variably through the study of language through to a proto-Indo-European, that language may have arisen either from one single source, or else independently in multiple locations. But whether there was a single original or more than one I doubt that we could ever possibly know. At every instance of history I've looked at there was remarkable movement between different geographic areas, of goods and ideas. Take the spread of farming, for example, which although apparently developed independently in a handful of areas - Mesopotamia managed to pass it on across Europe and Asia. So if language ever developed independently there can be little doubt that linguistic mixing occured early on and frequently since - both through the movement of trade and through the passing of innovative ideas. Quite possibly, there was never a single well-formed language to originate from, but instead a "soup" that was further developed into full language in different areas.
I would link that with the ongoing speculation about the rise of Homo sapiens. Currently in vogue is the "Out of Africa" theory, which postulates that Homo sapiens arose from Homo erectus in Africa and then migrated all over the world. However, there is still much to support the notion that Homo sapiens arose repeatedly and independently from Homo erectus populations already scattered across Eurasia and Africa.

(There is, unfortunately, a current politically correct unwillingness to even suggest that racial differences might have arisen through parallel evolution; the view leads too easily to racist bigotry. I say "unfortunate" only because in a perfect world, science and history could rest on fact, and not be subject to manipulation for political, racist, or career-related ends.)

My take is that language evolved independently in several different groups. My feeling is based on the observation that there seem to be gross anatomical differences in the brains of Japanese and Chinese speakers that appear to be reflections of their language structures. They literally think differently than Westerners do, in part because sentence structure and tonalities are so different in their language. (Yes, I know that Japanese is not as tonal as Chinese. There are, however, shifts in pronunciation in nihongo what most Westerners can't even hear. Siege? Are you reading this board? What's your take, you English-Japanese translator, you?)

Whjether the very deep differences between a proto-Indo-European root language and Japanese/Chinese occured because they arose independently in separate populations or evolved from a common tongue en route is moot and, as you say, Brian, probably impossible to determine at this late date.

Still, it makes for fascinating speculation.
It is interesting to note the Tower of Babel story here. I have seen a suggestion of Babel being in Mesopotamia. That would mean that the Old Testament writers saw language originate in one place and then disperse out from Mesopotamia. It would be interesting to see if this was culturally true through the study of the spread of the Indo-european languages. Sometimes story and myth shows a far deeper meaning then is often granted. I wondered whether it may apply here.
I'm sure I've read somewhere about a genetic study covering human development. I think it stated that the development of some genes occurred in specific geographical areas and so showed that there was at least some regional evolution.
This is definitely a fascinating topic.

I remember reading David Brin's work (the Uplift series) where he considers this subject in passing.

His take on it was quite interesting, if I remember correctly.

It goes something like this:

If you have an Oral tradition, language has to be highly structured, as it needs to provide in-built robustness against corruption.

Conversely, if you maintain written records, then the language can be looser because your recording media provides protection against corruption.

Now, what I find interesting about this is, suppose you look at Sanskrit. Sanskrit is highly structured with a very rigid grammatical structure. Its also a very old language, and was originally used by speakers with a strong Oral tradition.
Compare this to modern English, which is extremely loose in terms of structure (and arguably becoming more so, e.g. with new usages adopted for the internet and text messaging).

Now, where this ties in to the original qluestion: take this back to first principles. Oral traditions predate written ones, so earlier languages could be expected to be very formal. Rate of change of languages should also speed up over time, and be particularly slow in ancient (pre-literate) times.

From a common sense viewpoint, and bearing in mind that even apes can be taught the rudiments of (non-vocalised) language, homo sapiens' capacity for language surely predates the actual emergence of instances of vocal language.

Now, if you believe that all homo sapiens were concentrated at one place at a given time (and I've seen suggestions that there was a time that the global population of homo sapiens was less than 50,000), it suddenly becomes possible that there was one, common, proto-language.

So, how do we work out what this was? Well, I think we have to go back way before the last ice age, to whenever the population bottleneck was. If this occurred after the capacity for language was developed (highly likely imo, as language processing does not appear to be restricted to homo sapiens), then its likely that at a certain time, most/all homo sapiens were using a common language. If they had the capacity for vocalisation (and I'm guessing that all Homo Sapiens can vocalise), then this language would have been spoken. It would have been highly structured, and fairly immutable.

Over time, as populations diverged, the language would have changed, but at a much slower rate than we'd expect today. The upshot is that its quite possible there were far less languages in use in ancient (pre-Ice Age) times than we think. The downside is that its unlikely we'll ever know what they were, as they will have been based on Oral tradition.

Perhaps in this context, the tower of Babel is a pointer to a very distant past.