More than 6,000 languages are spoken worldwide — and nearly as many myths attempting to explain this stunning diversity abound.
According to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, everyone used to speak the same language. When the humans attempted to build a tower to heaven, God punished them for their arrogance with a multitude of tongues. A legend of the Bantu people of East Africa holds the original human language fragmented during a famine, which drove people so insane they began speaking nonsense sounds that slowly coalesced into new dialects. The Kaska people of North America tell of a great flood, which destroyed the city all humans used to share and scattered people across the Earth, leading to the birth of new languages.1
But for all these stories of how we ended up with so many different ways to speak, there are comparatively few myths to be found on the subject of where the faculty of language itself came from. Instead, our legends treat language like something inherent to the human condition, always there with us from the beginning. While this illustrates just how closely entwined the concepts of “language” and “personhood” are, it also hints at how mysterious the origins of language are to us, even today.
Bow-Wow and Yo-He-Ho
Despite a long history of research on the subject, no one can say with any certainty just how and when language arose. Perhaps that’s not surprising: The spoken word leaves no physical records of its existence. But even pinning down the origins of written language is tricky, in part because the line between early alphabets and art is a fuzzy one.
Take, for example, Egyptian hieroglyphs, one of the oldest known writing systems. Scholars theorize the pictorial script of the hieroglyphs evolved from the representations of animals that prehistoric hunters carved into rocks in the Nile area. The exact point at which those pictures became a language is hard to determine.2
In the ancient Egyptian language, hieroglyphs were known as “medu netjer,” meaning “'the gods' words.” Source: Egyptian hieroglyphs - Wikipedia
Complicating matters further, there’s reason to believe at least four different cultures independently invented written language at four different times: Mesopotamia (circa 3400 BCE), Egypt (circa 3250 BCE), China (1200 BCE), and Mesoamerica (500 BCE).3 Likewise, the jury is still out on whether all human language can be traced back to a single root or has multiple origins. Our best guesses as to when people started using language range from 100,000 years ago to 2.3 million years ago.4
We don’t know where or when our ancestors first spoke, and even the question of why language began has proven contentious. The most widely known theories — all given handy nicknames over the years — posit that language naturally arose from reflexive human responses to the environment. The “Bow-Wow Theory,” for example, proposes the first languages were onomatopoeic; our ancestors imitated the sounds of animals and natural phenomena, like the song of a bird or the rushing of a waterfall, to communicate those concepts to one another.
The “Pooh-Pooh Theory,” on the other hand, suggests human speech developed from our tendency to make noise to express strong emotions, like how we say “ow!” when we stub our toes. The “Yo-He-Ho Theory” holds that language began as a series of grunts and groans emitted during times of hard physical labor. These sounds of exertion may have become a way for people to cooperate and coordinate during important tasks.5
Speech Starts in the Body
Many language origin theories struggle to explain how we got from rudimentary gasps and cries to the systems of logical communication we have now, capable of expressing all kinds of nuanced abstract concepts. Consider the simple word “not.” It may not look like much, but it’s kind of incredible that we developed a word for what is not the case. Human beings may be the only animals that can just as easily communicate about what isn’t “true” or “real” as what is.6
The feature of human language that separates it from any other species’ sound-based communiques is syntax, the rules governing how words and sounds are put together to express complex and coherent content. Perhaps the simplest definition of syntax is the one put forth by linguist Noam Chomsky and his colleagues in “How Could Language Have Evolved?”. They argue that the key operation of language is “merge” — the ability to take two seemingly unrelated elements to merge them into a new, single concept.7
Many creatures can make a sound to signify something; some monkeys, for example, make distinct cries to warn one another about different kinds of predators.8 Human language is far more flexible, capable of conjuring new objects of thought from novel arrangements of noise. We often take it for granted, but it’s worth dwelling on just how potent this merging is. You can combine the words “blue” and “ball” to form a third, distinct idea of a “blue ball.” As far as we know, only humans can use sounds like building blocks to weave relationships between seemingly disparate things like this — and then communicate those relationships to other people with ease.
According to the gestural theory, this capacity to merge concepts started not with our voices but with our bodies. The gestural theory holds that gesture-based communication, or sign language, preceded spoken language. A few pieces of evidence support this idea. First, many non-human primates communicate by gesture, such as chimpanzees using outstretched arms and open palms to “beg” or “ask” for things from one another. Second, gestural language and vocal language utilize the same portions of the brain. Finally, proponents of the gestural theory point out that spoken language is still largely gestural. Our body language is just as integral to conveying information as the words we speak.9
The American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet. Source: The 26 letters and 10 digits of American Sign Language (ASL). | Download Scientific Diagram
The Ritual of Language
While theories for the origin of language vary, they all suggest that language evolved as a way of connecting with others and sharing ideas. This aspect of language is succinctly captured by the notion of “social grooming,” the idea that, however language may have begun, it stuck with us because it solves a fundamental problem in human social units.12
Most of our primate ancestors use grooming to reinforce social bonds, but we humans live in much larger social groups than our primate cousins do. Physical grooming just isn’t practical. There aren’t enough hours in a day to pick nits off the heads of every family member, friend, neighbor, coworker, and shop owner we come across (not that many of us wish there were). Anthropologists like Robin Dunbar argue that, for humans, language serves as an efficient way to “groom” one another through conversation, thus reinforcing social bonds with relative ease. This makes it feasible for humans to maintain such massive social groupings on the level of towns, cities, nations, and the entire global community of humankind.13
Primates, like the olive baboon pictured above, reinforce social bonds through physical grooming. Source: Social grooming - Wikipedia
To Be Human Is to Be a Poet
A good way to start might be by embracing language's playful and expressive qualities, which are just as potent as its informational capacities, if not more so. In fact, some researchers believe the earliest human languages arose out of song — that our complex systems of communication are rooted, first and foremost, in the sheer joy of making noise.15 Charles Darwin himself was a proponent of the theory, once musing in his private notebooks, “did our language commence with singing — is this the origin of our pleasure in music — do monkeys howl in harmony?”16
As language is a common human heritage, so, too, is this pleasure of playing with language, whether in the form of singing songs, writing poems, conversing with friends, penning letters, or keeping a journal. In the words of the poet Ben Lerner, “You’re a poet, however, whether or not you know it, because to be part of a linguistic community — to be hailed as ‘you’ at all — is to be endowed with a poetic capacity.”17 That poetic capacity is yours; don’t be afraid to flaunt it.