When we talk about language, we often think of it as something simple yet crucial to human survival and the way they colonize. Though language plays a major role in civilization, it also is the foundation of existence. Not just humans, even animals have language that they use to communicate with one another. However, it is humans that have the most complex and diverse language tree in our system. So, if one tries to trace back the roots of when humans first started using words to communicate, the answer is- that we wouldn’t know.
It is an intriguing question- How did we get from animal vocalization to human language?
If we trace back to the initial beginning, evidence suggests that humans used to communicate through signals and signs just like animals. Animals communicate by using signs such as pointing in a direction, sniffling and such, which are arbitrary and conventional but not a language. Humans used symbols with several levels of organization and would often make more phonetic sounds rather than pronouncing something. Research has long been debated since humans started talking to each other. Estimates range from as early as 50,000 years ago to as early as the beginning of the human genus more than 2 million years ago.
There are many theories about the origin of language. Like the Mama theory, according to which language begins with the easiest syllables attached to the significant objects. For example, the unconscious vocal imitation of a child speaking ‘mama’ or ‘tata’ later evolved into words with meanings. Or the bow-wow theory, according to which humans interpreted words from natural sounds like bang, crash, buzz, meow, or moo. This is known as onomatopoeia or echoism. According to the pooh-pooh theory, humans could have also created language using their instinctive emotions such as ‘oh’ or ‘ouch’. Language may have also originated with the desire to express themselves like ‘meh’ or ‘yoh’, which could signify ‘me’ and ‘you’.
Danish linguist Jesperson suggested the sing-song theory, which says language came out of laughter, coughing, or emotional muttering which is rather more musical rather than short grunts. There are also two modern theories- Continuity or Discontinuity. The continuity theory suggests that language must have been created gradually, started among the earliest human ancestors, and developed over time going through different stages until people’s speech resembled a language or a dialect. Whereas the discontinuity theory says that because there is absolutely nothing to compare human language to, it is likely that it appeared suddenly in human history perhaps in a few years.
Though all the above theories do give us an idea of how a language could have been shaped in history, they are all discounted by today’s linguists and anthropologists. This is because no other creature in history has ever crafted a skill to speak. Even chimpanzees, our closest relatives, do not and most likely never will speak a human-like speech. Though homo Erectus could make sounds like gorillas, they are assumed to be the first who talked. The latest addition to the theories put forth is by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, according to which when human colonies grew larger, they needed a form of grooming to keep their fellow people together and as a result, they developed a sort of vocal grooming that later turned into a language.
But what was that language like? The answer to this question is either we already know, or we never will know. More than 50,000 years of “static” caused by changes in languages over time intervene between their speaking and our understanding. Historians have long argued that all the modern languages of the world appeared from a single language.
There is a linguistic hypothesis that says that all the languages from Europe to India came from a single mother language: Proto-Indo-European. These languages have evolved through the generation of speakers undergoing severe changes over time. And by undoing these changes, layer by layer, we can trace back its origin, but that origin would only unfold to a certain period in history due to limited resources, which means that how humans first started using language will remain under the shadows. It is because those historic languages were not written down, we can only reconstruct them by comparing their descendants and the consistency of changes.
However, it is astonishing to know that nearly 3 billion people around the world, many of whom cannot even understand one another, are speaking the same words shaped by 50,000 years of history.