the origin of language
Most of the argument is about the singular “they,” but the singular “you” also has an interesting genesis, and this article in The Economist tells the story, or at least part of the story.
The article concludes that social change has brought about this language change, though it does not draw any conclusions about why social change, meaning egalitarianism, did not also destroy the familiar “tu” in French, Spanish, and Italian, and the familiar “du” in German. What was it about English social change that was tied so tightly to language? That’s just something to think about.
School is out in most places, so I will spend the summer posting about background subjects, with or without exercises to go with them.
I’ll write for a while about where language comes from, and more specifically, where English comes from.
On a recent trip to the Dordogne region of France, a group of us rented a house directly opposite the Roque St. Christophe, a hulking cliff with deep caves where humans lived 50,000 years ago (all years are approximations, of course).
Near the Roque St. Christophe are the Caves of Lascaux, where remarkably modern looking, abstract paintings of animals can be found on the walls, drawn with coloring and sophisticated perspective which take advantage of the natural contours and colors of the caves. The most recent estimates are that modern humans have been developing for as many as 250,000 years, and perhaps forms of art have existed for much of that time. The oldest examples of this kind of art date back 32,500 or so years.
The Earth’s Children series of books written by Jean M. Auel, beginning with The Clan of the Cave Bear, depict how people lived in these older-than-ancient times in the area now called Western Asia and Europe. Auel’s botanical, anthropological, and historical research has been commended by scholars. According to her, Neanderthals grunted and gestured, and communicated very well, but the main character in her books is not a Neanderthal, she is a homo sapiens, and has a voicebox which is able to produce far more sounds. The development of specialized speaking organs was necessary in order for language to develop.
The orally transmitted stories and myths of these ancient people are lost to us, and the meanings of their symbolic cave paintings are opaque. They may also have used sign language. Some of the earliest known cave paintings are the outlines of the human hand, and the hands could have been transmitting meaning through certain signs.
Dr. Holly Pittman of the U. of Pennsylvania opined in a New York Times article (Who Began Writing? Many Theories, Few Answers, April 6, 1999) how writing came about. Writing “arose out of the need to store information and transmit information outside of human memory and over time and over space.”
The Sumerians seem to have “invented” writing around 5,000 years ago. We don’t know exactly where everyone was or what was going on in the 27,000 years between the creation of the oldest cave pictures and the first discovered writing, but archaeologists suggest that there was increasing trade, and more settled communities as mankind mastered agriculture.
It wasn’t until the first discovery of examples of ancient written language that we were able to examine the syntax, vocabulary, morphology, and constant evolution of human language.
Some scholars argue that writing began first as a way of keeping track of financial and economic information. How many cows were traded? What is in the jar? I recall recently seeing that in some illiterate societies, political candidates choose a symbol which appears on the ballot. People vote for the parrot or the camel. We can learn much about how society functioned from this sort of graphical representation of facts, but it wasn’t until writing began communicating more sophisticated ideas that we could understand how their languages were formed.
One interesting (probably unresolvable) query is whether alphabets, and perhaps language, developed independently, or whether one proto-language branched out into different sforms. The Sumerian, Chinese and Mesoamerican alphabets are so different from one another that many scholars think that they developed independently.
On the dark side of literacy, Dr. Piotr Michalowsky of the U. of Michigan is quoted in the same NYT article as saying, “Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Stalinist Poland, but I say coercion and control were early writing’s first important purpose, a new way to control how people live.” Today, that is still something to think about. Storytelling, recording sales, and identifying candidates are cooperative activities, while writing can become edicts, instructions, and rules issued by an oppressive elite.
From these fragments of information, I found several key ideas.
First, the human brain was capable of artistic thinking long, long before we became literate. Our babies today show a similar evolution. Perhaps we should value these separate talents more equally.
Second, some of the most important human activities do not require writing. Religion, politics, art, and music do not require graphic representation or words (though they sometimes use it). It is worth thinking about what the true value of writing is.
Third, it seems that as the human population multiplied and became more settled, in Asia, the Americas, and Europe, trade became necessary, and trade required keeping and alphabets were developed. In other words, a common human activity, trade, became the mother of invention – we invented writing. Think what we, as the human race, are all engaged in these days which will require a similar invention, and what will that invention be? Will we be required to enhance our intelligence and our bodies in order to, for example, sail into space? Will humans be divided into those who can manipulate the present technologies and those who cannot, with those who cannot being dominated by their tech-competent overlords? Will we develop a new means of communication as we plumb the capabilities of the human brain?
A previous post discussed Stephen Frye’s new tv series, in which he dismissed the language abilities of apes. The excerpt from a longer article below gives more respect to animals’ abilities.
“It was a childhood fascination with astronomy which drove him to where he is today and resulted in him joining SETI, an independent, non-political group of academics whose aim is to search for signs of intelligent life beyond our planet.
And it was his obsession with SETI which lead him to begin studying dolphins, which, he says, are the closest thing we have to aliens on this planet.
He explained why he believes it will be possible to converse with dolphins in his lifetime and how such a breakthrough would help us if aliens ever did dial earth.”
Here is the link:
Language probably began when people gave names to things, people, and actions. It has developed into a sophisticated, flexible instrument since then. The language in the exercise below is akin to a primitive pidgin, but was probably the way our earliest ancestors spoke when language was first developing.
Exercise: Take the skeletal sentence elements below and ask your students to flesh them out into a full story.
girl fruit pick look bear see
girl run tree reach climb bear tree shake
girl yell yell yell father come scare bear
bear run girl father hug
Review their versions of the story, and note how prepositional phrases, conjunctions, “which/when/where/who” phrases and other tools can make (or have made, in their versions of the story) the story clearer, with a better flow.
* The story above is adapted from the book The Unfolding of Language, an evolutionary tour of man’s greatest invention (2005), p. 210, by Guy Deutscher.
Obviously, the way to pronounce “gh” sounds like “f” — examples; rough, enough, tough.
Obviously, the way to pronounce “o” sounds like “i” — example: women.
Obviously, the way to pronounce “ti” sounds like “sh” — examples: nation, emotion
Put them all together and you have — FISH.
Tracing the reasons why “ghoti” does not spell “fish” would require quite a detailed investigation into historical changes in the English language, and the choice of phonemes in English. Why does “enough” use the “f” sound, but “bought” does not? For some reason or reasons, many centuries ago we rejected the Germanic “ch” sound, as in the word “knight.” We preferred the softer sound of English. All a linguist can do is to tell you that this happened, but none of us knows why. Language often develops as a result of a popular song or political movement, or some other random historical quirk.
I sometimes ask my students what a “yellow submarine” is. They all know it comes from a Beatles song, and have some sense that it is a symbol for the crazy place where we all cohabit, but there is no logic to it. It just stuck for reasons which we will never be able to analyze.
That is what we mean by a “soft science,” when we refer to Linguistics, Sociology, Psychology, etc. In soft sciences, absolute proof is often lacking. This makes the soft sciences both more fascinating and more nerve-wracking.
When groups speaking different languages gathered to accomplish something (for example, trading in ports, or running a plantation when slave and owner speak different languages), they had to communicate. Either they agreed to speak a common language (French, Russian, Chinese, Latin, English and many others have historically been that common language), or they scrambled together a mutually comprehensible language based on all the language groups involved, which is called a pidgin. Pidgins usually become just sophisticated enough to accomplish the task at hand, but occasionally develop into a full-blown language. An example is Tok Pisin, the trading pidgin which now is one of the official languages of New Guinea.
Pidgins are miracles of inventiveness, often using the vocabulary of the more powerful language group and the syntax of the less powerful group. They often do not have an extensive vocabulary, so lexical items can bear a heavy burden. For example, Australian aboriginal pidgin calls whiskers grass along face. Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, was referred to by pidgin speakers in New Guinea as fella belong Mrs. Queen.
Creoles are more highly developed languages. They develop in the same way as pidgins, using syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics from various languages, but they progress to be a society’s native tongue. Some well-known creoles are Haitian Creole (based on French and African languages), Gullah (an English-based, African influenced creole spoken on islands off of Georgia and South Carolina), and Krio (partly based on English, it is the de facto national language of Sierra Leone, though English is the official language).
While pidgins and creoles are based on parent languages, an English, French, Chinese, or African language speaker cannot necessarily understand the pidgins and creoles based on their language. I have found that I think I am understanding, because the vocabulary is familiar, but at some point, I get lost.
Watching Creoles and pidgins develop has taught linguists many things about how all language was created, and how the human brain works.
Exercise: Here are some links to sound files of English-based creoles:
1) Gullah: http://www.knowitall.org/gullahtales/tales/elephant/flash/index.html2)
2) Jamaican Creole:http://www.jamaicans.com/speakja/patoischildstory/LambWhoLovedLaughPatoisJamaican-
Research by Quentin D. Atkinson, a New Zealand biologist, has concluded that human language began in Southern Africa, and all existing languages have developed from it. His theory is based on analysis of the phonemes of languages along the route of emigration from Africa. Phonemes are the sounds of a language, from the guttural French “r” to the single tap of the Hindi “t.” The distinctive phoneme of American English is perhaps the softly garbled “r” which so many speakers of other languages find it to hard to replicate. Here is the gist of the Africa, and the link is below:
“Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes [sounds], whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has 45 phonemes.”
The important point to take from this research seems to be that all languages are related in an organized fashion. Let the studies begin!