Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Language: Linguistics · Semiotics · Speech

The origin of language (glottogony, glossogeny) is a topic that has been written about for centuries, but the ephemeral nature of speech means that there is almost no data on which to base conclusions on the subject. We know that, at least once during human evolution, a system of verbal communication emerged from proto-linguistic or non-linguistic means of communication, but beyond that little can be said. No current human group, anywhere, speaks a "primitive" or rudimentary language. While existing languages differ in the size and subjects covered in their several lexicons, all human languages possess the grammar and syntax needed, and can invent, translate, or borrow the vocabulary needed to express the full range of their speakers' concepts.

Homo sapiens clearly have an inherent capability for language . Whether other extinct hominid species, such as Neanderthals, possessed such a capacity is not known. The use of language is one of the most conspicuous and diagnostic traits that distinguish H. sapiens from many other animals.


According to one Biblical account, the observed variety of human languages originated at the Tower of Babel with the confusion of tongues. (Image from Gustave Doré's Illustrated Bible).

See also: Mythical origins of language

One of the earliest accounts of the origin of languages is in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis (dated to the late 2nd millennium BC). Genesis 2:19-20 has God giving Adam the task of assigning names to all the animals and plants he had in Eden (see nomothete).

The key biblical narrative of the origin of the observed linguistic variety is the story that God punished human presumption in building the Tower of Babel (see confusion of tongues) (Genesis 11:1-9). Additionally, Genesis 10:5 tells how, before Babel, the descendants of Japhet spoke multiple languages. It has been suggested that this is due to the narrative style of Genesis, in which an event was explained following its introduction into the narrative.[1]

Most mythologies do not credit humans with the invention of language, but know of a language of the gods (or, language of God), predating human language. Mystical languages used to communicate with animals or spirits, such as the language of the birds are also common, and were of particular interest during the Renaissance.

History contains a number of anecdotes about people who attempted to discover the origin of language by experiment. The first such tale was told by Herodotus, who relates that Pharaoh "Psamtik" (probably Psammetichus I) caused two children to be raised by deaf-mutes; he would see what language they ended up speaking. When the children were brought before him, one of them said something that sounded to the pharaoh like bekos, the Phrygian word for bread. From this, Psamtik concluded that Phrygian was the first language. King James V of Scotland is said to have tried a similar experiment; his children were supposed to have ended up speaking Hebrew. Both the medieval monarch Frederick II and Akbar, a 16th century Mughal emperor of India are said to have tried a similar experiment; the children they tried these experiments with did not speak. [2] [3]

In 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris banned discussion of the origin of language, deeming it to be an unanswerable problem.

Anthropological hypotheses

Steven Pinker, following Noam Chomsky and ultimately Immanuel Kant, believes that humans are born with a "language instinct:" a neural processing network that contains a universal grammar that has developed specifically for encoding and decoding human languages.

Derek Bickerton has suggested that the language faculty may have evolved in two major steps. The first is a protolanguage of symbolic representation, verbal or gestural signs, and the second formal syntax. Symbolic representation would allow modeling of reality and constructional learning, and, together with some communicative ability, would permit shared learning. Syntax would permit significantly improved precision and clarity in thought and communication.

Alexander Gross argues that speech has evolved to replace spray. Most mammals employ scent markings as a means of communication, and that hominids gradually replaced these with verbal cues, quite possibly starting four million years ago and extending throughout prehistory. The goals of both scent spraying and spoken language have much in common: the defense of turf, the assertion of status, and attracting a mate. Speech disagreements can have much the same consequences as conflicts over scent markings among animals: confrontations, attacks and retreats, and even battles ending in death. The purpose of human language is very often not the verbal component, but the body language and simultaneous context - such as demonstrating class status, venting emotions, establishing non-hostile intent, passing time, telling jokes, being intentionally or accidentally ambiguous, and outright 'lying'. Just as human ancestors traded scent markings in favor of speech, today's hominid apes, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are also in the process of abandoning scent markings.

The evolution of such an inherited trait in the genus Homo may be one thing that explains why anatomically modern humans expanded at the expense of other hominid species in the history of human evolution. Many mainstream theories of human evolution affirm that all current human beings are the descendants of a relatively small population of anatomically modern humans that appeared in Africa less than one million years ago. The development of an inherited gift for language, or its superior attainment over other species of Homo such as Neanderthal man, is one possible explanation for the ascendancy of anatomically modern humans over other primitive human groups at the time. At least one gene, FOXP2, is claimed to be involved with the development of language.

Linguistic hypotheses

Main article: Evolutionary linguistics

A fundamental problem of language origin is the continuity paradox: language acquisition apparently only occurs in situations involving pre-existing languages, or at the very least pidgin communication. Proposed scenarios of language evolution thus cannot be grounded in empirical observation.[1] In their efforts to explain the origin of language, 19th century philosophers and linguists proposed a number of hypotheses noteworthy for their names, although none of the hypotheses has gained more scientific credibility than any other. The first such names were coined by Otto Jespersen as a way of deriding the hypotheses as simplistic speculation. Once the names caught on, new hypotheses that have arisen often have been given names with a similar style. It seems unlikely that one hypothesis describes the whole process; more likely, multiple mechanisms described by multiple hypotheses, working together or one after another, contributed to the development of language.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


This hypothesis places the origin of human language in onomatopeia: the various imitative sounds that humans make to mimic the sounds of the world around them. For example in English, boom is the sound of thunder, oink is the sound made by a pig, and tweet is the sound made by a small bird. Of course, many languages contain their own onomatopeic words (eg. in Basque, ai-ai, which means "ouch-ouch", refers to a knife). [How to reference and link to summary or text]

There are several reasons why this hypothesis has not met with universal acceptance, as ideophones do not adequately explain the creation of words for inanimate objects, such as rocks, much less prepositions and other grammatical particles or abstract concepts. Words marked by onomatopeia are conspicuous and somewhat unusual in most languages. The "ding-dong" hypothesis is therefore not considered to be a complete explanation for the origin of language. [How to reference and link to summary or text]


Similar to the "ding-dong" hypothesis, this one has humans forming their first words by imitating animal sounds.

Not only do all of the objections involving other sorts of onomatopoeia explanations apply here, it is worthy to note that the names of animal sounds are strongly culturally determined and differ remarkably from one culture to the next, as the article on oink sets forth. It seems difficult to prove that humans learned to speak to one another by imitating the animals. [How to reference and link to summary or text]


According to this hypothesis, the first words developed from sighs of pleasure, moans of pain, and other semi-involuntary cries or exclamations. These vocalisms then became the names of the phenomena that made people say them.

Most of the objections to the "ding-dong" hypothesis apply here also. Such words are found in most languages; they are conspicuous by their proverbial nature and incomplete assimilation into the lexicon. Moreover, they are culturally determined, and themselves show a great deal of arbitrariness. [How to reference and link to summary or text]


Charles Darwin lent his authority to this hypothesis. According to this, human language represents the use of oral gestures that began in imitation of hand gestures that were already in use for communication. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran's research into synesthesia and sound symbolism would seem to support this hypothesis.

The difficulty with this hypothesis, is that it begs the question: it requires that a fairly sophisticated repertoire of gestures be in place already for humans to imitate with their mouth gestures. It assumes the existence of a language of gestures without explaining how it arose (however, see Nicaraguan Sign Language). At any rate, though sign languages do have somewhat imitative (or iconic) gestures, they also contain quite arbitrary symbols and have vastly different meanings in different human cultures. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

One other difficulty with this hypothesis is that hand gestures and facial expressions are useless unless they are seen. That means it must either be daylight, or firelight, and with nothing blocking one's view. For facial expressions, the communicators must also be facing each other. In addition, hand gestures are difficult if the hands are doing something else. [How to reference and link to summary or text]


According to this hypothesis, human language begins with the use of arbitrary symbols that represent warnings to other members of the human band. It is agreed that one sort of vocal cry means that lions have been spotted in the area, and another one indicates a snake. A member of the band makes a noise towards another in order to warn them, "Don't eat that! It'll make you sick!" and a different noise to warn them "Don't eat that! It's mine!"

This hypothesis seems to have the potential to explain the perceived diversity of human speech; obviously the warning cries uttered here are to some measure arbitrary. It is less certain that this hypothesis could explain how more abstract features of human language developed. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

This also fits with other species and in particular other primates with basic linguistic capabilities. For example several monkeys have complex differences in sounds to warn of different predators. These range from a generic water, land, or air predator warnings to sounds indicating specific species such as leopard.

Vervet monkeys have separate calls to warn of attack by eagle, snake or leopard. The basic mechanisms of the calls seem to be innate but are refined by learning. Baby vervets will give the eagle call in response to almost anything airborne, including falling leaves, but by the time they are adults the call has become focused on eagles. ("Before the Dawn" by Nicholas Wade, Penguin Books, 2006)


According to this hypothesis, language arose in rhythmic chants and vocalisms uttered by people engaged in communal labour.

This may have more to do with the origins of poetry than with language itself. Sea chanteys, jody calls, and similar work songs all show humans engaged in communal work improvising with their language around the rhythms of their work. It is uncertain from this hypothesis how meanings came to be associated with the vocalisms uttered by the workers. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Watch the Birdie

This one is associated with ethologist and linguist E. H. Sturtevant. According to this hypothesis, human language became elaborated because humans found selective advantage in being able to deceive other humans. Since exclamations and vocalisms can involuntarily reveal your true mental state, humans learned to feign them in order to deceive others for selfish advantage. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Non-naturalistic hypotheses of the origin of language

Some people use traditional narratives, myths, or legendary history in order to explain the origin of human language.


A related question concerns the possibility of linguistic monogenesis, a hypothesis that holds that there was one single protolanguage (the "Proto-World language") from which all other languages spoken by humans descend. The linguists Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen have advocated such a position. The reconstruction of such a protolanguage, if it exists, would be the Holy Grail of historical linguistics.

Some have gone as far as to claim that there exist etymological root words that are supposed to exist in all languages; one such claimed universal root is *âkwa, meaning "water". Also the sound 'Ma' which seems to universally mean 'mother'[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Nicholas Marr contended that the protolanguage had been composed of merely four roots, *sal, *ber, *yon and *rosh to which all other words may be traced.

These suggestions are viewed with extreme skepticism by mainstream linguists; they insist that phonetic laws must first be proposed that explain how these roots took their forms in the "daughter" languages, and in the absence of such explanation they reject the entire hypothesis. For these linguists, there may or may not have been such an original protolanguage; the intervening centuries of linguistic change have obscured any trails needed to recover it.

Biologists do not yet agree on when or how language use first emerged among humans or their ancestors. Estimates of the time frame of its origin range from forty thousand years ago, during the time of Cro-Magnon man, to about two million years ago, during the time of Homo habilis.

Some authorities believe that language arose suddenly, about 40,000 years ago. This is the time period from which we first see cultural artifacts, such as cave paintings and carved figurines. The relatively sudden appearance of these artifacts lead some to speculate that the cultural leap may have been prompted by the development of language which in turn allowed greater creativity to flourish.

Studies of the skulls of Neanderthals (approximately 60,000 years ago) initially seemed to indicate that they would not have been capable of the full range of vowels used by modern humans. However, as pointed out by linguist Steven Pinker, a full range of vowels is not necessary for rudimentary speech. In fact, it is not even necessary for complex and abstract speech; see Northwest Caucasian languages (similar vowel-poor languages exist in Africa and Australasia). Even relatively complicated speech would be possible so long as a sufficient number of distinguishable consonants were in use. More recent studies of Neanderthal fossil evidence seems to point in the other direction and it now appears that the Neanderthals had the physical traits needed to produce all or nearly all of the same sounds that modern humans can.

Fossil evidence indicates that the main areas of the brain associated with language (Broca's area and Wernicke's area) may have begun to enlarge as long ago as 1 – 1.5 million years, in Homo erectus. However the most complete fossil erectus (nicknamed Turkana Boy; about 1.5 million years old) appears to have lacked a sufficiently tuned ribcage capable of fine control of speech.

The recently discovered Homo floresiensis' ancestors are assumed to have utilized some kind of seafaring device like a raft to reach the island where H. floresiensis dwelt. Furthermore, it would seem probable that this process of colonization was an intentional one, and due to the complexity of such a task, it is suggested that H. floresiensis and its ancestor, mid-late H. erectus, must have possessed some form of language which, albeit primitive, would have been able to convey complex concepts. Analysis of the brain of H. floresiensis[How to reference and link to summary or text] suggests intellectual capabilities which were comparable to other humans of that time, that is, also not widely divergent from primitive H. sapiens.

Spontaneous emergence of grammar

From Romulus and Remus forward, there have been a number of accounts of wolf children or feral children raised by wild animals or out of human contact. These accounts exist mostly in anecdote and hearsay as well; but most of them affirm that these children never learned to speak a language, or learned it imperfectly. There have also been accounts of twins who spoke an unintelligible language only their sibling understood. These cases are better documented; in the 1970s, the Kennedy twins whose given names were "Grace" and "Virginia" called each other Poto and Cabengo; it was determined that their idiosyncratic speech was a deeply altered form of English, with some influence from their grandmother's German. It appeared to be a well-formed language, with rules governing grammar and syntax. Similarly idiosyncratic speech patterns were reported from the twin writers June and Jennifer Gibbons.

Even in the absence of the unusual social lives of twins, many people have found it relatively easy and natural to construct new languages, with lexicons either derived from pre-existing languages, or wholly imagined; the author J. R. R. Tolkien and his several languages of Middle-earth is one well known creator; there are many others. Contact languages spontaneously arise when people speaking dissimilar languages must mingle with each other for sufficient periods. These contact languages, or "pidgins," give rise to "creoles]" if they become mother tongues in their own right. A contemporary example of language creation is Sango which has evolved from a simple pidgin spoken by traders along the River Ubangi into a complex language spoken by five million people in the Central African Republic in little over a century. All of these creations also bear witness to the fact that the use and acquisition of language is a human trait that can manifest itself spontaneously, without formal instruction, and under adverse circumstances.

The recent development of Nicaraguan Sign Language starting in 1979 seems to be an independent invention of language from scratch. "It's the first and only time that linguists have actually seen a language being created out of thin air." - however it may be connected to paralinguistic gestures used by Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans as part of their language.


This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
  1. There were attempts to do just that, first by Psamtik I in the 7th century BC. Attempts after Psamtik, such as that by Frederick the Great did not yield any result.