Nov 24, 2008

Hypothesis explaining Origin of Languages

In the 19th century, philosophers and linguists proposed a number of hypotheses to explain the origin of language, and most of these have very astonishing nomenclatures. I almost did a double take each time I read of them. The first such names were coined by Otto Jesperson 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.

The "ding-dong" hypothesis:
This hypothesis places the origin of human language in onomatopoeia: the various imitative sounds that humans make to mimic the sounds of the world around them. So boom becomes a word for thunder, and oink for a pig. It is unclear how this process could supply words for silent objects like rocks; much less prepositions and other grammatical particles or abstract concepts. Words marked by onomatopoeia are conspicuous and somewhat unusual in most languages. The "ding-dong" hypothesis is therefore not considered as a total explanation for the origin of language.

The "bow-wow" hypothesis:
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 accept that humans learned to speak to one another by talking to the animals.

The "pooh-pooh" hypothesis:
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 preverbal nature and incomplete assimilation into the lexicon. Moreover, they are culturally determined, and themselves show a great deal of arbitrariness.

The "ta-ta" hypothesis:
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.

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.

The "uh-oh" hypothesis:
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. You holler one thing at your neighbour to warn them, "Don't eat that! It'll make you sick!" and something distinguishable 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.

The "yo-he-ho" hypothesis:
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.

The "watch the birdie" hypothesis:
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.

The psychedelic glossolalia hypothesis:
This theory states that speech was inspired by psychoactive fungi. The line of reasoning is thus: A common symptom of tryptamine intoxication is glossolalia, more commonly known as “speaking in tongues”. As the continent of Africa began to dry, grassland savannas opened, forcing humans out of the forests and into the plains where the dung of large herbivores was ubiquitous. Species of tryptamine-bearing fungi like Psilocybe, which live on animal dung, would have been very attractive to human populations seeking a new food source. Regular ingestion of the fungi could, over a long time, have stimulated complex vocalizations that eventually led to communicative speech.

How humans could have made the transition from random vocalization to symbolic language is not entirely clear. This one sounds all scientific to me... other than its halucinatory LSD angle. Razz

The Biblical account in Genesis:
"The entire earth had one language with uniform words. When they migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there. They said to one another, 'Come, let us mold bricks and fire them.' They then had bricks to use as stone, and asphalt for mortar. They said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top shall reach the sky. Let us make ourselves a name, so that we will not be scattered all over the face of the earth.' God descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of man had built. God said, 'They are a single people, all having one language, and this is the first thing they do! Now nothing they plan to do will be unattainable for them! Come, let us descend and confuse their speech, so that one person will not understand another's speech'. From that place, God scattered them all over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. He named it Babel, because this was the place where God confused the world's language. It was from there that God dispersed humanity over all the face of the earth."
-- Book of Genesis 11:1-9

This would be fine, if there were not be any other religions in the world. I am sure other religions have their own incoherent and mythological stories too.


Other than that, 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 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 IV of Scotland is said to have tried a similar experiment; his children were supposed to have ended up speaking Hebrew. Akbar,the 16th century Mogul Emperor of India is said to have tried a similar experiment; his children did not speak.

November 24, 2008 - Wise Words For the Day:
"Time and again human consciousness fixates, and slams the door on its greatest gift, the open-endedness of infinite possibility. As a result we do not experience reality but merely our concept of it"
-- Jose Arguelles in "The Transformative Vision", p. 26

No comments:

Post a Comment