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LanguagePrintCritical dictionary

The Origin of Languages

Maria Lucilia Marcos

Human language is superior to any mode of animal communication. Although its anthropogenetic and psychogenetic acquisition is closely related to the formation of the brain, its appearance can not be dissociated from the formation of society and activities that presuppose its existence. Writing, as a system of graphical representation of language, emerges at different dates, in different points of the globe. It appeared for the first time around 3.000 B.C. in Sumer, Mesopotamia. However, if there is a faculty of speech, there is no genetic predisposition for any language. We do not know if there was a common ancestral language, but this hypothesis continues to be considered. Languages started to appear approximately 80-60 thousand years ago, in Eastern Africa or the Middle East. Today the threat that hangs over the diversity of language is similar to and inseparable to the one which hangs over biodiversity.

Keywords: oral communication; symbolic; pre-historic art

Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) famous painting is entitled Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? These questions summarise well the direction of research in Paleoanthropology and namely the search for answers to the questions asked about the specificity of language and the diversity of languages: When and how did language emerge in the human species evolution process? What about writing? What does the specificity of human language consist of in relation to the modes of animal communication? What is its relationship to thought?
How did the different languages start to appear? Did an ancestral language exist, a proto-language? What value does linguistic diversity have and what is its future?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote a suggestive Essai sur l’origine des langues that he did not finish and that was published posthumously (1781). The main intuitions and hypothesis put forward by Rousseau continue to be valid, especially the following:

-           The human race was born in a hot region. «The sweet climates, the rich and fertile countries were the first to be populated and the last where nations were formed because men there did not have so much need of each other and the needs that originate society were felt later on. […] This must have been the origin of societies and languages in the hot countries».

-           The first forms of human communication were gestural and emotional. Indeed, «it is far better to speak to the eyes than to the ears» and «it was not hunger, nor thirst but love, hate, pity, fury that pulled out their [human beings] first words [voix]».

-           The origin of language and of languages is not different from the arts, customs, society: it is associated to the fight for survival, in different geographical and climate conditions, and to the need of communicating and collaborating. The main cause of diversity of languages «is the location, it is in the climates where they are born and in the way they are formed».

-           Writing started by being pictorial. «The first writing form is not painting the sounds but the actual objects, either directly, like the Mexicans used to do, or through allegoric figures, like the Egyptians used to do».

-           The alphabet is of Mesopotamian origin, having arrived to Greece by the Phoenicians. The alphabetical writing «had to be imagined by trading people who by travelling to various countries and having to speak various languages, were forced to invent characters that could be common to all the languages».

The speculation about the origin of language and languages continued. In such a way that in 1865 the Linguistics Society of Paris made the (anti-evolutionist) decision of not accepting papers about the topic claiming that the only purpose of Linguistics should be the study of existing languages.

Today, data of archaeological, genetic, psychological, linguistic research, etc. still do not go beyond more or less supported hypotheses and more or less inspired and clarified reflections.

Animals have their own modes of communication, and some are comparable to human communication (as Charles Darwin stated in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1874), but none are comparable to human language. Their origins are the object of three classical hypotheses in Human Sciences: the innatist hypothesis, the cultural hypothesis and the interactionist hypothesis.

-           For the innatist hypothesis, language is an expression of a kind of instinct that distinguishes human beings from other animal species, whose learning and communication capacities are very limited.

-           For the cultural hypothesis, language is a cultural and social invention like the techniques, arts and others, based on the symbolic aptitude and creator of the human brain.

-           For the interactionist hypothesis, the acquisition and development of the symbolic aptitude allowed the means of life of the human lineage to transform progressively, which favoured the improvement of the faculty of language.

There is a consensus about the fact that the anthropogenetic and psychogenetic acquisition of language is associated to the formation of the brain. The genetic ability for language emerged about 2.2 million years ago with the Homo habilis, whose ancestor was the Australopithecus (that appeared more than 4 million years ago in Africa) and whose successor was the Homo erectus (that appeared about 1.7 million years ago). However, its use only begun with the appearance of the Homo sapiens, about 300 thousand years ago (but whose modern type dates approximately 100 thousand years). The Neanderthal Man (whose fossil remains were found in 1856 in Neandertal, near Dusseldorf, Germany), who lived in Europe from 250 thousand years, perhaps possessed a phonatory apparatus and mental abilities that allowed it to use language doubly articulated. It disappeared mysteriously about 35 thousand years ago.

The innatist biological hypothesis of the origin of language, about 100 thousand years ago, is supported by many linguists and geneticists (the Homo habilis and the Homo erectus would have less evolved forms of communication), but the appearance of language can not be dissociated from the human activities that presupposed their existence. Even though it is an innate ability, it is necessary to admit that its emergence is strictly related to the cultural and social history of human beings. Language and society are two entities that are involved with one another, despite having evolved separately (Benveniste, 1974). The invention of the first stone instrument, about 3.3 million years ago, introduced culture in the natural order, and the importance of the biological evolution was progressively diminishing. The revolution of the Superior Palaeolithic, which begins around 40 thousand years B.C., when Homo sapiens arrive in Europe, presupposes a control of language already evolved. The Neolithic revolution, when hunter-collector man became producer (agriculture dates back to around 10 thousand years B.C.), changed even more profoundly the relationship of man with his environment. In this perspective, the origin of language could date only around 35 thousand years, being contemporary to the first images and cave paintings.

Writing, as a system of graphical representation of language, emerges at a different time and in different parts of the globe. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates says that he heard that writing was invented by Thoth, Greek god that also discovered calculus, geometry, astronomy and some games. When Thoth told King Thamus (or Ammon, king of the Egyptian gods) about his invention, the king regretted the invention saying that writing would make men more forgetting, because they would stop using their memory. The story of the invention of the alphabet by Thoth is referred also by Socrates in Philebo.

Writing perhaps appears, for the first time, around 3.000 B.C. in Sumer, with the formation of cities, when the necessary cultural, social and political conditions to its invention were met. Initially pictographic, its process of simplification culminated, in Phoenicia, with the creation of the first alphabet around 1.000 B.C. The vectors of dissemination of the alphabetic writing were the migrations, business, the political or religious supremacies, but it became predominant mainly by the great simplicity of its use. The Greeks adopted it in the 8th century B.C. and added vowels to it, hence completing the alphabetic system as a system of signs that express the basic sounds of language.

Although the symbolic aptitude is not exclusive to the human species, language distinguishes it from the forms of animal communication by the following main characteristics that made it the most elevated expression of culture, an instrument of rationality and creativity that are the origin of Civilization:

-           It is a finite system of sound units that are combined according to the rules of syntax.

-           It is a system of signs arbitrarily related to meanings.

-           It is not limited to the immediate, but it has an intentional nature: it denotes the real and the imaginary, the past and the future.

In addition to this, the double articulation of language allows a double segmentation of a linguistic utterance: the first is of minimum sound units (the phonemes: consonants and vowels), whose combination forms words; the second is of units of meaning (the morphemes: phrase and sentences), whose coordination, according to grammatical rules, allows to make utterances. It is therefore an articulation at two levels: that of signifier and signified.

These characteristics give language a significance power practically unlimited. As profound as its relationship with thought may be, one can not state that they are inseparable. However, if there is an ability of language, there is no genetic predisposition for any language.

The biblical myth of the origin of languages is well known. According to the Book of Genesis (7.1-6, 11.1-9), the first of the biblical books, around 4.500 B.C. a flood made all the descendents of Adam and Eve disappear, except for one family, Noah’s family, a patriarch who God asks to build an ark. Noah’s descendants, who only spoke one language (the Adamic language, that is, inherited from Adam), decided to build a tower so high it would touch the sky. God decided to make the ambitious project fail

and punished its authors (like Zeus punished Prometheus for having stolen from him the fire to give to men, chaining him, naked, to a rock in the Caucasus mountains, where a vulture devours his liver, during the day, that would reconstitute every night): he multiplied the languages, causing confusion (the term Babel comes from here, whose Hebraic roots is balal, which means to confuse) and the dispersion of Noah’s descendants on the face of the earth. Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel have been the themes of famous painters. The most famous painting of the Tower of Babel is by Pieter Bruegel of Oude (the Elder) (about 1525-1569). More recently (1990), also Robert Combas painted La Tour de Babel.

We do not know if there was a common ancestral language (monogenesis theory) or not (polygenesis theory). Herodotus says that the Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik (that ruled from 663 till 609 B.C.) tried to find the first human language through the following experiment: two newborn babies were given to a shepherd, so that he could raise them along with his goats, but without saying any word in their presence. One day, after two years, while opening the door to the cabin where they were, one of the children said the word bekos, which in the Phrygian language meant bread. The Pharaoh concluded that this was the oldest language (and not the Egyptian, as he had hoped). Similar experiments were repeated, throughout the centuries. For example, according to the Chronica by the Italian monk Fra Salimbene of Parma (1221-1288), the Emperor Frederick of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250), who spoke many languages, also wanted to know if newborn babies raised in a linguistic emptiness would speak Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arab. The result: the children died. Other experiments of the same kind gave different results, but none were conclusive. The hypothesis of the existence of a proto-language, common to the first human beings, continues to be considered.

Languages started to appear approximately 80-60 thousand years ago in Eastern Africa or the Middle East. The birthplace of European and Northern Asian (Indo-European) languages dates back to around 5-4 thousand years B.C., in the Ukraine or Mesopotamia. Today, the number of languages spoken in the world is uncertain (the estimations vary between three and ten thousand, but six thousand is a recurring number) and there are hundreds of them that are still not described, that is, without a grammar or a dictionary. In addition to the main languages, there are dialects, Creole and Pidgin. There is no precise linguistic distinction between language and dialect (the French Marshal Lyautey said that a language “is a dialect which owns an army, a navy”…). Creole is a language formed by a mixture of different languages that became the mother language of some populations. Pidgin is a hybrid language which is used to communicate between people of different languages (without it being the mother language of any group). It is a term that was generalised from the Chinese Pidgin English.

The linguists group languages of the world into about twelve macro-families and 300-400 families, of unequal size. In accordance with the atlas of linguistic diversity, 96% of languages are spoken by 4% of the world population, and more than 80% are endemic, that is, spoken in one country. 57% of existing languages are spoken by indigenous people, which do not represent more than 5% of the world population. Only about 20 languages are spoken by hundreds of million of people, in different countries. Approximately half of the world population uses as everyday language one of the eight most widespread languages (Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arab, Portuguese, French), but there are countries with hundreds of languages (like India and New Guinea). English has become the lingua franca of the contemporary world, generating inequality and “linguistic insecurity” in those who have to express themselves in a language that they do not dominate, namely in international conferences. It is the “injustice of language” (Jacques Derrida, 1994).

The linguistic diversity of the world today raises this main question: Is it a mythical divine punishment, an obstacle to approximation, understanding and cooperation between people or, on the contrary, a good of Humanity, a common heritage to preserve?

Ever since languages began to diversify, some tens or even hundreds of thousand were born and died. Linguists believe that a language cannot survive if it does not have at least 100 thousand speakers. Well, half of the existing spoken languages have less than 10.000, and a quarter less than 1.000. In Africa, more than 200 languages already have less than 10.000 speakers. Zaparo, the language of the Zapara Indians of the Ecuadorian Amazon, was only spoken, some years ago, by five elderly people. The linguistic mortality was accelerated by the colonization and by the formation of the Nation Nations, with their need of linguistic homogeneity, particularly (as Derrida also observes, in regards to France). It is estimated that 50% or many more of the living languages will die during the current century. Actually, there are already numerous languages at risk, close to extinction or dying. There is talk of linguisticide.

The threat that weighs on language diversity is similar to and inseparable to the one that weighs over biodiversity. Languages are not only a means of communication. The difference amongst them is not essentially lexical. The comprehension of a text is not simply a technical issue, of dictionary. The facts of language prevent the fixation of the senses, in a way that makes it rational, totally transparent, without ambivalences. When a repertoire of existing words is prepared in every language that strictly has the same meaning, you can not find more than 300, if that much. A language is a collective entity and a vision of the world (Weltanschauung), reproduced from generation to generation. It is the most profound support and the most emblematic symbol of ethnic and cultural identity. Multilingualism reflects multiculturalism.

Between biodiversity and language diversity there is an intrinsic and causal tie because human beings, in the adaptation process to their environment, acquire from it a particular knowledge that is reflected in their language. The language testifies to the effort to adapt to the natural environment that is comparable to that of the species. If it dies, it takes with it all a traditional knowledge that may be unique. Linguistic diversity is therefore the basis of cultural diversity that in turn is essential to know and protect biodiversity as a heritage of Humanity.

To sum up, the brain, society, language, languages and culture form an indivisible conceptual chain, whatever their anthropogenetic correlations may be.

Today, Esperanto – the international language created by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof from Poland, in 1887, that is the official language of the International Academy of Sciences of San Marino and of the Comenius Academy in Sweden – reflects the nostalgia and utilitarian preoccupation of a new universal language. In any case, there is a right to mother language, already implicit in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 2) and recognized by other international legal instruments adopted especially by the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), whose General Conference proclaimed, in 1999, an International Mother Language Day (21st of February). During its first celebration, in 2000, at the UNESCO headquarters, this sentence was translated into 64 languages: In the galaxy of languages, every word is a star.



AAVV, Sciences humaines Hors-série – 4, Paris, Nº 27, Décembre 1999 / Janvier 2000.

AAVV, Sciences Humaines, Paris, Nº 51, Juin 1995.

AAVV, Courrier de l’UNESCO, Paris, Février 1994.

AAVV, Courrier de l’UNESCO, Paris, Avril 1995.

AAVV, Courrier de l’UNESCO, Paris, Avril 2000.

Émile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale I, II, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1966, 1974.

Jacques Derrida, Force de loi – Le ‘Fondement mystique de l’autorité’, Paris, Éditions Galilée, 1994.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essai sur l’origine des langues – où il est parlé de la mélodie et de l’imitation musicale, 1781 (disponível em http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/Rousseau_jj/essai_origine_des_langues/origine_des_langues.pdf).

Umberto Eco, A procura da língua perfeita, Lisboa, Editorial Presença, 1996



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