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The Origins of Communication

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I am sure most of us have seen movies depicting prehistoric times where it was suggested that the language of the cave man consisted of hand gestures along with a variety of grunting sounds. If those were in fact the realities of the time then, is it not interesting to wonder how we have evolved from that mode of communication to the relatively elaborate system of word formation and associated grammatical rules in place today? Unfortunately, we are not certain about when language was first used but estimates range from the time of Homo habilis 2,000,000 years ago, to the time of Cro-Magnon man around 30,000 years ago.

There has been speculation that language may have come about in a manner similar to the way the game of “Charades” is played, where words are acted out rather than spoken, while others try to guess what the actor’s intended meaning might be. The game is thought to have had its beginning in France during the 19th century and was subsequently introduced throughout the European Continent so that by the advent of the 1st World War, Charades was a well-known parlor game that was played almost everywhere.

There seemed to be little agreement among those who had chosen to explore the origins of language as to whether it is the result of a series of actions that have built upon one another sequentially, leading up to what is the present situation today, or if language at one point did not exist and then suddenly it did because it was innate. While modern language studies did not even begin until the late 18th Century, most who tried to study linguistics at the time determined there was little evidence available to follow through to a natural conclusion and even the Linguistic Society of Paris, in 1866, banned all discussion of the origin of language, deeming it to be an unanswerable problem. So, it wasn’t until the 1990s that serious dedicated research into evolutionary linguistics was begun, and there are now numerous theories about that origin, almost as many as there are researchers!

While the human animal has continued to progress from simple sounds to a very complex verbalization system, it would seem mankind is the exception, as other animals, even the closely related primates, have not been able to form words. The closest any animal comes to human verbal sounds comes from a bird (parrot) that can be very adept at mimicking human words. And, while most other members of the animal kingdom are very capable of communicating with one another, they do so through a rather limited number of sounds and/or gestures as they are essentially not anatomically designed for speech as is the human animal.

And, now that humans have mastered speech, how did we manage to get so many different languages that are spoken around the world? According to the story of “The Tower of Babel,” which has been attributed to the Bible, the people of that time all spoke a single language but when they decided to build a tower that would reach to heaven to please and worship a false deity, God intervened by causing them all to speak different languages, which made them unintelligible to one another, initiating the formation of today’s various languages and spurring the people’s migration to different parts of the globe. But when scientists began to study the phenomenon of multiple languages, it has yielded numerous theories but little direct evidence to help them be certain of their findings. And, setting aside the Babel theory there is some consensus that spoken communication was in play approximately 50,000 years ago at the point when humans began to leave Africa, and move to other regions around the globe.

Again, theories abound to explain the wide variety of present day languages with some scholars suggesting that all modern languages stem from one original “Mother Tongue” thought to have been prevalent nearly 100,000 years ago, while others say that the languages of today are all related to several root languages that were spoken at least 6,000 years ago. Whichever the case may be, language continues to evolve, which is evident when one considers that while Latin had formed the basis for the French, Spanish and Italian languages nearly 2,000 years ago, today they are mutually incomprehensible. While the varieties of languages that exist today are vast in number and character, about half are thought to derive from the root known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE) which accounts for about 400 languages spoken by some three billion people.

We now speak English in the United States as a result of the early colonization of our country by the British, but the English language we speak today is a far cry from its earliest beginnings. Originating in the British Isles were the Celtic languages, forms of which were spoken until the introduction of what is referred to as the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) period resulting from the migration of Germanic tribes to Britain during and after the fifth century, and by the eleventh century, the English language had been heavily influenced by the Viking invaders, the Norman Conquest of 1066 and Latin from a Roman influence ushered in during what is known as the Middle English period. The modern English period extends from the sixteenth century to the present and during that time things like the invention of the printing press and further influences from the Latin and Greek languages have had an impact.

Other languages with which we are familiar, if only by name, have undergone similar changes. The Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Chinese, Germans, Russians, etc. of today would be hard pressed to understand even a fraction of the language which preceded what is now so familiar to them. And, even within one country one can find inhabitants of a certain area speaking a language or dialect that is entirely unintelligible to those inhabitants in other parts of the same country. A good example of that can be found on Makelua, an island in the South Pacific which is only about 62 miles long and 12.5 miles wide and yet the inhabitants there speak approximately 40 distinct languages.

It is thought that a language will develop amongst residents of one area at the same time an adjoining area is developing its own distinct language. No doubt most can come up with the name of the top 10 or even 20 languages spoken around the world and may even have studied and mastered some of them. However, not too many will know that today there are actually 7,097 known living languages, which may include some dialects or macrolanguage’s and, for a world traveler that could present a problem. But, from grunts to grammar, we’ve come a long way!

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