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Origins of Language

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 that is not present in any other species known today. Whether other extinct hominid species, such as Neandertals, 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 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).


One of the earliest accounts of the origin of languages is in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis (dated to the early 1st 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 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 languages of the descendants of Japhet were divided naturally. This is most likely due to the narrative style of Genesis, in which an event was explained following its introduction into the narrative.

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 Frederick II of Prussia 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.

The information in this article is adapted from Wikipedia and is freely distributable thanks to the GNU Free Documentation License (GNU FDL).


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