Thursday, December 16, 2010

History of Language

The universe, on any given day, is full of an infinite number of mysteries.  The creation of the universe alone is one of the greatest (not to mention most controversial) mysteries to plague mankind.  Regardless of whether everything was created in seven days, as the result of a epic explosion, or even if some divine being decided to light its fart aflame and out flew the solar system (thanks Family Guy for leaving me with that concept permanently embedded in my brain), one of the greatest secrets in the universe (or at least here on Earth) is how human language came into being.  Here we’ll have a look at some word origin and English (the language) history.
The list of theories surrounding the birth of human language is extensive; however, there are few that are given any credence.  Now, given that none of us mere mortals can ever really know how language came into being, all we can do is sit back and have lofty, intellectual discourse about such matters.  You know, like you do.  It certainly makes for riveting cocktail party conversation.  So, on that note, let me provide you with a little conversational fodder, so that you can blow everyone away at your next backyard barbecue (or classy dinner party, since the holidays are fast approaching).
For starters, it’s important to understand that language and speech, while closely related, are not the same thing.  Conceptually, language is the cognitive ability to form ideas and subsequently communicate those ideas.  For instance, Jim-Bob walks out his front door one morning and notices that a telephone pole has fallen on his neighbor’s house.  Now, Jim-Bob knows that he needs to let someone know that a telephone pole fell on his neighbor’s house, because his brain tells him that a disaster has happened and someone may need assistance.  So, in a moment of unusual clarity, Jim-Bob rushes back into his own home to call 911.  Language allows Jim-Bob to assess a situation, form an idea and communicate that idea to the people who need to know it.
Speech is simply a means of communication, and language is not wholly dependent upon its use.  Human beings and animals alike have means of communication that subvert the need for speech entirely (Think a chimp with a computer keyboard).  Written language is obviously the most blatant example of this.  Vocalization becomes completely unnecessary when written words or symbols are accepted and understand.  Perhaps the most natural example of language without speech is the use of sign language.  Sign language (in one form or another) has existed as long as humanity itself (or so we can safely assume).  The hearing- impaired frequently use it as a substitute for conventional communication; however, its use is not limited to the deaf and mute.  Certain hand gestures and signals are universally recognized to represent specific ideas, and can be used to effectively communicate without uttering a word.  For example:
Rock Hand
Humanity as a species has a rather handy ability to evolve and adapt in order to perpetuate survival.  It is generally believed (by those considered experts in the matter) that the ability to communicate using language came into being as a result of the need to out-think and out-maneuver predators, and to identify and protect against danger.  Imagine how much more effective it would be to say, “There’s a saber-tooth tiger outside,” than it is to simply look alarmed and point outside the cave opening.  I’m willing to bet the saber-tooth tiger-related mortality rate would decrease dramatically.
One hypothesis surrounding the development of language is the concept of Mono-genesis.  This is the belief that at the onset of humanity, there was a single language used by all human beings (sometimes referred to as Proto-Human, as in a long freakin’ time ago).  This is supported by the fact that all human populations possess language, in one form or another.  Even civilizations that existed in complete isolation for millennia, completely removed from the main centers of human expansion developed their own languages and methods of communication.  This theory was demonstrated when European explorers discovered Aboriginal tribes (prior to essentially destroying their entire culture) on the island of Tasmania – a civilization that had been isolated from the Australian mainland for thousands of years.
In that same vein of thought, with a more divine touch, is the Biblical theory of language development.  It goes something like this:  God created Man (and Woman), and language was created simultaneously.  This could be the beginning and the end of the matter, except that there is still the small matter of how the global variances in language came to be.  Well, the Book of Genesis (somewhere around Chapters 10 and 11) tells the story of the Tower of Babel.   Sometime after the Great Flood destroyed the Earth (bummer), the remains of humanity gathered together and decided to build a structure tall enough to reach Heaven, and subsequently God.  As it turns out, God wasn’t too thrilled with this idea, and come down to “confound their language,” causing confusion and misunderstanding, and halting the construction of the presumptuous tower.  Those that spoke the same languages gathered into tribes and scattered across the face of the Earth.
Babel = Babble
There are also those who believe that humanity developed language as a physical response to gestures used in communication – an idea known as Gestural Theory.  Remember that saber-tooth tiger outside the cave?  The vocalization of the information may have arisen out of the need to communicate more quickly and effectively.  There are three major supporting ideas behind this theory that help explain why human beings speak at all (versus drawing pictures in the dirt, or throwing rocks at one another).  Firstly, the advent of tools in the course of human evolution occupied the hands, making it necessary to find other avenues of interaction.  Second, spoken language may have come about as a way to communicate without the benefit of sight.  This innovation would have completely changed the way people interacted.  (On a side note, the world probably got a lot louder)  Lastly, vocalization would have allowed for more coordinated responses in the face of danger and adversity as a means of survival.
So, although we can never be sure which of these theories (if any) is the truth, we can be sure that our capacity for language makes us rather unique.  Our ability to communicate and coordinate with one another has made us the dominant species on the planet (for the time being, at least).  Having thumbs helps, too.

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