The science of language is called linguistics.
So LINGUISTICS says (with a little help from archaeology)…
…that we really haven’t been at this for very long.
What were we up to all that time, in that massive ‘Prehistory’ pie wedge up there, aside from hunting and gathering, eating, sleeping, reproducing, seeking and finding or failing to find shelter, keeping ourselves alive, being born, growing older, dying? Maybe becoming human took all the energy we had. Maybe there wasn’t time or room for anything else. But what did humanity look like without language?
Why, and how, did the need to communicate arise? Doesn’t it seem like that was always there? How did this idea, kindled and stoked over eons, that we could make and shape noises with our mouths to exchange information, weave a social fabric, keep records, protect ourselves, tell stories, name all of the things of the world and take our place in it, become a reality?
We’ll never know, will we? For all its power, speech can only speculate about its own origins; it can only ask questions.
There’s been a lot of guessing, though. The impossibility of arriving at an answer has never deterred us from inquiry; in fact it could be argued that it inspires it. Come to think of it, maybe that was at the heart of it: our incessant curiosity. Maybe words arose to shape all those unasked questions.
In 1866 the French Academy of Sciences, snowed under by papers and weary of warring theories and cranky scholars, instituted a blanket ban on any further research into or speculation about the origins of language. We will never know the truth, went the argument. We are beating our heads bloody. Let’s move on to other things, shall we? Assez! Arrêtez!
But bans never work, right? Stopping people from imagining, wondering, speculating? Good luck with that. The guesswork continues, the theories proliferate. Here are only a few from over the (many) years:
- Self-Organization: briefly, the sum of the parts spontaneously adding up to more than the whole.
- Bow-wow. (also called the ‘Cuckoo Theory’): words are imitations of animal cries and calls.
- Pooh-pooh. words originate in exclamations in response to pain, pleasure, anger, sorrow, astonishment.
- Ding-dong. the first words as echoes of a mysterious, resonating, cosmic vibration.
- Yo-he-ho. Language arises out of the grunts and expostulations of people working together: hauling heavy objects, for example. The sounds they made established a communal rhythm that made the work go more smoothly.
- Ta-ta. Pre-lingual humans imitated their hand gestures with their tongues, wagging them in concert with their waving hands.
…yes, these are really the names of theories. Never let it be said that linguists have no sense of humor.
But wait, there’s more! (…and this is a woefully incomplete list):
- ‘Mother Tongues’ & ‘Putting the Baby Down’: briefly (and simplistically), language originated in the bond between mothers and their children, in the interests of the survival of the species. These theories elegantly fold in the necessity of mutual trust as an essential element of communication between individuals: if you can’t trust your mother, who can you trust? The circumstances and demands of prehistoric life (hunting, gathering, the fact that we gradually became hairless, so there was nothing an infant could cling to) made it impossible for women to hold their children all the time; they had to put them down in order to have their hands free to work. ‘Motherese’ developed, a reassuring murmur: ‘Mommy’s right here.’ There is even one theory that suggests ‘Mama’ may have been the First Word, the sound of an infant nuzzling at its mother’s breast.
I’ll have lots to say later about how our individual journeys from birth to adulthood bear a striking resemblance to the big picture of human history and evolution (I wish I could, but I can’t claim this conceit; it is a spin on what Ernst Haeckel, a 19th century German biologist, put in fancier terms: ‘Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny.’ Put simply, an organism’s growth contains within it, stage by stage and step by step, that organism’s entire evolutionary history (the fact that this is not strictly true will have to be explained by better scientists than I am). But for the moment, how cool is it that the birth and infancy of language might coincide with the birth and infancy of each of us?
- Nativism: Linguist Noam Chomsky asserted that the deep complexity of language argued for an innate capacity for speech that came with a human being the way cars come with power steering: a ‘language organ.’
- Biosemiotics: way too complicated for me to explain well, but it’s the one that–forgive me–speaks to me most persuasively:
“… the deciphering of the genetic code has revealed our possession of a language much older than hieroglyphics, a language as old as life itself, a language that is the most living language of all — even if its letters are invisible and its words are buried in the cells of our bodies.”— Beadle, G. and M. Beadle, 1966. The Language of Life: An introduction to the science of genetics.
Kinda makes you understand how those guys at the French Academy of Sciences felt, right? Assez! Arrêtez!
Individual or Group or Class: I mentioned that I’d compiled a woefully incomplete list. SO….
Sit quietly and come up with a theory of your own. Write it down (taking a moment to realize how integral the ability to write is to the ability to think. More on this later). SECOND:
pull out your phone or laptop and do a quick search for a theory I didn’t mention above (There are tons!), and scribble a brief, summary description. Push past Wikipedia, although you can start there, as it has many references to other sources.
tell us what you’ve learned of the existing theory, and what you think of it. Plausible? Implausible? Why? There’s no better way to understand an idea than to take a few potshots at it and see if it survives.
offer your theory.
[and then, if I’m lucky, conversation ensues. Often, of course, nudging is required. Sometimes I’ll make a crack about getting a sense, now, of what the world was like before we could speak.]
[This is also when I pull a stunt that I repeat as necessary over the course of the semester/workshop/class/whatever venue I’m in at the moment. Once a student/participant has presented her spiel about an existing theory and offered her own theory, I turn to another student and ask him what his classmate just said. There are initially some real deer-in-the-headlights reactions, and I make sure to apologize to the hapless victim. But repeated a few times, I’ve found it to be an incredibly effective way to get them listening to one another.]
[Sometimes I put part FOUR at the very beginning of the class/group/workshop/session, before the big old information dump up there. As I mentioned in a previous post, some groups or individuals need the inspiration of other ideas in order to generate their own; others want to jump right into it. Depending on what kind of time is available, I’ll do this exercise in class or assign it for the next one.]
Up next: Up next: STORIES!…Origin myths, legends, stories, magical thinking…also attempts to explain and understand. When we bring art and science together we inch a little closer, maybe, if we’re lucky and diligent, to cracking the code.
©Melinda Rooney, 2017