On the origin of language—Part 1
How exciting if Linguistics found something conclusive to say about how man came to exploit the language potential he currently enjoys! The science of language probably began when men first turned their attention to speech variations. Why do men everywhere not speak the same language? One might search out the original forms of my audible words—books do exist called Biographies of words, Lavie des mots, but surely a word has no life of its own. If one says ‘typewriter’, this word exists only as pronounced, heard, remembered or associated with the writing machine. So what is the real essence of language? Metaphors can obscure the real meaning behind flowery words. Could the actual words be arbitrary since the word ‘tongue’, for example, has a thousand different referents from language to language.
Western man—in searching for origins—has himself gone astray. We think linerally rather than in patterns. Some have plodded back through calendars only to find the darkness of unrecorded history. The origins of life and human history are so significant that we cling to one or another bias about the origin of man, few glimpsing our raison d’etre or realizing that we to are predetermined by the very confines of humanity within us. My linguist mind reels at the thought of there being over 3,000 languages in the human heritage of words. And they don’t stand still! Have you heard of the vocab-committee in Israel, daily coining new words in Hebrew to keep abreast of technology for the benefit of researchers?
This paper is exploratory as I clarify our initial approach into the field of language, reaching one conclusion that God gave man language capacity and intended him to develop, vary and modify it as he would, however unwittingly. I am not saying language did not evolve, but that it changed, being instant and the gift of One who created stars, planets, animals and man, the last of which could sigh and fondle his wife saying audibly to her: 'I love you darling!'
Since creationism thinks of creature lineage as major life forms with separate ancestors, are we entitled to assume that all major ancient languages have also separate ancestors? Accepting the verdict of Biblical history, we must answer yes, as far back as the grandsons of Noah, whose sons undoubtedly spoke the same dialect, though some might assert circularity in such an assumption. A hypothesis is empirical or scientifically knowledgable only if testable. Anything else belongs outside our circle, in the realm of religious philosophy.
The general theory of evolution is the concept that all life forms including man developed from one simple ancestor and ultimately from chemicals during an extenuated 4-5 billion years by random mechanistic development from simple to complex life forms. In the technology explosion, science has usurped a gigantic importance so that man forgot the One who created the scientific potential. Becoming intoxicated with the wine of scientific discovery, he forgot to ask the Vine-keeper for a bunch of nonintoxicative grapes for his grandchildren. Only thus has the myopic teaching of evolution as fact falsely implied human social evolution. Has this not caused many thinkers and their dependents to play into the hands of atheistic philosophers and materialistic political affiliations that denied students any alternative model of origins for comparison?
Scanning the field of language in general overview of oratory, debate and literature, we see man has a compulsion to speak and if he lacked language, he would surely explode or become an acrobatic contortionist gesticulating in sign language. Is it possible without words to categorize the intricacies of ethical states and the knowledge of right and wrong? Animals, being comparatively languageless, demonstrate stereotyped patterns of ethical response manifested by men like Pavlov, using punishment and reward techniques. At this moment in time, each genus might well have been created with varying abilities, the special attribute of man being that he does speak complexly, and his babies copy him, so that by five years, an infant has most grammatical patterns at his fingertips! A postulate of randomicity can hardly explain this involved and inbuilt trait! Most (non-creationist) linguists believe the child has language-learning abilities built in by evolution.
Is there any real connection between word and thing? We might invent a language in which words and objects were tied together rationally. Early linguistic masters observed and classified Sanskrit as accomplished grammarians. Their ancient languages, perfectly preserved and studied, still influence modern linguistics. But those tongues have changed. As clans moved apart in migration, they coined new words and phrases. Clanlects moved into dialects and the dialects farther afield into established languages, which over the centuries diverged to the point where few resemblances remained. Is this evolution? Another part of linguistic biology deals with the influence of foreigners or the idiolectic changes which the individual is apt independently to introduce into his speech.
During centuries of language modification, specific combinations of sounds are discarded. Linguists know that the Proto-Aryan sound system was more complex than they expected in the mid-nineteenth century reconstructions. Indo-European sounds now are mostly by expiration, without the ‘inspiration’ of clicks or suction-stops met in interjections. Tone, also known as pitch significance, gradually lessened as in Danish, though Norwegian and Swedish have kept old ‘tones’. So too in Russian as compared with Serbo-Croatian. In old Indian, Greek and Latin, grammarians said pitch-accent was prominent and the intervals extreme. But in modern Greek and Romanic languages, the tone element has lapsed and ‘stress’ is now heard on the syllable where ancients had tone. Then who are we to decide whether stress is less difficult or less complex than tone?
Evolutionists generally hold that all is change and development with uniformitarian improvement, but creationists say ‘change and decay in all around I see,’ restricting growth to the spiritual, by God’s grace, seeking to possess the ‘mind of Christ’ and attain to a full (spiritual) stature in Christ. Fortunate it is—through language ability—that the so-called myth of Creation which is the object of our study, survived for our assessment today. My judgment should be about as good as yours, or his, as it is in faith that we both interpret natural phenomena. Evolution is merely one alternative belief. But the subconscious gang concept of winning converts to ones theories afflicts all men and so with linguistic rationalization, we ignore contrary facts and develop blindspots.
In linguistic science, I suspect our whole field has bogged down in evolutionary swamps and researchers are either wearing mental blinkers or looking elsewhere. Anyway, though the onus is on evolutionists to prove language did evolve, no one has audible recordings of language at that early stage, so we are forced to approach man’s language ability at a tangent. Nevertheless, the impact of evolutionism has been great, not only on science, but also on the humanities, with the result that atheistic rationalism and agnostic secularism embarrassed the conservatives. With the invention of printing as a significant milestone, laymen became still more aware of language and a minority probably learned other tongues more readily. Some studied Greek and Hebrew as if they thought them languages of heaven, fancifully noting irrelevant similarities to their European mother tongues. Dr George Huttar (SIL, Darwin) comments: 'Were not people learning other languages, even Greek and Hebrew, long before Gutenberg?' He thinks a case could be made out that language learning ability in a community decreases after literacy is introduced!
Let us now identify the speech organs of man. Nida reminded us (1957) that the sounds of speech are made by modifying the air-stream from our lungs, air being forced out as by a bellows. Vibration may or may not be set up by vocal cords as the utterance is modified by various articulators, the moving parts in the oral or nasal cavities. These movable parts are the lips, the lower jaw, the tongue, the velum and the vocal cords, and their stationary colleagues are the teeth, alveolar arch, hard palate, the back wall of the pharynx and nasal cavity. Most of us know the tongue can articulate with its tip, blade, sides, back, center or root areas. By means of these assets to speech, mankind can make several hundred acoustically different phonetic sounds recognizable to the human ear.
But speech depends on development within the brain whose basic structure is similar in non-human and human primates, whether we investigate their anatomy or the microscopic pattern of nerve cells. Man has greater enlargement of the cerebral cortex, where nerve cells are numberless, even in the chimpanzee. Man’s supreme estimate has been placed at 6.9 x 109, far beyond the next highest primate. The association areas are a unique extension in man’s forehead which give a vast biological potential to him alone.
Allbrook lists six characteristics in The Evolution of Man (Part I—The Origins of Man p. 19): additional memory banks for factual storage, the ability to retrieve, to communicate vocally to others instantly, due to a motor speech area in the cerebral cortex, the ability to attach meaning and significance to an object by symbolization, the establishment of cultural systems around food, clothes, marriage, games and religion, a sense of right and wrong, loyalty to ideas, and the skills associated with tool making. Archaeologists are now looking at cranial shapes of these brain areas associated with speech. Tongue muscles show capacity either for speech or not for speech, being gene-controlled.
Jespersen mentions man’s upright gait, giving him two spare limbs to carry something, unlike the dog which must carry it by mouth. Thus man can talk and carry at the same time. A cow spends its life chewing its cud with an occasional moo. Man’s sexual cycle is not seasonal, the two sexes remaining together and thus promoting sociability and talking. The helplessness of babies also promotes speech through the need for constant care, unlike animals whose young are soon independent. Man’s environment encourages vocal play in singing, yodelling, shouting. Man exerts considerable control over his voice with a view to language, regulating pitch, intensity and length of sound units, tone of voice and extreme variety of articulation. Brain capacity for ‘thought’ allows also communication by signs, gestures and miming: e.g., Sydney Charlie, deaf-mute Aboriginal in my area of research, has long conversations, flailing arms or flicking wrist and fingers rapidly and using shoulders, eyes, nose, head, lips, mouth, chin, any part of the body, all with meaning, implying that thoughts in his head are bursting to find expression in a thousand facets whereby his limbs and trunk become added points-of-articulation for body-speech, forming a sequence of lexemes represented by different bodily referents.
Surely, if present man had no language, he could develop sign language in days! Could God have chosen some other way to communicate with man than language? When every element of thought needs a coded physical sound for acoustic-eared man, then God had either to make words audible or resort to silent telepathic vibes! Anyway, speech is silent to a deaf man with perfect ears. He can’t hear a thing if his mental nerve paths to the brain are discontinuous electrical circuits!
What then is the real nature of language?
Concerning its origin, Jespersen (Ultimate Origin of Speech) says it became tabu in the French . Societe de linguistique, among famous linguists, too controversial for academics to talk about. Whitney wrote: ‘No theme in linguistic science is ... more voluminously treated than this, and by scholars of every grade and tendency; nor any ... with less profitable result in proportion to the labor expended ... windy talk ... subjective views which commend themselves to no mind save the one that produces them ... in inverse ratio to their acceptableness. This has given the whole question a bad repute among sober-minded philologists.’ (OLS I. 279)
We hear of living languages, dead languages, revived languages (like Hebrew), but language is not separately existent like a person, having no separate existence like a dog or tree. It is just a function of living humans, or at least a system shared by a speech community to facilitate communication in its multifunctional individual members. In Creationism, the basis is purposive, not random chance independent of observable physical processes for present or past. So in language acquirement, or development, it merely symbolizes the thoughts of the culture and is enlarged by borrowings from other dialects. If we look back to the languages of ‘primitive’ savages today, we see greater linguistic complexity than is expected—than classical Greek, Sanskrit or Russian. Even these modern ‘savages’ have millennia of development behind their speech habits, unlike primeval man.
Were language evolving, by entropy, it should be disintegrating—and perhaps it is! For languages do break down and grammar teaching may no longer bolster ‘correctness’. In fact, grammar tends to be despised by teachers and students alike who have suffered from its being untaught. My study of Latin, French and English to matriculation only suffices to highlight the present comparative inability of fellow-teachers who cannot analyze a clause. But I see other reasons than entropy radical change in social conditions, relationships and lifestyle. With the erosion of grammatical rules, as language comes out of its straitjacket, exceptions to rules inevitably decrease as migrants share our classrooms. Though conversely, new metaphors multiply extravagantly in common speech and hundreds of new technical terms proliferate in every branch of knowledge.
Jespersen thinks we must ask sooner or later, ‘Whence any linguistic evolution?’ For man is not the only animal with language, though little is known about that of birds and mammals, ant signals, bee-dancing and so on. Animal speech may be more like ours than we realize. Their bodies resemble ours; why not their sounds which are only acoustic reverberations! Are their signals more perfect though unlike human speech? I remember hearing an ABC session on the croaking of frogs, by a student whose research led to a high differentiation of their utterances. But it is useless to speculate. Suffice it to say no race lacks a language. Incidentally, two little girls and their dialect were reported in Woman’s Day, (April 10, 1978). "Twin-speak traps two little girls in a secret world." Identical twins, Grace and Virginia Kennedy, chattered to each other in an amazing twin speak—their own unique dialect—but couldn’t talk recognizably to other people. At first, they were thought to be retarded. But now, it is believed childcare experts can learn a lot from them, reported Julia Orange in San Diego, USA. This dialect served them well and was developed over a few short years of childhood with no adult aid.
In spite of Creationism’s emphasis on proof, details of origin can be known only by faith and not without revelation from the Creator. Thus creation of language ability cannot be scientifically proved owing to the limitation of science method and testability. So with language, we have no speech records of what they spoke in the beginning. If man evolved, then he must have had animal sounds as his first lexemes, but if God created man, he must have been endowed with language ability, for he conversed with God. On the other hand, humanism believes man shapes his own destiny, but if he did, such secular empires and institutions have collapsed. Only theism has risen to the heights of great literature in language development and only monotheism has produced a Judeo-Christian Bible, at the apex, some believe, amongst the literatures of the world. Humanism relies on the powers of man, weakling that he is, without the verbal inspiration of heavenly ideation. Has not man deteriorated and have not empires fallen when God was ignored? It has been the writers and orators who guided their nations as much as politicians, or statesmen, for better or for worse. They developed language from baby-talk to polished eloquence in half the lifetime of one man!
Let us look now at just the elements of linguistics—to phonetics which studies how one hears and utters sounds, to phonemics which studies their organization into meaningful patterns and to morphology which describes the formation of words from smaller meaningful parts (morphemes). The human speech mechanism can utter perhaps 400 acoustically different segments of sound by means of the fixed parts and the movable articulators described in such terms as: bilabial, labio-dental, inter-dental, dental, alveolar, alveopalatal, domal, retroflexed, palatal, velar, nasal, laryngealized etc. Consonants may be single, double or glottalized stops, clicks, aspirates, fricatives, frictionless, nasals, laterals, centrals, vibrants, flaps or trills. Vowels may be high, mid or low—front, central or back, long or short, voiceless, breathy, with added prosodic features like tone, length and stress. Evolution allegedly made animal mouths rather similar to ours, but left out the genes that make speech possible and the brain areas to control their noises. Thus, man’s kind of speech is not an attribute of the animal world, though researchers on the chimp and gorilla speech potential would question this.
Phonetically different sounds group into clusters of significantly recognizable sound units called phonemes, which then qualify as members of an alphabet. In one Solomon language, Roviana, we use about 40 to 50 phonetic variants (called allophones,) which comprise 22 phonemes, five of which are vowels. But in one Aboriginal language, Kook Thaayorre, we make at least 60 phonetically different sounds which are grouped as 10 vowel and 16 consonant phonemes. In English, we utter probably 100 different segments phonetically, but these fall into about 48 to 50 phonemic units. Since we have only 26 symbols to represent them on the typewriter, it’s no wonder our spelling is so unpredictable! My friend, Dr Bruce Hooley, speaking Buang in New Guinea, found he had around 60 phonemes in their alphabet and reduced them as some carried a small functional load. But in Uisai of SE Bougainville and Hawaiian, they have only 11 phonemes in their alphabet. The fewer the phonemes, perhaps the longer your words might need to be to get enough vocabulary without resorting to tone, stress and vowel-length for added contrasts.
Besides vowels and consonants, we also have semivowels, so that in many languages, i/v, u/w and r/r are in mutual partnership. Tone or pitch possibly found its origin in some languages because multi-syllabled words reduced by one syllable and had to be distinguished by sounding them differently as with fare/fair or pear/pare/pair. With regard to grammar, some think no complexities could possibly exist in an Aboriginal dialect. But these ancient cultures developed complex languages and enormous vocabularies. German may have a more complex grammar than English and Russian, but many Aboriginal languages surpass classical Greek for their verbal complexity.
Concerning the origin of such diverse languages, let us now consult the considered judgment of experienced linguists. Confusingly, most concentrate on how language evolved rather than whether it evolved. Languages seem to erode through broken rules, allowing new paradigms to emerge increasingly hard to regularize: e.g. personal pronouns in Malaysian or English (cf the loss of thee, thou, thy and acceptance by folk etymology of the new ‘yous’ etc.) Otto Jespersen, professor in the University of Copenhagen, explains (1921) that since early languages all appear to be ‘perfect (sic), complete and efficient’, with intense systematization in paradigms, they can only run to seed or simplify, which may be all to the good have done both, by linguistic observation in the field. Did they rise to a high peak and only decline after being written? Unlikely! It is impossible to say that languages evolved slowly over millennia, but we may say the built-in capacity of ancient humans (as known to historians), was already complex, efficient and adequate for complete intellectual two-way communication using organs of speech and hearing.
Jespersen searches through the science of language for general laws of ... thus to portray the outer and inner structure of speech more primitive than the most primitive language accessible today. Grammar-wise, he finds ancient languages had more forms than modern ones and that forms originally kept separate became confused by migrants, either phonetically or analogically. The early state in language is that each form of a word (verb or noun) contains several minor signals (portmanteau morpheme): e.g. Latin canfavisser, with six ideas, contains the meaning ‘sing’, singular, pluperfect, subjunctive, active and third-person. Latin is synthetic and English analytic. So Latin is synthetic compared to French and French is analytic compared to Latin, though both have a little of each. Yet, the ancestor of Latin might have been so synthetic that Latin would have to be called analytic. Was the original state of a synthetic language analytic in its initial formative stage? Dr George Huttar knows of some (parts of) grammars becoming more synthetic.
The old theory of the three stages in language development: isolation, agglutination and flexion, was built on insufficient materials. But we can’t just reverse that conclusion. Change in language suggests progression from bound irregular conglomerations to free, regular, combinable short elements. In Europe, grammatical science slowly emerged in Greece and later in Rome. Aristotle identified parts-of-speech and introduced the notion of case (ptosis). Did the science of linguistics advance in the Middle Ages? All spoke Latin ... but the Renaissance widened the horizon to include Greek. With increased translation between these major tongues, man came to regard a word as a human habit, evoking an idea in another individual, like crossing your legs, sighing, or kicking a stone, a muscular activity relative to another person. The act is individual, but presupposes that another also validates the custom socially.
Jespersen thought of language as being historical, not something given once for all, but fluid and changing now to something else from the present starting point. This is not necessarily evolution, but only change, for better or for worse! If man evolved, he must have developed his sounds slowly, with specific meanings crystallizing over the millennia and new sounds being invented as physiological improvement allowed.
Evolution sees all life changing, transforming and developing randomly by itself, but cannot explain the existence of matter initially. It ignores the divine origin of design which only a Creator could have organized, shunning the teleological purpose of what already exists to which it could not have been orientated without a God knowing end from beginning! From the creation of man on, language ability is a sine qua non—a necessity.
In contradictory confusion to various thoughts given above, language began, says Jespersen, with half-musical, unanalyzed expressions for individuals and solitary events. Such languages evolving from these words and quasi-sentences would be clumsy in expressing thought, which is intricate, capricious and difficult. But, from the beginning, the tendency has been one of progress, slow and fitful, but still progress towards greater clarity, regularity, ease and pliancy. No language is yet perfect, unambiguous or regular, with sound and sense in perfect harmony to express delicate shades of meaning. The human spirit would have found a garment combining freedom and gracefulness, fitting it closely and yet allowing to play to any movement.
Some languages have a tendency to shorten words, as in English, with its many one syllabled words as compared to its cognate relatives like the German language. Sanskrit and Zend had long words, like some Aboriginal languages. Current theory that all languages started with monosyllables fails to account for long words found in the field. Early gigantosaurus words allegedly were shortened to the present lizards by economy of effort in speech, but I don’t think the flood of printed matter deluging mankind with words necessarily shortens them!
Which brings us to consider what is to be considered ‘correct’ or standard in pronunciation, spelling, grammar, idiom or slang. Do individuals strive to improve their mother-tongue by enriching it with new terms, purer, more precise technical terms to express shades of meaning and thought, easier to handle in speech or writing? With this in mind, inter alia, some have constructed artificial languages on consistent scientific principles. Jespersen thinks IDO is superior to all previous attempts, Volapuk, Esperanto, Idiom Neutral, Latin sine flexione, Interglossa etc.
Probably the most fruitful source for language inquiry is history—looking back through the development to the beginnings as far as history allows—from English to Old English, from Danish to Old Norse and from both these to common Gothonic; French and Italian to Latin, modern Indian dialects to Sanskrit. This might divulge the laws of language change so as to predict or postulate language before writing was invented. But we would have to be allowed to apply those laws to pre-language before history, back to their ‘sounds’. Who can imaginatively create that something out of nothing? I sometimes think I see it among our Aboriginals in their living drama—sign-language, which they talk silently, wordlessly, miming and acting out thoughts by gestures of almost every body part. It even has dialectal variation from place to place. What a contrast is this with modern glossolalia with its ecstatic gibberish freewheeling on three or more vowels and limited consonants, leading to the subsequent intrusion of an extra consonant or two as an afterthought.
One further notion from the linguists. Jespersen mentions sentence melody saying modulation of utterances is strongly influenced by emotion causing rapid raising and lowering of voice levels. Carlyle thought all passionate language becomes musical, not just accented, but chant-like, singsong from strong feeling, anger giving a metallic ring to the voice and grief chant like lamentation. Calm speech is relatively monotonous but emotion uses fifths, octaves and even more, says Spencer. If civilization was said to modify passion and its expression, must we turn a blind eye to twentieth century violence? Primitive speech must have been more spontaneous and uninhibited, like song. European travelers reported hearing song-like speech, artificial and musical. Was all speech originally singsong? Jespersen as an old man confronted by the new science of geology, rejected the evolutionary concept of earth-formation, saying ‘no all-wise, all-powerful Creator would have gone about the job in such a sluggish inefficient manner!’