Chapter 3 : The Origin and Evolution of Language
1866- The linguistic society of Paris imposed ban on all discussions related to the
question of the origin of language.
1911- Similar prohibition put into place by the Philological Society of London. However,
one of the aims of AL nowadays is to conduct meaningful inquiry into the origin of
language and to formulate theories on the emergence of speech in the human species.
The Danish linguist Otto Jespersen(1922) reviewed theories of language origin,
identifying 5 main theoretical frameworks that had been used in the past to explain
1. Bow-wow Theory: speech originated as a result of attempts to imitate the sounds
made by animals. Ex) bow-wow, woof, meow, etc.
2. Pooh-Pooh Theory: speech developed out of the instinctive sounds and grunts our
ancestors made in response to pain, anger, love, and other affective states. Ex)
ah!, ouch!. Wow! Etc
3. Ding-dong theory: speech resulted from vocal imitation or simulation ex) ding-
dong, bing-bang, flip-flop etc.
4. Yo-He-Ho theory: language arose from the chants made by early people as they
worked and played together. The main evidence for this theory is the presence of
prosodic features (tone, rhythm. Etc) in childhood as children attempt to
communicate early needs or to express early concepts.
5. La-la theory: language emerged as a consequence of the sounds our human
ancestors made in response to lovemaking, play, and other social activities.
All theories except Yo-He-Ho theory is called echoic, since they are all based on the some
form of imitation is involved. Residues of echoism: loudness convey a state of anger
increasing the rate of speech to express urgency; and whispering adds conspiratorial
However, Yo-He-Ho theory implies that language was triggered during work activities.
Residues: grunts(used for coordinating the efforts of many people in a rhythmic way
came to be associated with ther work performed and then stand for the work itself in a
Both echoism and chant theory do not account for the presence of non-vocal forms of
language. Ex. Gestures, writing (possibly older than vocal forms) The role of gesture in
human communication are significance in terms of the origins question, since gesture
(especially hands) can easily substitute vocal language.
Jean Jacques Rousseas’s “noble savage” : proposed that the natural cries made by early
humans and gestures that they used in tandem led to the invention of vocal language.
When the gestures were too cumbersome, their corresponding cries replaced the
- Proposed that metaphorical speech is not a stylistic option but a verbal remnant
of a previous emotional and fundamental stage in the evolution of the human
- Figurative language was the first to be born, at first only poetry since there was no
hint of reasoning
Richard Paget’s mouth-gesture theory : proposed another theory that gesture led to the
vocalism: his theory claims that manual gestures were copied unconsciously by positions
and movements of the lips and tongues. The continual apposition of gestures and
imitative vocal movements eventually led to the vocal communication.
1959- Diamond argued that the imitation of natural sounds were verb roots, which our
ancestors must have used to request assistance from their group members. Ex) bodily actions like breaking. Killing. Cutting etc. – however, this dint explain why nouns emerge
first in infancy and why verbs constitute only a minor part of the vocabularies compared
American structuralist Morris Swadesh (1951, 1959, 1971) divided the origin and
evolution of language into 4 periods:
The Eolithic (the Dawn Stone Age)
The Paleolithic (the Old Stone Age)
The Neolithic ( the New Stone Age)
The Historical (last 10000 years)
He suggested that all languages in the world today derived from one source during the
Linguists and anatomists have compared the reconstructed vocal tract of a Neanderthal
and the Cro-Magnons skull with those of a newborn and an adult modern man. Their
vocal tracts and the size of brains are very similar. Neanderthals spoke like a new born,
magnons were probably capable of full speech
The vocal speech was developed at the expense of an anatomical system intended
primarily for breathing and eating.
The position of the larynx in human infants is high in the neck provides the general time
frame when language originated. AT some point in the first year of life, the larynx
descends and nobody knows why this happens. This is very unique to humans, producing
a pharyngeal chamber above the vocal cords that can modify sounds.
The arrival of Homo sapiens proved the formation of a lowered vocal tract that had
capacity to produce articulate speech. The lowering of the larynx is a consequence of
bipedalism. In standing up straight, the early humans developed an upright posture that
is conducive to organs lowering under the force of gravity (from 100000years ago.
Recently, the lowering of larynx was found in lions and koalas.)
In the 19th century, there was once a single language for most of the modern Eurasian
languages called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). It was spoken long before the first
civilizations, and it split up into different languages due to diversification (sound shifts).
The sound shifts were identified and established by means of the comparative analysis of
cognates, words that have a common origin.
Out of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and English cognates, the oldest is Sanskrit because the
sounds were virtually the same with PIE. And it is least like to have undergone
The Validity / accuracy of the reconstruction method
Romance languages (descended from latin) – Italian, French, Spanish
Latin ct (=/kt/) developed to tt=(/tt/) in Italian, to it in (=/tt/) French, to ch(=/c/) in
Spanish (result of sound shifts.)
In Italian, /k/ completely changed to /t/. this is called assimilation ( the process where one
sound takes on the characteristic sound properties of another, either partially or totally. )
In Old French, the assimilation was only partial: the zone of articulation of the vowel
sound /i/ in the mouth is close, but not identical to /t/. this is called vocalization.
In Spanish, /k/ and /t/ merged to produce a palatal sound /c/. this is called palatalization.
Assimilation can be seen as a manifestation of Zipf’s Law.
Saussure proposed to resolve anomalies in the PIE vowel system by postulating the existence of laryngeal sound /h/. he argued that it caused the changes in the length and
quality of adjacent vowels to occur in PIE’s linguistic descendants. This suggestion was
purely based on reconstructive reasoning, but it was dismissed as improbable because it
could not be substantiated. However, in 1927, it was revealed that Saussure was correct.
Core Vocabularies provide anthropologists a database for inferring what social and
kinship systems were like in early people, what kinds of activities they engaged in, what
values they espoused, etc.
The Core Vocabulary notion is used to reconstruct other language families and to
compare languages within them.
Ex. It allows linguists to reconstruct the proto-Bantu and to determine various sound
shifts. It also provides a database for comparing certain grammatical patterns, and for
understanding cultural differences among speakers of Bantu language in terms of the
presence/absence of certain words.
Core Vocabularies can estimate the relative length of time that might have elapsed –time
depth- since 2 languages within a family began to diverge. His method of calculating
time depth is called glottochronology. Procedures follow:
-A Core Vocabulary is established (only consists of words that probably exist in all
-Culturally biased words (ex. Names of plants or animals) are included on ly if relevant to
the analysis of a specific language family
- the number of cognates it reveals between the languages are compared allowing sound
shifts and variations.
The lower the number of cognates, the longer the languages are deemed to have been
1953- Robert Lee came up with a mathematical way of estimating time depth called
t=log c/2 log r ( t=time depth, c= % of cognates retained after a millennium of
separation, r )
This was fairly accurate estimates of time dept of Romance languages, but it was
ambiguous with some other languages. The accuracy of time depth depended on the
accuracy of the core vocabularies used. Also, since logs are exponents, a computational
error can occur.
Core Vocabularies were also useful i