How Did Human Language Develop? - Theories & Examples

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we address one of the hardest questions about early humans - language development. Many theories offer possible explanations. We'll look at theories from the earliest researchers, followed by contemporary theories.

Where Did Language Begin?

As you are reading this right now, you are using language to interpret symbols into meaning. In this case, we're using written language to convey meaning. However, the symbols of written language correspond to sounds in spoken language as a way to ''talk'' to people separated by space, or even time. The reason for the corresponding symbol to sound comes from the fact that spoken language is so much older than written language.

Early Theories

Of the many theories proposed during the 1800s and early 1900s, six theories summarize and simplify the general themes most of them contain, which is why they are still taught in the history of linguistic theory.

Many of our words come from imitating sounds.

  1. Bow-Wow: Much as we create words to imitate actual sounds, such as bow-wow for a dog's bark or a-choo for a sneeze, this theory suggests language formed from imitation of sounds which formed into words.
  2. Ding-Dong: This theory claims language, words, and individual sounds are connected through nature, such as applying certain sounds more frequently to particular phenomena. The best evidence comes from the number of languages using the sound ''fl'' in words related to speed.
  3. Pooh-Pooh: This theory believes we developed language from spontaneous sounds like ''Ouch!'' or ''Ha!''.
  4. La-La: This theory thinks language developed out of sounds early humans made while playing and wordless singing.
  5. Ta-Ta: The final theory offers that language came from trying to use our mouths and sounds to imitate physical gestures.
  6. Yo-He-Ho: If you've ever lifted anything heavy, you might have let out a groan or other kind of sound. This theory claims language came from the sounds we made while doing hard work.

Could language come from grunting and groaning while straining to do hard work?

Could Several Theories Be Correct?

Recent theories for the evolution and migration of early hominids and humans complicate the issue of explaining how language developed. The monogenesis theories also called the Out of Africa theories, and Mother-Tongue theories, posit that humans and other hominids developed in Africa first, then migrated outward to the rest of the world. Linguistically, this also presupposes the existence of an original language that formed in Africa.

The polygenesis theories, however, argue that hominids migrated out of Africa at different times and that many early human ancestors may have evolved in places other than Africa. Linguistically, polygenesis argues that whether humans evolved in one place or many, language use rose from multiple places, which may be supported by the wide variety of languages, and language families, in existence today. If polygenesis is correct, language development may have happened in a variety of ways across distance human populations. However, this depends on whether humans migrated out of Africa before developing language, or after.

One Mother-Tongue or several different ways for language to develop?
migration pathways

New or Contemporary Theories

While theorizing on the origins and development of language stagnated for decades, interest in the origin of language is returning in light of new developments in the archaeological record, animal behavior research, and studies in human biology.

  • Co-Evolution of Humans and Language: This theory notes that the biological requirements to make language possible did not happen at once. These include downward-pointing teeth, more complex muscles in the lips, and a lower larynx. Each change would enable better and more complex communication. If communication benefits survival, the physical changes necessary would have developed as humans evolved, while language gradually developed from the sounds available at each stage. Critics of this theory note that the variety of sounds other animals can make would create a plentiful-enough supply of sounds for language, even without the physiological develops in human evolution.

Speech related developments in the throat.

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