Was There a First Human Language?: Theories from the Enlightenment Through Noam Chomsky

Dur­ing the 17th and 18th cen­turies, Euro­pean Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers dis­card­ed the ori­gin sto­ries in reli­gious texts as wild­ly implau­si­ble or sim­ply alle­gor­i­cal. But they found them­selves charged with com­ing up with their own, nat­u­ral­is­tic expla­na­tions for the ori­gins of life, law, moral­i­ty, etc. And most press­ing­ly for their inquiries into psy­chol­o­gy and cog­ni­tion, many of those thinkers sought to explain the ori­gins of lan­guage.

The Bib­li­cal sto­ry of the Tow­er of Babel had long been wide­ly accept­ed, either lit­er­al­ly or metaphor­i­cal­ly, as indica­tive that all humans once spoke the same lan­guage (The so-called “Adam­ic Lan­guage”). Many com­pet­ing the­o­ries came from philoso­phers like Locke, Rousseau, Condil­lac, Herder, and the Scot­tish jurist and philoso­pher James Bur­nett, known by his hered­i­tary title, Mon­bod­do.

Antic­i­pat­ing Dar­win­ian evo­lu­tion as well as com­par­a­tive lin­guis­tics, Mon­bod­do argued that lan­guage arose as a response to a chang­ing envi­ron­ment, and that it came into being, along with human beings, in one place, then diver­si­fied as humans spread across the globe and diverged cul­tur­al­ly. This was known as the the­o­ry of mono­gen­e­sis, or the “sin­gle-ori­gin the­o­ry” of lan­guage.

As the nar­ra­tor in the video above, from lin­guis­tics YouTube chan­nel NativLang, puts it, even after the sto­ry had been naturalized—and the lan­guages of the world mapped into pro­to-evo­lu­tion­ary fam­i­ly trees—“Babel still held one intrigu­ing idea over us; that orig­i­nal lan­guage.” And yet, rather than search for the mys­ti­cal Adam­ic Lan­guage—the rev­e­la­tion of a divinity—as many alchemists and occultists had done, nat­ur­al philoso­phers like Mon­bod­do used emerg­ing com­par­a­tive lin­guis­tics meth­ods to attempt a his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tion of the first human lan­guage.

They were less than suc­cess­ful. Giv­ing it up as futile, in 1866, the Soci­ety of Lin­guis­tics in Paris banned all dis­cus­sion of the issue. “Enter the late Joseph Green­berg” to begin the search anew, says NativLang. A 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can lin­guist, Green­berg used mass com­par­i­son and typol­o­gy to com­pare “super­fam­i­lies.” Lat­er lin­guists took up the chal­lenge, includ­ing Mer­ritt Ruhlen, who “com­pared vocab­u­lary from across the globe and recon­struct­ed 27 pro­to-words” sup­pos­ed­ly belong­ing to the first human lan­guage, called “Pro­to-World.” Ruhlen’s the­o­ry has since been crit­i­cal­ly sav­aged, says NativLang, and “con­fi­dent­ly tossed… into the bins of fringe lin­guis­tics, pseu­do­science… and yet, Babel’s first, and biggest claim lingers.”

The intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry in this five-minute video is obvi­ous­ly over­sim­pli­fied, but it high­lights some fas­ci­nat­ing fea­tures of the cur­rent debate. As Avi Lif­schitz, his­to­ri­an of Enlight­en­ment the­o­ry of lan­guage, writes, we tend “to assume that our own cog­ni­tive the­o­ries are the lat­est word when com­pared with those of our pre­de­ces­sors. Yet in some areas, the ques­tions we are now ask­ing are not too dif­fer­ent from those posed some two or three cen­turies ago.” In the case of the ori­gins of lan­guage, that is most cer­tain­ly so. Cen­tral to the the­o­ries of Locke and oth­ers, for exam­ple, “the pre­cise role of lan­guage in the brain and in human per­cep­tion” remains “one of the most top­i­cal ques­tions in today’s cog­ni­tive sci­ence.”

Although many schol­ars have giv­en up attempt­ing to recon­struct the orig­i­nal lan­guage, lin­guists, cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists, and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gists con­tin­ue to find com­pelling evi­dence for the sin­gle-ori­gin the­o­ry. The NativLang video omits per­haps the most famous mod­ern lin­guist, Noam Chom­sky, who argued that a chance muta­tion occurred some 100,000 years ago, giv­ing rise to lan­guage. Even as lan­guages have diverged into what’s cur­rent­ly esti­mat­ed at around 6,000 dif­fer­ent tongues, Chom­sky claimed, they all retain a com­mon struc­ture, a “uni­ver­sal gram­mar.”

What­ev­er it might have sound­ed like, orig­i­nal lan­guage would like­ly have arisen in Sub-Saha­ran Africa, where mod­ern humans evolved some­where between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago. In 2011, Uni­ver­si­ty of Auck­land biol­o­gist Quentin Atkin­son used lin­guis­tic tech­niques some­what like Monboddo’s to show that African lan­guages—espe­cial­ly click lan­guages like the South African Xu—have con­sid­er­ably more indi­vid­ual sounds (phonemes) than oth­ers. And that lan­guages around the world have few­er and few­er phonemes the fur­ther they are from south­ern Africa.

Most sci­en­tists agree with the basic evo­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry of human ori­gins. But like Ruh­len’s “Pro­to-World,” Atkinson’s lin­guis­tic the­o­ry “caused some­thing of a sen­sa­tion,” writes Sci­ence Dai­ly, and has since come in for severe cri­tique. The debate over many of those Enlight­en­ment ques­tions about the ori­gins of lan­guage con­tin­ues. Bar­ring some dra­con­ian ban, “the search for the site of ori­gin of lan­guage,” and for the lan­guage itself and the evo­lu­tion­ary mech­a­nisms that pro­duced it, “remains very much alive.”

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

How Lan­guages Evolve: Explained in a Win­ning TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion

Noam Chom­sky Talks About How Kids Acquire Lan­guage & Ideas in an Ani­mat­ed Video by Michel Gondry

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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