The philosopher/linguist Wittgenstein wrote: “…the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of language.”
In his book, The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention, Guy Deutscher wrote: “…searching for the origin of linguistic structure is nothing less than an attempt to discover how we acquired the ability to build bridges between minds.”
They both acknowledge that language is how we get a thought from one mind to another. We choose a certain predictable structure and vocabulary, called a language, to do this. Language facilitates trade, graphic art, romance, literature, politics and governing, and almost every other aspect of our lives. But where did it come from?
Human beings began to develop about 250,000 years ago in Africa and changed gradually into our present form. In a series of interesting historical novels, Children of the Earth, Jean Auel portrays Neanderthals and homo sapiens living side by side in Europe around 50,000 years ago.
At the same time that Neanderthals grunted and gestured to express themselves, people recognizable to us as humans had developed advanced speech organs and could form sentences and express thoughts. (Nobody knows why the Neanderthals disappeared, but recent analysis has documented the presence of an unexpectedly large amount of Neanderthal genetic material in modern Europeans.)
Deutscher speculates in his book that the primitive language, the “Me Tarzan You Jane” stage, might have been like this story, “girl fruit pick turn mammoth see girl run tree reach climb mammoth tree shake girl yell yell father run spear throw mammoth roar fall.” That’s comprehensible, but establishment of grammatical conventions make it possible to express more sophisticated ideas.
Our deeper understanding of the first language forms began with our discovery of ancient writing.
The oral language which preceded writing by as much as 70,000 years is obviously lost to us. We can only work backward and guess what it was like. There are a few things which we can assume about language before writing was developed: 1) as soon as the speaking organs of homo sapiens developed, they must have begun to articulate ideas, and 2) writing expanded trade, the sway of government, and the development of culture of all kinds.
Writing is nothing more than a graphic depiction of the spoken word, but the oldest graphics are not alphabetical; they are cave pictures which go back about 35,000 years. Scholars think that writing, as opposed to drawing or the use of simple symbols, began first as a way of keeping track of financial and economic information. How many cows were traded? What is in the jar? Even today, in societies with a low level of literacy, political candidates are represented by a symbol which appears on the ballot. People vote for the parrot or the camel.
Thirty thousand years after the cave pictures were drawn the Sumerians “invented” writing. The language researcher Dr. Holly Pittman suggests in her article Who Began Writing? Many Theories, Few Answers, in the New York Times April 6, 1999, that writing "arose out of the need to store information and transmit information outside of human memory and over time and over space."
Symbols developed into alphabets, and then whole sentences became available for study, and we could trace the development of grammar or syntax.
The benefits of written language were balanced by a dark side. Dr. Piotr Michalowsky writes in the same New York Times article, "Perhaps it's because I grew up in Stalinist Poland, but I say coercion and control were early writing's first important purpose, a new way to control how people live." That is still something to think about.
Archaeologists have not determined whether the languages of the Americas, Europe, Australia, and Asia developed independently, or from a single ancient tongue. Mmodern languages are more tightly related than we had thought (Did you know that Sanskrit and English are related?), but there are more mysteries to be solved as we learn more about the appearance and development of human language.
Ann’s blog http://www.linguisticsintheclassroom.com is read by hundreds of people around the world.