Language in use  
English Language & Linguistics

English Language


The Origins of Language

The following pages deal with the early history of our language, including the origins of Indo-European which is the earliest known source language of English and many other European languages.

The ultimate origin of language is likely to remain unknown, although many different theories have been suggested. We do not know whether language emerged in one or several places or at different times in our history. It is believed that humans have an innate capacity for producing language.

One general theory that language began as a way of warning fellow hunters of danger is balanced by another that women were the first conversationalists, working at "home" together with language as a social lubricant. Evidence for the latter theory exists in the fact that girls learn language earlier than boys, but this is hardly proof.

white handed gibbonIn January 2015 New Scientist magazine published research claiming some animals use organised sound patterns to communicate with each other.

They identified 26 sounds used by white handed gibbons to identify different predators and indicate how close they are. These can be seen as patterns in the same way human speech uses nouns with adjectives to qualify or modify meaning. The suggestion is that this could be similar to early human language.

Other research has identified some quieter and more intimate sounds used between parents and children of gibbons, while a loud communicating “song” could be like the songs early humans may have used to communicate 1.8 million years ago.

As spoken language leaves no traces in the historic record we shall probably never know. However theories abound and considerable research has been undertaken, some of which is given below.

Human responses to sounds

The human brain's ability to process sounds has been critical to our survival. The human ear is designed to cope with a broad range of frequencies and volumes and can even bring about physical pain in the inner ear. Responding appropriately to warning sounds and distinguishing them from calming or neutral sounds, knowing when to stay alert and when to relax, increased our ability to survive and flourish.

Sounds are a mixture of frequencies, some audible, some beyond our range yet which we unconsciously react to. The soothing sounds that encourage us to relax include gurgling water, the soft cooing/humming of human voices, the low cackle of friendly fire. In the same way as an environment of dappled shade and running water are said to reflect our natural environment these soothing sounds signal that we can switch off and stop worrying.
Alerting and warning sounds, however, release chemicals into our brains that switch on a stress response. The prolonged screams of a child in pain, or a screech like claws against a hard surface are warnings that make us alert and therefore stressed, suggesting danger. These distress or warning sounds make us focus on that stimulus so we try to change the situation or leave it in haste.

That ability to distinguish between different types of sound and react appropriately to them has given us an advantage in our development which in turn has lead to sound creation, understanding of more complex sounds and eventually to human language itself.
Think of that, next time you hear a screech of brakes, loud discordant music, or a loud drill.

We are quite sure that, whatever the ultimate "first language" we can certainly trace English back to a language called Indo-European which originated 8-10,000 years ago.

 In November 2003 the magazine Nature reported the work of Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand under the heading "Language tree rooted in Turkey - Evolutionary ideas give farmers credit for Indo-European tongues".

Their findings suggest that farmers in what is now Turkey were the first speakers of Indo-European - and not later Siberian horsemen, as some linguists have claimed.
They used the rate at which words change to gauge the age of the tree's roots - just as biologists estimate a species' age from the rate of gene mutations. The differences between words, or DNA sequences, are a measure of how closely languages, or species, are related. Read an abridged version of the article here.

The Salmon as an example of a word which shows the similarities and differences between a wide variety of languages

A Prehistory Timeline of language, showing evolution from 8 million years ago to the invasion of the Romans

Indo-European, its Family Tree and the words Indo-European languages have in common.

How Indo-European was discovered.

Non Indo-European language families.