On the Beginnings of Language

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 8 Apr 2019

Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

8 Apr 2019 – Language is an intimate part of human beings that largely distinguishes us from animals or birds. Whereas the latter do communicate with each other mainly through sounds — grunts, squeaks and howls etc, only humans have the ability to communicate with each other through language. Its form may be oral or written or through drawings in caves or edicts of certain kings or religious seers sketched on stone, its content and vocabulary may be limited, but language as we now understand is a facility or ability of the human species.

Yes, the vocabulary may be limited as in the case of indigenous peoples or extensive as written by some novelists or poets; it of course differs from country to country and within regions as in a multilingual country such as India; it may not be comprehensible outside the region, but words and the grammar are attributes of the languages spoken by humans.

As we all know now, there are hundreds of languages spoken in the world and unfortunately due to economic and social factors dozens of languages especially those of people living in remote areas are dying every year. Many more are vulnerable and facing extinction in the future.

These facets of languages are well known. What is not so well understood is the beginnings of languages or more particularly of words. How did languages begin, how did they develop to their modern complex forms, how did grammar bind the words into sentences? There are some other issues — interrelationships between different languages in terms of words or phrases or briefly in terms of ideas. Another finer point — how is gender treated by different languages? There are several other interesting and intriguing aspects but let us leave them aside for the moment and concentrate on relatively easier issues.

Living in what we would call primitive conditions— in jungles or in remote hilly regions, man had only a few basic needs — food, water, sleep and some simple form of shelter that was possible to find or to fabricate. So a few words were coined to give names to the things the primitive man ate — fruit or fish. One could occasionally see some lightning in the sky or fire in some jungle and some sounds or mini words were used to point to these phenomena.

Similarly some sounds were made up and used that denoted water that was flowing past in a river. Men in those primitive times also saw rain falling and after some time they could grasp that raindrops and the river water were similar entities. The words or more likely sounds for these entities or phenomena gradually became standard among the people of this community. Yes, words for another man or a woman or children were similarly produced. It was not that one person coined the various words — others also joined in this game and that word which was simple and easy to pronounce gradually became standard in the community.

In this phase there were no verbs or adjectives and consequently no sentences. Words for these developed much later. In his book ‘The Origin of Inequality’ first published in 1775 by the eminent French philosopher J J Rousseau, he tried to explain the idea of creation of language in the following words:

“We must allow that words, first made use of by men, had a much more extensive signification… Considering how ignorant they were of the division of speech into its constituent parts, they gave every word the meaning of an entire proposition.. (Only) afterwards they began to perceive the difference between subject and attribute, between verb and noun. As to adjectives, great difficulty must have attended the development of the idea that represents them, since every adjective is an abstract word…”

Rousseau also had written how difficult it was to express an idea without the assistance of words and of propositions. But gradually as words and grammar developed, ideas could be communicated to others.

In today’s context also it is difficult to convey an idea although we have an extensive vocabulary of words, verbs and expressions because of our different political or religious ideologies. This difficulty becomes all the more pronounced in an election  year as is happening in India today. But some interesting words or phrases are being regularly coined — BREXIT in UK and several expressions or words  in India such as RAGA (Rahul Gandhi) and NAMO (Narender Modi) representing the two main contenders to become the leaders of the new government. Other words in Hindi (Chowkidar) and our several regional languages are also coming up in this election year in India.

One can try to grasp the phase of early language development by looking at how a mother tries to communicate with her one year old child; she uses simple words for milk, water, fruit, a toy or a pet dog etc. Over time the child begins to grasp that the word denotes the particular object and starts imitating these words while communicating with his mother or father or older brother/sister. The word is not the complete word for that object but could be a simple one such as ba for banana, yum for water or any drink, bow bow for a dog and so on. Inflexion of sounds to emphasise some word or an idea is also resorted to.

These are only examples and different families use different words for common objects while developing language skills in the children. So in this early phase there are usually no words for adjectives or verbs (except perhaps for big/small and going to sleep etc.).

In this manner the early man developed words and started communicating with others in the community. Of course gestures were largely employed to denote some actions for going out or sitting down or expressing that the food was  tasty or indicating that one needed more of it and so on. Thus language helped in development of society as it became complex and similarly the society continues to help in the development and enrichment of language.

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Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi. ravipbhatia@gmail.com


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 Apr 2019.

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One Response to “On the Beginnings of Language”

  1. Roger Harris says:

    This article is not informed or scientific. I begin with, humans as well as birds are animals.