Origin of Language: When Did It Start and How Did It Evolve?

From The Lecture Series: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

The origin of language can be a single proto-language that slowly evolved and was transported to different parts of the world. The similar words found in languages that look completely different can be supporting evidence. Regardless of the soundness of this theory, can words evolve drastically enough to look absolutely different from their origin?

Carvings at Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find evidence about the first language because writing emerged only 6,000 years ago, while language has been around for 150,000 years. (Image: starmaro/Shutterstock)

If there is one word that sounds the same in distinct languages, will it show that these languages came from the same origin? For example, can tik be the origin of words that look very different today? A subclass of linguists, who study a group of Native American languages, works on the issue. They have reconstructed many words to their protoform. These linguists are called Algonquianists, and they try to find the origin of language.

Learn more about how language develops.

The Evolution of tik

Algonquianists reconstructed the words one and finger and concluded that they come from the root tik. The supporting idea is that people count one with the finger. The other supporting idea is that some languages still use similar words. For example, in Dinka – a Sudanese language – the word for one is tok. In Turkish, the word for only, that’s kind of like one, is tek.

In Old English, tahe was the word for toe, which is similar to a finger. In Japanese, te is hand, which is also related to fingering. In an Eskimo language, the word for index finger the word is tik. Examples are numerous, and they all pose one question: do they all come from the same origin?

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Written and Spoken Language

The language dates back to roughly 150,000 years ago. However, all the linguistic evidence dates back to around 6000 years ago, when writing began. Consequently, the major history of language is discovered through guesses and written evidence that is much newer than the era that the linguists study.

Inscription of Brahmi script at Nasik Caves, India
The carved writings approve that many languages came from the same source, but they also show different origins for separate groups of languages. (Image: Ritesh M Panchal/Shutterstock)

Does Proto-mammal Approve Proto-language?

Ruheln uses biological evolution to explain linguistic evolution. He argues that even though most scientists agree on the existence of a Proto-Mammal that later evolved to bats, cats, and humans. No fossil of Proto-Mammal has been discovered. There is even no need to discover Proto-Mammal bones and all the other creatures before cats and bats were evolved into completely separate species.

Categorizing some species in the mammalian family does not require fossils of every step of evolution, so why does language? If the fist mammal can be reconstructed, why can the first language not be? This looks logical, but the role of the accident is ignored.

Learn more about how language changes.

Do Japanese and English Have the Same Origin?

If the Proto-Mammal argument is applicable, then Japanese and English must have the same linguistic origin. There are supporting examples like  that means more, sō that means so, nai, which means not, Mono is a single entity and more. This can apply to many pairs of languages. Another example is Thai: fii in Thai means firetaii in Thai means tire, and rhim in Thai means rim.

Four smiley fingers on a blackboard saying hello in English, French, Chinese and Spanish.
Some words are still very similar in languages that might not even come from the same proto-language. (Image: Lemon Tree Images/Shutterstock)

Statistically speaking, it is normal to have such accidents among the 6000 languages of the world. Does this mean there is no systematic resemblance between distinct languages?

The Global Limits

There are limits that no language breaks: no language has 16 consonants at a time or seven vowels just running after each other. Another global limit is the use of clicks in languages, even though they can add more variety to the sounds of the language. This is another argument that supporters of the Proto-World theory use to prove the single origin of all languages.

The problem is that the similarities, the tiks, the global linguistic limits, and the arguments are not enough to testify the existence of the same pattern among all languages. Without enough evidence or a universal pattern, proving the origin of languages coming to the same root gets even more difficult.

Common Questions about Origin of Language

Q: Where did language come from?

Language started around 150,000 years ago to meet humans’ communicational needs. The origin of language is under debate as evidence of languages before writing is almost impossible to find.

Q: What is the origin of all languages?

One theory argues that the origin of all languages was the same, but they slowly evolved and made thoroughly different entities, just like the animals did. However, considering the same root for all languages requires more evidence.

Q: What was the first language on earth?

The first language on earth might be the origin of all languages or a dead language that fathered only a few of today’s languages. Since language is 150,000 years old and writing is only 6000, no written evidence of languages before can answer this question.

Q: How did language start?

The origin of language was perhaps the need to communicate. Maybe the initial words were only howls and hoots, but eventually, they evolved to form a systematic way of communication for humans.

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