The Origin of Language

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language — When Language Began

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language is an ever-evolving part of lives, something that changes with each passing instance of usage. After all, it is an integral part of the culture, which is also why there are so many different languages and dialects to be found. But this also gives rise to an extremely important question: What is the origin of language? Do we learn it from our socio-cultural surroundings, or are we born with it?

Linguistics word illustration
Even though language is such an integral part of our culture, there seem to be some biological elements to it as well. (Image: OpturaDesign/Shutterstock)

The ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ Conundrum

For a long time, humans have been dealing with the rhetorical conundrum of ‘Nature vs. Nurture’. Are we the way we are because we are born that way, or is it because of the way we are raised. There have been a lot of arguments from either side in this debate. If our personality is, indeed, inherent from birth, why do twins, with the same genetic material, not end up with the same personality? On the other side of the coin, if it is, indeed, a question of how children are raised, why do siblings raise in the same manner grow up to be vastly different people?

The Debate in Linguistics

An argument very similar to this one has been going on in the world of linguistics for quite some time now. On the one hand, there is the belief that language is a part of the culture, in fact, that language is an extension of culture itself, and therefore is completely dependent on it.
This notion corroborates with the fact that language has always evolved hand in hand with the environmental culture.

The other side of the argument, however, is that there is a strong biological element in language. 

Of course, such an argument is only possible when we trace language to the spoken form and not the artificial latter-day representation in the form of writing.  In the spoken form, language has been observed to be a product of natural selection, almost Darwinian in Nature. 

The person who propagated this idea the farthest is Noam Chomsky, an American writer, most popular for his liberal political work, also credited with significant advances in linguistics. 

Learn more about How Language Changes.

Chomsky’s Hypothesis

Noam Chomsky, in the late 1950s, proposed the idea that we are genetically imbibed with the sense of speech.

This idea comes with a notion of ‘Universal Grammar’, a specific attribute that helps us with syntax and semantics. This notion creates the Chomskyan view that we must be genetically programmed for speech: rather than imitation from our environment and culture, speech is based on a blueprint that is imbibed in us by birth.

This idea found a great number of supporters, as a result of which, the theory has been derived upon, and reasoned for, greatly. 

Reasons that support the Innateness of Speech

The fundamental fact that all humans eventually learn to speak favors Chomsky’s idea. 

 The speed of acquisition argument adds to this, by essentially bringing forth the fact that a mentally healthy child is always able to learn to speak within a few years of being exposed to a language.

Further, the critical – age hypothesis, which elucidates on how the ability to learn to speak diminishes with age, substantiates this argument, mimicking natural maturational stages, and signaling towards biological involvement to the process of learning a language.

Neurobiological findings, such as those found by conducting research on instances of damage to the speech center of the brain, also validate the notion of ‘innateness’ in linguistic ability. 

Finally, the discovery of the ‘FOXP2’ gene, believed to contain aspects that give us the ability to speak, all but confirms the presence of a biological component to language. 

However, this idea met its fair share of criticisms as well, garnering support for the notion that language is all to do with culture and society. 

Arguments Supporting Language’s Cultural Roots

The fundamental support to the idea of language coming from culture arises from the very nature of language: it is a socio-cultural element and an important one at that. Theorists belonging to this school of thought believe that cultural understanding is all there is to language, with no biological impetus. 

Empirically, it has been seen that children who were isolated from sociocultural sources of language for their formative years, were unable to learn how to speak, ever. Apart from validating the critical – age hypothesis to a certain extent, this observation also questions the idea that there is an innate understanding of language within us.

There are also strong questions regarding the role of intelligence in linguistic abilities. As a strong dependence on the ability lies in intellect, it has also been established that the converse is true as well, positing an intelligence gradient upon which language lies, thus weakening several of Chomsky’s arguments.

Learn more about Does Culture Drive Language Change?

The Case for Innate Linguistic Abilities

Even though there are arguments for both sides of the debate, the idea that language is innately coded into our genes finds a lot of suitors, perhaps because the evidence for the same is easily available around us every day. 

For instance, the notion that there is not a single group of humans, at least discovered thus far, not even the remotest of tribes, that do not communicate. 

Instinctively, babies babble, almost as if they are trying to speak, and eventually learn to talk. In contrast, even though some animals can understand human emotions, and some can even mimic a few words or sentences, they do not have a sense of language. 

Even though the emergence of this ability is questioned, research has virtually confirmed that it evolved before humans had moved out of Africa. 

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

Moving Past the Conundrum

A queer, yet obvious, phenomenon about the innateness hypothesis is that its controversial nature is prevalent most commonly among educated, literate audiences. Perhaps there is a sense of revulsion to the idea that language is an innate ability and not something that has been acquired as a result of hard work, as a result of absorption from culture and society. The field is almost politicized, with heavy polarization on both sides of the argument. 

The extent to which this issue is prevalent can be seen in the sheer amount of books that exist, for either side of the argument. Today, one can find a countless number of books that can add to their understanding of the debate. 

A brilliant read is Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. Although the book is a bit on the lengthier side, it provides brilliant arguments on the Chomskyan Hypothesis. 

On the other side of the debate is the book called Educating Eve: The Language Instinct Debate, by Geoffrey Sampson, which manages to provide a comprehensive critique of not only Pinker’s arguments but of Chomskyan arguments in general. Written succinctly and rife with British wit, the book makes for a pleasant read and is contributory towards forming an opinion on the language debate. 

Learn More About The World’s First Language.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Origins of Language

Q: What is the Origin of language?

While some theorists believe language originated as an evolution of our culture, others believe that there is also a certain innate understanding of language in us.

Q: What is Universal Grammar?

Universal Grammar is an innate understanding of grammar that some theorists believe all humans possess, which is the basis for our understanding of language.

Q: What is Chomsky’s Hypothesis?

Chomsky’s Hypothesis about the origin of language says that language is genetically imbibed in us by birth, that we innately know how to communicate.

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