The issue of the origins of language has a long history and reveals a firm concern to reveal the constitutive elements that underpin humanity.  The investigation of the sources of language is also the search for the nature of the human and its faculties as rational beings.

Indeed, all inquiries about language have been, at the same time, an exploration of the functioning of the human mind. The physiology and neuroscience have been concerned with how and where neural connections speech function.

Today, the issue of the principles of language is located in the realm of hominid evolution and in the understanding that sound is an excellent means of communication . It is worth saying that the oral-auditory system allows human beings a type of communication that, in general, is manifestly superior to others, such as gestural or visual.

The human expressive instrument, unlike other animal species, allows the subject to speak about himself and others . The complexity of its structures also allows it to talk about the present, past and future; build conditional, concessive and final systems; define scientific notions, and even create fictitious universes, with the methods of literature.

Your concept

A short concept of language describes it as a system or instrument of communication between humans, which is made up of signs to which certain ideas are assigned. According to its communicative function and, more specifically, to the intentional transfer of information, it is an exclusively human means of communication.

Furthermore, language is a non-instinctive system, which not only works to communicate ideas, but also emotions and desires. The signs are articulated in such a way that the message needs to be decoded by its receiver . These signs-symbols would be in the first instance auditory and would depend on the organs of speech.

In short, language is the rational way of symbolizing ideas (thought) and the different ways of capturing and interpreting reality, according to a series of purposes, motivations and needs. Motivations and needs that necessarily occur in a particular context of cognitive, social and pragmatic interaction . Language is a capacity that arose from the physical and physiological evolution of hominids and is what allows the species to feel truly human.

Language types and characteristics

It is known that there is no single type of language. So we want to talk about the variety of languages ​​that exist. Likewise, there are certain interesting variants with regard to the concept of language that we want to indicate.

Verbal language

The dominant language is verbal, oral or vocal-auditory language . It is considered a structured system of units that function according to established and codified guidelines, and not just as a form of purposeful communication.

The systematicity of verbal language is a characteristic that it shares with animal communication (to some extent present) or other systems, such as traffic signals. Nor can it be assured that the communicative function is a particularity of verbal language.

The defining feature of verbal language is its ability to establish diverse connections between its elements. This quality, its articulate character, differentiates it from other communication systems. The verbal language is composed of a specific number of units that can be combined systematically, through which allows them to express human infinite messages.

Verbal language is the natural modality of language , based on the emission and reception of articulated sounds. When analyzing each of the languages ​​of the world, it is observed that all require sound to manifest. The sound character of languages ​​presupposes that, since the origins of humanity, the vocal-auditory form was the most used as a linguistic communication system.

First known type of language

Studies agree that the oral form is the most efficient since time immemorial , because the sound is self-sufficient and does not necessarily require visual support, in the form of gestures.

If compared to the language of gestures , which requires individuals to be, vocal-auditory language works even at night. Hence, the pre-eminence of oral language since ancient times, in which lighting was precarious and depended on bonfires.

Another determining factor for the preference and pre-eminence of oral language is that gestural language requires visual contact of the hands and face, which would only be possible under minimal lighting conditions and closeness between individuals.

Sound spreads in all directions in the three-dimensional environment regardless of the lighting level. The information emitted in the form of sound would be perceptible even when its receivers were looking the other way or the ability to see was impaired.

Oral language can overcome great distances . For example, between two humans located 100 meters apart, the vocal-auditory language could still operate. Instead, fluid communication through gestures would be impossible; with distance, the hands are no longer visible. The voice can overcome a certain distance, but the gestures cannot.

Various advantages of oral language

The manual activities of the individuals would prevent the frequent use of the hands. Instead, the mouth would only occupy itself when eating and drinking. This factor is another advantage of oral language over sign language. It is interesting to appreciate that oral language is possible thanks to the duplicity of functions of the mouth, tongue, and upper respiratory tract.

The tongue, for example, plays a fundamental role in food intake and, at the same time, allows the articulation of sounds, in conjunction with the vocal cords and the control of exhalations and inhalations of air.

The factors previously described have contributed to the sound signs becoming the foundation of linguistic communication. Undoubtedly, verbal language has favored social interaction due to its communicative effectiveness, apart from the fact that gestural language can serve as support and reaffirmation.

Consequently, verbal language is the main means of human communication ; However, it should not be characterized only in communicative terms, because there are other systematized means of communication, such as traffic lights to control the traffic of vehicles in large cities.

And it should also be added that the non-systematized means of communication could work to send information. That is, the communicative function is not, in any way, what distinguishes verbal language.

Written language 

It is a secondary modality and substitute for the oral form . It is made up of graphic signs, has its own system and has been, since ancient times, the engine of human culture, although there are societies that do not know it. Writing has allowed messages to be preserved and, unlike oral language, it does not need the sender and receiver in a given space and time.

That said, the term language, due to its specific meaning, should only be applied to verbal language: understood as a central communication system and due to its articulated nature, it is language itself. And it is the object of study of Linguistics.

A final distinction would have to be made. The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure defined language in the following terms: “language is a faculty common to all men; and language, a social product of the language faculty ”. (Cited by María Lourdes García-Macho and others (2017). Basic knowledge of the Spanish language , Madrid: Editorial Universitaria Ramón Areces, p. 11).

The differences between language and language

Starting from the previous concept, language and language should not be confused, since language (or language) is a systematized set of linguistic signs (words), which functions as a tool for expression and direct communication between individuals in a linguistic region. Understand the idea of ​​linguistic region as a territory (or group of them) that are related by sharing the same language.

The members of these territories, united by the same language, learn their language frankly, by listening and repeating, memorizing the code that articulates the units of the language , while absorbing the conventions adopted by the community , in order to to communicate with each other.

Broadly speaking, animal communication is innately determined , fixed and limited to a small number of data, especially related to survival conditions. It is very different, in this sense, from human communication, where the means used are complex and not necessarily tied to survival conditions.

The particular features of human language

Now, human language shares with the animal communication system or other communication systems, the following features:

  1. The sound-auditory character , taking into account that animals have not developed a written language.
  2. The transmission of the message through space audibly and directly to the receiver (for example, dolphins and birds communicate by sound
  3. The ephemeral condition of the message , since the sounds vanish as soon as they are emitted, which allows conversation between humans (hence the need to physically record what was said: writing)
  4. The meaning of sound signals , since they all express something (among animals, sounds have a behavioral response). And, on the other hand, all signal systems mean something.

Now, it is up to us to elucidate a little more about the specifics of human language . In this regard, we provide information in the next section of this text.

The features of human languages

Human languages ​​share a number of their own characteristics . Although they are many, and quite heterogeneous, they have certain common qualities that we show below:

1.- The arbitrariness and conventionality of the words:

As is known, words have no connection whatsoever with the object they designate. That is, the human communicates linguistically thanks to the fact that he has agreed on a series of arbitrary designations (words) and articulates them thanks to a system of rules (syntax) that give it meaning.

Obviously, each language has codes that must be understood by the members of that linguistic community . Only onomatopoeia have any sonic relationship. For example, “meow! (in Spanish), imitates the characteristic howl of the domestic cat.

  • Temporary independence:

No other species existing on the face of the earth has the linguistic capacity to communicate ideas, memories, intentions and projects, regardless of time.

That is, only human beings can speak about the present, past and future (all languages ​​have temporary forms, verbal structures, or adverbial forms, for this).

Anyone could affirm: yesterday, today and tomorrow , I was, I am and I will be working, respectively. This characteristic is vital for shaping personal and collective history.

  • The formal or compositional structuring: 

Human languages inevitably have two structural levels , the one that corresponds to their level of meaning, on the one hand, and the one that concerns the basic units of sounds, on the other. 

The alphabet is that set of basic sound units that, through a series of regulated combinations and grammatical dispositions, reaches tens of thousands of forms.

  • Creativity and productivity:

In the animal world, communication lacks creative and productive nuances ; there are no significant products. Syntactic structures and textual constructions are vastly significant. In fact, what is produced in a single language has no limits . It is the vast domain of linguistic systems expressed in philosophy , science, literature, etc.

2.- The transvestite or false sense:

This characteristic common to all languages ​​keeps its meaning due to the intentionality that the words accompany and the context in which they are produced.

The truth of the message could be conditioned to various factors, not necessarily attributable to the issuer , when it comes to everyday content, although it is obvious that everyone has the freedom to lie or defend their truth through their language.

At another level, languages ​​have the potential of irony, of double meaning. For example, metaphors serve to cross-dress meaning and disguise grammatical content. Human language can achieve unsuspected intentions.

3.- The metalinguistic character:

Fundamental within the spectrum of languages is their self-referential power.

Languages ​​are regularly used to describe external things, subjective emotions, human life situations, existential and natural phenomena, etc .; however, they also have the potential to describe themselves.

Spanish grammar texts are nothing more than metalinguistic studies, because they deal with how the same language works.

The characteristics described constitute the identity of language as a human faculty, applicable to all languages ​​known today. Language makes up a single fact; There is no other communication system on the planet with the potentiality and versatility described above.

Language history

In ancient times, hypotheses about the beginnings of language were conditioned by subjectivity and by the lack of empirical tests.

In particular, ideas about language were mixed with myths and theories of a religious nature, which led to confusing discussions among philosophers . For example, language came to confer a divine origin.

In the oldest cultures, they believed that language had been a kind of gift from the divinity. In ancient Rome it was believed that the god Janus had given birth to language and handed it over to his people.

On the other hand, the Bible mentions Yahweh, who identifies heaven , day, night and earth. And Adam names the animals. This unique and primordial language, supposedly Hebrew, would be divided into several languages ​​after Babel, giving rise to the spread of humanity, according to mythical history.

Some theories about the possible origin of language

The words have also been believed to have arisen from articulate exclamations out of fear, alarm, and joy . For Víctor Bunak, one of the most important Soviet language researchers, the first hominids went through the lalation phase or the emission of syllables, typical of the prelinguistic stage of the child.

The relationships did not serve to build ideas, less to talk, but to produce actions and as indicative of events. Monosyllables prevailed in these first sounds, without any structure to articulate them . Which would lead to think that language was not a mobilizing factor of behavior, but was behind it.

In ancient Greece, Bunak claimed, the earliest words were already believed to be onomatopoeia – imitations of the sounds with which early prehistoric individuals supplemented their different actions.

The above hypothesis, however, would have the drawback that it cannot be proven in practice. The fragility of these speculations would be determined by the fact that the most remote traces of linguistic activity have been those collected by writing. The first written vestiges go back to little more than five thousand years (the Mesopotamian pictographic and cuneiform writings).

But, one would have to suppose that homo sapiens was already a speaker, so the beginning of the language would be located one hundred thousand years ago. Consequently, there would be a ninety-five thousand year parenthesis in which it cannot be determined if there was any development of speech, because it has not left fossil remains, nor traces of its writing.

19th century theories about the origin of language

In the 19th century, with Romanticism , the divine preeminence of language would fall into crisis . Philosophers, like Herder and Rousseau , tried to bring the matter to a human level, producing logical tensions with representatives of the opposite position. The dispute caused the Societé Linguitique de Paris to explicitly prevent, in 1866, any mention of the subject.

From the 19th century in particular, the studies on language were divided into two tendencies. These are the ones we mention below:

  1. In the first place, we have comparative and historical research based on the most ancient written records, in order to remake proto-languages, such as the one that originated the Indo-European languages
  2. We also have the case of the analysis of living languages , held by highly organized systems. This is the beginning of something that will later lead to a mode of analysis and thinking called structuralism.

The origin of language has been somewhat removed from a linguistic appreciation , although it has not ceased to fascinate linguists throughout history. In the field of anthropology, current discoveries about the evolution of the homo genus seem to indicate new findings on the subject.

Other considerations about the origin and evolution of language

Certainly, the origins of language would be located in the context of the evolutionary theory of species , particularly in the brain conformation of the most capable primates.

It has been determined that there is a distinct evolutionary line between the more advanced non-human primates (chimpanzees, for example) and that of homo sapiens, which occurred approximately six million years ago.

The evidence indicates an evolutionary line consisting of an increase in brain mass from 400-600 cm 3 , corresponding to the various species of australopithecines , up to an average of 1400 cm 3 for homo sapiens . The homo habilis had a brain of 800 cm 3 and that of the Homo erectus did not exceed 1000 cm 3 . The brain mass of homo sapiens , from its appearance to the present, has had the average 1400 cm 3 already mentioned.

larger brain was accompanied, according to archaeological evidence, with an increasing ability to build and control the environment.

For example, homo habilis possessed the index finger and thumb (the pincer effect), with which he could grasp instruments and make stone tools and room shelters . The homo sapiens is behind the first human cultures (Aurignacian, Solutrean and Magdalenian) and innumerable technical advances that reach contemporaneity.

That said, it is absolutely reasonable that language emerged as an essential instrument of socialization , as a tool of consciousness and as a means to control nature and the world.

For about one hundred thousand years, humans would have enjoyed a complex linguistic system , which would be in line with their gregarious nature and increasingly pressing needs. Thus, an explanation of the origin of language would be related to the evolution towards homo sapiens ; verbal structures became increasingly complex.

Studies carried out on human skulls have determined the presence of “intracranial marks” in the areas of language control , located in the left hemisphere. Its internal traces, increasingly prominent, would be consistent with the evolution of hominids.

Another factor related to language would be that of human evolutionary adaptations corresponding to the position of the epiglottis and the vocal cords, which would form an efficient speech apparatus for the production of speech sounds. In humans, these functional elements are located lower than in non-human primates, an evolutionary aspect that allows for a resonating space.

Final considerations about a possible origin of the language

It is not possible to ensure exactly when and how humans access language , but there is the necessary consensus, among linguists, paleoanthropologists and neurologists, to ensure that the emergence of homo sapiens is linked to the articulation of the first forms of language. Skulls from about 100,000 years ago demonstrate the existence of humans like today.

In this sense, the existence of human sapiens was accompanied by a completely advanced symbolic communication system, which was constituted by a lexicon and a system of articulation of symbols or syntax . The human species, by being able to recognize itself by its communication faculty, establishes its presence as a subject towards and from the reality that surrounds it. Language allows humans to think, judge, imagine, communicate, socialize, and express emotions.

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Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

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