Roots of Language
Rarely does the question of the origins of human language provoke serious attention from linguists. It is not that the subject is a trivial one, or that it lacks a history of speculative debate. But discussions of how language originated tend to pass over the very features of human language that make it human. They deal neither with its formal lexico-grammatical structure nor with why languages make particular semantic distinctions in particular syntactic ways. How did it come about, for example, that inflection, word order, and morphology do so much work in so many languages; or that virtually all languages make such neat work of such knotty matters as noting causativeness and transitivity or distinguishing what linguists call “unmarked,” or ordinary, expressions from marked, extraordinary expressions?
If language seems like a miraculous, proliferating tree, most guesses about its roots have been notoriously unproductive and singularly dull. Did language derive from gestures (to pick one of the more recent dreary proposals)? Well, why not? But how did the gestures take on the complexity of a linguistic system? The same can be said about the claims that language emerged from “grunts and groans” and “yo-heave-hos” and other such sounds. Small wonder the Société de Linguistique of Paris banned the topic of origins from its meetings in the late nineteenth century. Besides, questions about the inherent structure and systematic qualities of particular languages—what Saussure in the opening years of this century called the “synchronic” issue—elbowed aside nineteenth-century concern with “diachronic,” or historical, matters, among which were those relating to origins.
But for all the banning of the subject and the boredom with it, speculation about the roots of language has a way of resisting extinction. In recent decades, diachronic linguistics has been given little attention but interest in “roots” has been kept alive by the enormous growth of work on the child’s acquisition of language deriving from Chomsky’s bold hypothesis that language is innate. Perhaps the Cartesian miracle that was alleged by Chomsky to produce language in the child could produce it in the species as well—perhaps a universal, deep-structure, formal grammar has been built into the mind, through which human beings could first invent language and then recognize the local rules for speaking their mother tongue properly, once such a specific local language had come into being. But nobody was prepared to assert that some languages were, so to speak, living, primitive fossils. Efforts like Joseph H. Greenberg’s to catalogue the universals of all known living languages helped little with the issue of origins, though they went some way toward sparing us from our own linguistic parochialism. If you subscribe to the idea (still almost universal) that all languages are equally advanced, then how could an account of what they have in common tell you how it all started?
And then of course there are chimpanzees. But what did research on them tell us, except that these amiable pongids could, given human tutelage, pick up some of the logic of linguistic…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.