Theories about the origin of language

Term Paper, 1996

20 Pages



I. Introduction

II. The Continuity Theories

III. The Discontinuity Theory

IV. Philosophical Theories and Religious Belief

V. Biological Theories

VI. Common lines of arguments about the relation of brain size, other skeletal features, intelligence and language

VII. Summary and conclusion

VIII. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The following paper introduces certain theories about the origin of the human language. These theories will reveal to which degree we can give information about the origin of language and to what extent these information are speculative or not.

The first theories deal with the straight line of evolution. According to evolution, things change in the course of time and so the first theories are concerned with the development of language. These theories try to answer the question whether the development followed a straight line or not. The subsequent theories then deal with the religious and philosophical aspects in the theories about when language started. After that, biological theories are presented, before the closing of the essay with a summary and conclusion.

II. The Continuity Theories

The first Continuity Theory is based on the conviction that there is no fundamental difference between human communication and the communication of animals. Both transmit messages to other members of their species which can be understood by the receiver of the message. The need for communication and the use of sounds, noises and signs is equally important for humans and animals. Although there is a discrepancy in the quantity of possible messages and although the sounds, noises and signs sound or look different, they are all forms of a developed language or forms of language in the constantly developing line of evolution. "Theorists of this persuasion might picture the development of communication systems as a straight road towards language." (Lenneberg, 1967 : 228)

There is a difference, however, in the form of intelligence of humans and animals. The human intelligence can be called specific as humans are able to increase the quantity of their language as well as to name abstract things, events and situations. Animals lack this sort of intelligence, so their kind of intelligence is called non-specific. Specific intelligence is a very important and fundamental essence of language.

Those who consider this Continuity Theory as correct believe that the human form of language is just a much more advanced form of animal language or communication "[...] perhaps by virtue of some kind of proliferation of elements

(more memory units; or more classification devices; or more computing elements."

(Lenneberg, 1967 : 228) The number of human memory units, etc. is bigger than the one of animals, so the human language is more advanced. But as animals lack the specific intelligence, they are not able to enter the first stage of language acquistion. They can merely imitate the human language sounds, such as parrots can, if they do not lack the physical properties that are necessary for language.

But the argument about the intelligence is not reasonable in the sense of zoology as intelligence is an abstract expression and cannot be measured in a mathematical sense. Measuring intelligence by testing the IQ of a test person is only applicable on humans. But even those whose IQ is low, will most of the time react on simple commands immediately.

They all have the capacity to understand the human language. Animals' intelligence cannot be measured by the same system. And although some animals are able to react on some commands, too, we cannot draw the conclusion that they have a human kind of intelligence. We cannot compare the intelligence of different species in order to find out what the striking essences for the acquisition of the human language is. So animals that are reacting on human commands do not deliver the proof that this is a reference to human language acquisition. This philogenetic proximity does not increase the animals' capacity for language. Language is tied to the humans' cognitive structure. There lie the biggest differences between animal and human language.

Nevertheless, believers of this theory think that the human language must have ascended from the primitive forms of communication and language due to an increase of specific intelligence connected with a quantitive change in the human language which differentiates human from animal language.

Another Theory of Continuity states that animal language also has a continuous history. Language consists of different independent features as words, morphemes, noises or signs that all have been added to the basic structure of language that once had been developed. Throughout the years, the basic structure branched with the developing of new species. New species developed new features, other features disappeared with the extinction of another species. And as each species developed its language independently, each feature has its own history.

This language structure can be compared to a family tree, where each branch symbolizes a new species with new features or a new language. The dead branches are missing links in the language tree which indicate that this theory of continuity has some missing links and that it is not a continuous straight line of evolution. The human language may be seen as the highest branch in the tree as there are qualitative differences between the different complexes of features of animal and human language.

A. Koehler (1951-1954) describes the necessary conditions for language acquisition as prerequisites that enable members of a species to learn how to speak. Due to his belief, there are nineteen prerequisites. Man has them all, but most of the animals share not even all of the prerequisites that are not typically human. So no animal is able to learn the human language perfectly. Some who share some prerequisites with humans can reach the first stage of language acquisition, according to Koehler. Parrots for example can say a few words and they are even able to learn the meaning of certain things. They also have an innate number concept that allows them to count up to 8, but not further. Some mammals share this number concept, too. Birds have a navigation concept, bees, too. Koehler proposes that all higher animals have concepts such as this 'unbenanntes Denken'. According to his belief, this is the essence of language.

The biological prerequisites in man or the speech motor as Koehler calls them, are innate, but as some animals can learn how to say a few words, this is no biological innovation. The drive for speaking is not innate, so nobody can speak by teaching it himself. Wolf children, for example cannot talk.

Koehler believes that the development of the human language has its parallels in the development of the language of certain birds that have several song stages that they go through after hatching. Humans also have different stages of vocalisation. Children learn what kinds of effects they can achieve by crying, weeping or babbling. They make use of the consequences of their babbling and crying, just as birds use certain songs for certain situations. Each song has a specific meaning. Koehler treats the development of the bird language as equal to the development of the human language.

There are differences between human language and animal communication. Man is able to connect his named concept, words, in order to give their messages another meaning. He is also able to learn in a nonspecific way and to add new skills to his already existing skills.

Koehler's view leaves enough room for discussion. He is convinced that language consists of a composition of different prerequisites, abilities and skills, each with its own independent historical development. According to him, the human language is a lifted form of a language, ascended from the depth of the language of lower animals. Eric Lenneberg (1967) rejects this type of continuity theory in several points. He points out that only a few prerequisites have a fully documented philogenetic history that has its traces from a lower type up to the human kind of language.

Lenneberg criticises continuity theories as they consist of examples that are rare and scattered all over the animal kingdom among countless species. "The reason the examples are so disparate is that parallels are rare. This suggests accidental convergence." (Lenneberg, 1967 : 232). So these examples are too widespread to be applied on man. One example comes from birds, another from bees and another from monkeys. Lenneberg sees this widespread of examples and parallels more as an evidence for discontinuity than as for continuity. He is convinced that they only prove that there are no real parallels in the development of human and animal languages.

Lenneberg is also convinced that language is not the result of an accumulation of skills and abilities: "There is no evidence that language comes about by a gradual accretion of skills." (1967 : 233) So if language acquisition started with a certain number of accreted skills and abilities, this would be reflected in the presence of a lot of skills and abilities in our next relatives, chimps for example. Further relatives would only share a few or none of these skills. But there is no proof for that.

Further, there is no evidence that the beginnings of the human language in children are reflected in the development of the language of birds, monkeys or dolphins. Lenneberg states that parrots, for example, imitate the human noises and words while children never imitate sounds, but they generate the sounds that they recognize as speech and language. The human language is productive, while no animal language is productive.


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Theories about the origin of language
University of Hannover  (English Seminar)
Topics in Psycholinguistics
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origin of language, theories, Ursprung, Sprache
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Thomas Schöll (Author), 1996, Theories about the origin of language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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