Wednesday, 3 October 2012

In Which I Discuss The Origins Of Language

Dear reader,
Five minutes is all I need. If you've got it, read on- and prepare to have your mind blown.

Think about language. It's how we communicate, how we express ourselves. But where did it come from? Obviously, as a child, we pick up language through imitation. Babies imitate the noises the people around them make, and slowly, begin to grasp the complexity of language, meaning and grammar. However, where did this language come from in the first place? How did language begin?

The simple answer is that we just don't know. Language predates history- for without language, how can we express, record and conceptualise the past. However, there are theories on this matter, theories that have arisen relatively recently- all in the last one hundred years. But first, let me tell you a story... a story about The Forbidden Experiment.

There was once a holy Roman Emperor named Frederik II. Frederik was curious about language, and where its origins lay. He decided to conduct an experiment to discover what the first language, the language imparted to Adam and Eve by God in the garden of Eden, was. This, is the Forbidden Experiment.

Frederik took a number of children, the children of peasants, from their parents. He placed them all together, tended to by wet nurses, who were forbidden from engaging with the children; they were forbidden from cooing to them, showing affection or even making eye contact. All noise was banned. The wet nurses nourished the children, but showed no affection nor love.

So as these children developed, it was believed that the language with which they used to communicate would express the first, true, natural language. What do you think happened to them? Would they develop this natural language? Would they even communicate through language, or merely through noises? All babies cry to attract attention. This is a natural form of communication- would language develop and grow from this?

In reality, all the babies died. They could not survive without 'clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments' (in the words of the monk Salimbene di Adam). Namely, the children could not survive without love.

This story, fictional or no, tells us about the idea of the Forbidden Experiment. Supposedly repeated several times throughout history, this experiment has gone down in the mythology of the development of the English Language. However, whilst Language Deprivation Experiments are fascinating, they are also barbaric and cruel. To deny a child the right to communicate is to deny it every chance to be 'normal'.

However, back to the topic at hand- we cannot prove how language arose, however there are several theories:

1) The 'pooh-pooh' Theory: This is the idea that language began with cries of emotion- 'ooh! ahh! ai! ha!' and developed from there into cries expressing emotion, thus associating different noises with different emotions and creating meaning from random, order from chaos.

2) The 'ding-dong' Proposal: Supported by Charles Darwin (author of The Origin of Species and, in short, founder of the ideas of evolution), this theory speculates that an 'unusually wise ape-like animal' may have imitated the growl of a beast, so as to warn others of the danger from this specific beast. This theorises that imitation of sounds within nature created meaning from noise.

3) The 'yo-he-ho' Hypothesis: The idea that some 'heaving and hauling' was required to give rise to these early words. 'The vocal cords were in origin membranes deep in the throat which closed off the lungs, making the rib-cage rigid when some effort is required' (Jean Aitchison, BBC Reith Lectures). Basically, because of the placement of the primitive vocal cords, some effort was required to produce noise. Thus leading to heaving and hauling creating words.

So, one of life's great mysteries is something intrinsic to the very basis of our society. Language. As with many of the unknowns in the Universe, we can hypothesise as to the origins of language, but we just cannot know. It's amazing to think that something we take for granted, something we use every day, something that has allowed us to achieve every success of mankind, great or small, is so little understood.

My 5 minutes are up. Have I changed your perception of the English Language? I'd love to hear what you think...

© Izzy Garratt 2012

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