How Were Languages Born?
The ancient Romans gave us most of our modern languages. Their language was Latin, the basis for most of the western tongues. The actual shapes of the letters we use in print today are descended from the shapes of the early Roman letters. Then writing came to another stand still.
The alphabet had been formalized, standard shapes for all the letters had been adopted, and that was it. Learning to read was a luxury because it was so difficult to obtain reading material. A new invention was needed – a way to make many copies easily and cheaply. The date was 1440, and it marked man’s first use of movable type.
The origin of language in the human species has been the topic of scholarly discussions for several centuries. In spite of this, there is no consensus on the ultimate origin or age of human language. One problem makes the topic difficult to study: the lack of direct evidence.
Consequently, scholars wishing to study the origins of language must draw inferences from other kinds of evidence such as the fossil record, archaeological evidence, contemporary language diversity, studies of language acquisition, and comparisons between human language and systems of communication existing among other animals (particularly other primates).
Many argue that the origins of language probably relate closely to the origins of modern human behavior, but there is little agreement about the implications and directionality of this connection.
This shortage of empirical evidence has led many scholars to regard the entire topic as unsuitable for serious study. In 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned any existing or future debates on the subject, a prohibition which remained influential across much of the western world until late in the twentieth century.
Today, there are numerous hypotheses about how, why, when, and where language might have emerged. Despite this, there is scarcely more agreement today than a hundred years ago, when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection provoked a rash of armchair speculations on the topic.
Since the early 1990s, however, a number of linguists, archaeologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and others have attempted to address with new methods what some consider “the hardest problem in science.”