Monday, March 21, 2016

Origin of the languages

There are various theories those deal with the origin of the languages and their spread. We will take an overview of some most debated theories in academic circles.

Linguistic psychology or psychology of the languages is an interdisciplinary branch that deals with the psychological and neurobiological factors those enable humans to acquire, use, comprehend, utter and produce the language. Its area is limited to cognitive science as it moreover deals with how the language is processed in the brain and the meaning derived and expressed thereof. Moreover, it deals with a major question how the child acquires and comprehends the language. The language production is a factor that deals with how people produce language, either in written or spoken form, which can be comprehended by others. To convey meaning language produced should be rule-governed otherwise the language spoken or written may not be able to convey what the speaker intended.

In short, linguistic psychology deals with peripheral objectives but does not try to touch the very subject i.e. origin of the languages. It is limited to cognitive science and deals with the associated issues about learning and speaking of the languages.

Chomsky believes that the language is an innate faculty of humans, making them distinct from other animals. He also postulates the universal grammar that makes a child in early age to understand the complex nature of the language. He also proposed that some random mutation took place, maybe after some strange cosmic ray shower, and it reorganized the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain in remote past. Some linguists posited that the languages must have emerged in primates those gradually developed with increase in brain volume over the ages.  Broca's and Wernicke's areas in the brain have been considered to be responsible for the languages. However, it was learned later that various parts of the brain participate while producing and uttering the language.

There is no doubt that the origin of the languages is mostly attributed to the need of communication. Proponents of continuity theory, such as Pinker, hold that the language is being mostly innate and some hold that it has developed from animal conversation of primates. A few, like Anderson, believe that the language was invented only once and that all modern spoken languages, being descendent, are somehow related to each other.

Though there are various other theories as well, we have taken overview of the major theories those have been prominent at the present. We can easily determine that the main question of the origin remains unanswered and most of the theories are speculative.

Humans have an ability to think and produce complex sounds because of his developed larynx. Other animals too have larynx those produces certain meaningful sounds, cognizable with their sounds and actions. They too pass on the certain message, though limited. Unlike Humans other animals lack the cohesive thinking process and memory.

It can be postulated that the faculty of thinking emerged in the human brain first which helped him to construct meaningful language. The complexity of the language developed with the growing complexities of the life. The journey was from sounds coupled with gestures to primary words devoid of any grammar. It sufficed his early needs. Because of developed larynx, he easily could imitate sounds from nature and the other animal kind with independent sounds. This must have amazed him at the early stage, which he transformed in the useful tool, i.e. language.

Word is a sequence of sounds. How early human could have decided a certain sequence of sounds uttered by one delivers some certain meaning? Language is to be understood by others and to the speaker of it, if not, it is meaningless. It cannot make a language in the absence of the meaning.

Here we come across the social mind. People living in a certain band (or geography) possess a certain set of mind to which we call general psychology. Universal mind helped the human being to develop languages from his imminent need of survival. But languages did differ because there were sets of the people spread across the globe living in their specific geographies having special geological characteristics. Specific thinking order in human belonging to certain set could have recognized easily what certain series of sounds meant. Language groups differ based on the sequel of the sounds those form words and the grammar.

It would depend on the general psychology of the people among whom the particular language is developed. Choices of the sounds to make a certain word that has specific meaning differ from language to language. The order of the words set in making a sentence, grammar, too is influenced by the psychology of the people.

The cognitive process of the people living together in the similar geological and geographical conditions become geo-related and hence net of the languages is formed. Language is a manifestation of the collective psychology.  With the growing complexities of the life languages tend to become complex, it gets modified, polished, perfected over the time hence it undergoes various changes. Even today in tribal societies where lifestyle is less complicated their languages too are simple. Even some languages do not need tenses or genders.

 Language is an expression of the inner self of the human being. A word comes later, meaning comes first, to which we can call innate ability of the human being to process language. He thinks and thinking process takes place in the biological or neurological language in the brain which later is converted into certain meaningful series of sounds, pauses and full stops. The brain processes it before it is uttered.

In the development of early languages, we also find the hand of ritualistic needs.

We have little proofs to understand how and what early human could have been thinking. However, around 40,000 years ago we find cultural explosion across the globe. We have many proofs from excavated finds to show that elaborate burials, pottery and ornaments were part of their life. The concepts of early beauty and eternal curiosity and threat of the death can be understood from these remnants. From cave paintings of Altamira to Bhimbetka, we can see while fighting with the odds he was entertaining himself with art and dance. Innate need of expressing the self and thinking about life and afterlife is evident from such proofs. Material culture and languages go hand in hand in every human civilization.

Michael Maystadt (Illinois State University), says that around this time anatomically humans started to behave and think like modern humans.

Origin of the language is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a collective process of social mind of the people residing in certain geographical areas. Because it is geography that decides social mind and so its expressions, all the language are the cumulative outcome of it. As a universal mind acts the same, every group of the people has developed languages, in their own way. Influence of territorial elements clearly exhibits in human language and culture. This is why we find variety in the languages and regional cultures. In similar territories, adjoining or distant, having common geological features we find different languages, but as their basic structure is similar, we set it in some or other group of the languages.

We have to understand this. It is postulated that the language families have a single ancestor source language that emerged in the distant past in certain hypothetical tribe to spread later because of the human movements.

If we consider the migration theory to be true, first we have to agree that from some place, some group of the people, speaking a certain proto - language did move in many directions in batches. Wherever these groups finally landed, those lands must have been occupied by different groups of the people speaking some kind of the language. To impact the languages of the local people the newcomers must outnumber them or establish a permanent rule over them to enforce language upon them. If we take the Indo-European group of languages for example, we find its spread right from Europe to most part of Asia. To make settlements in such a vast region, PIE speakers, originally settled in any hypothetical homeland, should be too large in number to impact their language on the local people spread over that vast region, no matter how they achieve this. Even if they had to invade such a vast territory they would need enough trained manpower to subjugate all the populations. Even if we consider this was the case, in batches they migrated in different directions in two or three waves, how could they leave any significant mark on the local languages, unless they outnumber them?

Indian case is quite typical. In the Indian subcontinent, there are two distinct language groups, IE and Dravidian. Both the regions are geographically connected… not separated by sea or difficult mountain range. We cannot imagine any reason why IE should stop its spread to the southward of Maharashtra and leave further regions uninfluenced?

Didn’t IE speakers reach there any time in remote history?  It is not the case. So-called IE speakers, whether migrating from original homeland or from North India, sure had reached southern regions. Still, we find no IE impact on those languages.

The surprising fact is, beyond these four Dravid speaking States, in an island country, Shri Lanka, separated by sea, is spoken so-called IE language. The people those could not influence the language of the geographically connected region could impact the language of the people living in the land far beyond, but not in the land that lay between. This sounds like a fairy tale, isn’t it?

But proponents of the PIE speakers’ migration theories staunchly believe in this hypothesis. Some scholars think that the original migrants mingled with the local populations, but left a linguistical genetic mark on the languages of the local people, thereby making them part of the IE speaking group.

Coming back to the questions, in human pre-history the populations were limited. Human beings had settled in respective regions long before 10,000 BC. They were semi-nomadic for their profession of cattle herding and primal agriculture. In 2013, the archaeologists unearthed evidence of early agriculture at a 12,000-year-old site in the Zagros Mountains in eastern Iran. Mehrgarh site indicates that the human beings of that region knew agriculture 10,000 years ago. There may be more sites indicating to the earliest agriculture on the globe. The fact remains that it helped the human being to settle in the respective regions. Kenoyer asserts that, “….These data indicate that foragers were present in the exact locations where we later see the emergence of settled agro-pastoral communities during the Early Food Producing Era (7000-5500 BCE) and the Regionalization Era (5500-2800 BCE).”

Population movements were rare and that too occurring in extreme circumstances, such as climatic disasters or epidemics. There were wars between the tribes, but they too don’t suggest demographic migration of the subjugated tribes. Battle of ten kings, described in the Rig Veda and the battles enumerated in Avesta suggests that either victorious king would enslave the subjugated people or extract heavy ransoms from them. Largely most of the tribes mentioned in the battle of Ten Kings still reside in their respective regions and are known after them.

India has experienced foreign aggressions since known history. From Greeks to Shaka, Hun, Kushan invaded India. Few ruled temporarily some for several centuries. They too had their own distinct culture and languages. But could they impact on the linguistic structure of northern India? There could have been a slight exchange of vocabulary and cultural elements, but it could not change the basic soul of the culture and languages. Rather the invaders adapted to the local languages and cultures, which is evident from the languages and symbols used on the coins of the foreign rulers.

So, even if the invaders are superior, they cannot enforce their languages. Albeit human has an innate ability to learn other languages, either for political compulsions or religious studies, but original language do not disappear unless such speakers are too small in number. Otherwise, though people can learn many languages, the basic structure of the own language remains unaffected.

There have been rule of north Indian kings or emperors on southern States. There have been religious and commercial exchanges between south and north since the time unknown. Still, we do not find any language impacting other to change its basic linguistic structure, except the exchange of some vocabulary.

The migrations, invasions or rule of some people, thus cannot alter the structure of the languages local people speak. Known examples from the history don’t support this theory. Biological relationship with the group of languages is thus a deliberately nourished hoax. It rather stresses the superiority of some people those migrated and enforced their language upon the local people.

Even in the group language, every language significantly differs from the others. Every language has its own specialized vocabulary. The group languages are said to be having the genealogical relationship or the languages those share common innovations those are not attributed to contact or borrowing. Genealogically related languages present shared retentions, i.e. features of the proto-language. But there are many features in some group languages those are absent in proto or common ancestor language. Still, they find a place in the certain family because they are said to be established with shared innovations, though not directly descending from the common ancestor of the entire language family. Germanic language is a fine example of this. Germanic language share vocabulary and grammatical features those are believed to be not present in Proto Indo-European language. Rather linguists believe that the innovations took place in proto-Germanic which was a descendant of PIE. 

We can see clearly that the concept of the common ancestor language, shared features and innovations in descendent family languages cannot be the explanation to the formations of a language family. The group languages are categorized by common features those can be reconstructed in some proto language and if not those are simply treated as innovations, but thought to be in descending line with the common ancestor language.

However, such proto-language does not exist today. No one knows what could be the exact form of the languages our distant ancestors spoke. It is reconstructed from the most common words, those are found in the hypothetical language family to ascertain the original or source word/root. This is an artificially constructed language; many a times with the help of computer programs those give different results with different programs and hence mostly become speculative and controversial. Rather the PIE language issue is treated by many scholars as a theoretically disguised racist propaganda.

However, we must admit that there are languages those have some or more common features that form a family. To form a family there is no need of physical movement of the people speaking some kind of proto-language.  

We have seen in the previous chapters that the faculty of languages in human is very ancient and is related to the human psychology. The  human genetics too  is influenced by the regional characteristics and do carry recognizable regional markers.

Hence, we can define net of the languages, to which some call language family, with the help of geological characteristics those influence psychology and language of the people. We do not need to trace it back to the population movements of the past as it has no proof to substantiate and hence remains controversial.


We shall see in next chapters how geological characteristics separate one language from other. 

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