6 Early Theories About the Origin of Language


How did language begin? Words don’t leave artifacts behind—writing began long after language did—so theories of language origins have generally been based on hunches. For centuries there had been so much fruitless speculation over the question of how language began that when the Paris Linguistic Society was founded in 1866, its bylaws included a ban on any discussions of it. The early theories are now referred to by the nicknames given to them by language scholars fed up with unsupportable just-so stories.

1. The bow-wow theory

The idea that speech arose from people imitating the sounds that things make: Bow-wow, moo, baa, etc. Not likely, since very few things we talk about have characteristic sounds associated with them, and very few of our words sound anything at all like what they mean.

2. The pooh-pooh theory

The idea that speech comes from the automatic vocal responses to pain, fear, surprise, or other emotions: a laugh, a shriek, a gasp. But plenty of animals make these kinds of sounds too, and they didn't end up with language.

3. The ding-dong theory

The idea that speech reflects some mystical resonance or harmony connected with things in the world. Unclear how one would investigate this.

4. The yo-he-ho theory

The idea that speech started with the rhythmic chants and grunts people used to coordinate their physical actions when they worked together. There's a pretty big difference between this kind of thing and what we do most of the time with language.

5. The ta-ta theory

The idea that speech came from the use of tongue and mouth gestures to mimic manual gestures. For example, saying ta-ta is like waving goodbye with your tongue. But most of the things we talk about do not have characteristic gestures associated with them, much less gestures you can imitate with the tongue and mouth.

6. The la-la theory

The idea that speech emerged from the sounds of inspired playfulness, love, poetic sensibility, and song. This one is lovely, and no more or less likely than any of the others.

These Days

About a century after banishment of the language origin question, scientists started to consider it again, but this time using evidence from paleontology about the likely brain and vocal tract features of early humans and hominids. Rather than speculate about which kinds of vocalizations gave rise to speech sounds, they consider which physical, cognitive, and social factors must first be in place in order for there to be language.

This doesn't make the question of how language started any easier to answer, but it does make you appreciate that whatever those necessary factors are, we got all of 'em. Phew! La la la la. Ta ta!

15 Antiquated Words for 'Happy' We Should Bring Back

Happiness is such a wonderful feeling, why should we only use one word to describe it? In honor of today's International Day of Happiness, why not open up that vocabulary and let the good times roll.


From the late 19th century, meaning “cheerful.”


An expression for “good mood,” used from the late 17th century until the 1930s.


Before humans literally went beyond the moon, this popular phrase from the 1930s means “overjoyed.”


Started out meaning “intoxicated,” but by the 1950s it just meant happy.


As in “tickled pink.”


Also started as a reference to tipsiness, this referred to a general good ol’ time in the 19th century.


In the 19th century, this bouncy term also meant “splendid.”


This 19th century sailor’s slang either referred to the Peruvian port of Callo or acted as a play on the word alcohol. Or both.


From the Latin for “let us rejoice,” this oldie refers to a merry jamboree.


From the Yiddish for “so happy and proud my heart is overflowing.”


This current slang in the UK certainly needs to make a trip across the pond.


A term the Irish use to mean “delirious and excited.” We need to borrow this one, too.


This classic from the 14th century doesn’t get used enough anymore.


This confusing 19th century gem was used to describe someone who was extremely pleased.


From the phrase “to set the cock on the hoop,” meaning open the tap and let the good times flow.

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Pop Culture
Duolingo Is Offering a Free Course in Klingon
Stephen Morton/Getty News Images
Stephen Morton/Getty News Images

For Star Trek fans, the final frontier doesn’t end once the credits roll on a new TV show or movie. The franchise extends way beyond that to include countless conventions, board games, video games, mountains of merchandise, and even a dating website specifically for Trekkies. And if you’re a real die-hard for Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, you can even learn Klingon—one of many fictional languages from the franchise, and by far its most fully-realized.

Now, the popular language-learning website Duolingo is helping people master the guttural beauty of Klingon with a free online course that is currently in a public beta. To start, you can choose to either learn some useful phrases or take an online placement test—though that’s recommended for people who already have some experience in Klingon. The course was crafted with the help of CBS—both Trek and the network are owned by Viacom—as well as “some of the world’s leading Klingon experts,” according to a quote from VentureBeat.

If you’re a novice, Duolingo will start you off with some tips on how the Klingon language works, including its alphabet, capitalization rules, and the fact that there’s really no word for “hello” (apparently, a Klingon won’t waste your time with silly trivialities like greetings).

In an interview with VentureBeat, course creator Felix Malmenbeck said there are only about 30 to 50 people who can actually converse in Klingon, though there are more who can communicate through text. But there’s a chance that number can shoot up with this new course, as Malmenbeck revealed that the site has gotten around 170,000 pre-registrations. This might seem like a lot for a fictional language, but just remember that the site’s course for High Valyrian, a fictional language from Game of Thrones, was viewed by 240,000 eager learners.

Klingon made its debut as a very basic language in 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture and was partly devised by actor James Doohan, who played Scotty. It was further fleshed out in 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and it has since gotten its own dictionary by the linguist Marc Okrand, the man responsible for working on the official language for the movie.

Duolingo’s Klingon course is available now for free, and if you have a Duolingo Plus subscription, you can experience the whole thing without ads and use it while offline. Just remember, be careful who you say hab sosli' Quch* to. It may not end well. 

*It means “Your mother has a smooth forehead.” Trust us, that’s as insulting as it gets.

[h/t VentureBeat]


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