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6 Early Theories About the Origin of Language

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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!

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Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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