A Short History of Language

Have you ever wondered how language came to be? How is it that you’re able to understand what I’m writing right now and comprehend nothing when I say les autres mots en français? It’s a very complicated subject if you ask me, and it’s amazing how easy it is for our brain to processes all these different combinations of letters. When learning a language, I think it’s important to first know what is it that even make a language official and what rules these languages have.

Just recently, my psychology professor told us the definition of language which is:

1) A property of productivity. This allows us to say completely new things instead of “parroting” words and phrases we hear.This property states that we pull from our categorical info in different ways to create novel expressions.

2) A system of symbolic representations which breaks down into production (writing) and comprehension (reading).

Going along with language are the universal rules of limit : how to produce and comprehend language which consists of legal speech sounds (phonemes) which are strong together to make a word (morphemes)  and how we put phonemes together. These limits result in unlimited productivity. Electric Company anyone?

From a young age we are taught to distinguish between legal sounds and other sounds (such as sneezes or random babbles). An interesting point that my professor brought up was the idea of ambiguous words. Take for instance the word bat. Without context it can be interpreted as a weapon, an animal, or even the verb for ‘to bat.’ John Wixted from USCD did a series of experiments using ambiguous words and found that syntactic info and context are a necessity for understanding words.

I know this sounds very elementary but an understanding of the basics helps to bring light to the issue of what is it that makes a language. Of course, there are many theories of how language originated for instance, Darwin believed that the first words were onomatopoeic in that we imitated the sounds for the environment. His theory is often nicknamed the bow-wow or pooh pooh theory (Fabian 1988). Other theorists speculate that we derived our language for emotions: our cries of pain, laughter, and other human exclamations. With all these different theories of language floating around it’s hard to decide which one gives us the best explanation for language origin. Even today in our modern world it our language is changing, 20 years ago the word e-mail was unheard of and even the simple phrases we use in text messaging such as “txt’ or ‘l8r’ were unheard of. So, although it is difficult to decide which language origin theory is correct, I think the one thing for certain is the fact that language will continue to change.

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