Where did all of the world’s language comes from? I haven’t the foggiest idea. It wasn’t the Tower of Babel, though, that much is pretty clear. Languages change and differentiate extremely slowly, over millennia, as organisms do. It’s highly unlikely that there was any point in human history when ‘the whole world had one language and a common speech’ (Genesis 11:1), and that God decided to screw with them by causing one guy to think in Hittite and the other in Akkadian, or anything like that. As much as I love and learn from the Bible, I don’t expect it to answer questions about the origin of language — that would be extraneous to its purpose.

But I have had to read for a seminar a few articles that deal with the emergence of phonological systems (i.e., how did the earliest humans organize the sounds they made with their vocal tracts into ordered patterns like syllables), and it’s clear that the question of the origin of language is having a resurgence long after science decided that using evidence only from etiological Bible stories wasn’t enough to merit rigorous scholarship.

Nowadays, linguists are trying to use computational models1 to figure out the most likely scenario for the development of vocal communication. Was it due to mirror neurons that help humans (and perhaps some other primates) imitate one another? Does it have to do with concurrence over a common referent in the physical world? Did spoken language come first, or sign language, or did they have a shared ancestor in gesture?

Some linguists who study accommodation believe that no matter how language initially arose, essential to its genesis is the fact that human beings innately align communicatively with one another. In layman’s terms: if you spend a significant amount of time with somebody you feel positively toward, your speech will become more and more like that person’s over time. Accommodation can also be replicated in a laboratory with strangers’ voices or even disembodied voices. And we think that this innate human impulse is linked to how we first began to talk; speech has been, since its inception, a means of connecting with an other.

But at some point while I was deep within the readings for my seminar, I stopped and wrote this in my notes: “How amazing it is that we developed language in order to communicate in person, but now we no longer need the in-person condition to know that what we say will be heard!” The idea sparked in a series of epiphanies: 1) I am reading a paper; 2) I am comprehending an idea that someone else came up with; 3) But I have never met this person, let alone talked with them face-to-face; 4) Yet I am still being influenced by their ‘speech’!

When writing was invented (multiple times over the course of human history), we had a way to preserve language and a way to communicate in absentia. And thousands of years later, we invented technologies to allow actual speech — sound waves! — to travel miles away from their source, to be stored and played back later, and to do all sorts of things no prehistoric human could ever have fathomed. I cannot even begin to imagine what went through the mind of the first person to hear a human voice sans the human, on the telephone, the phonograph, and the radio…

But even these miracles of the late nineteenth century are now laughably quotidian. And today we can hear speech coming from actual humans via our watches or a pair of glasses. Now we have ‘human’ speech synthesized from computers, apps we can use to share our voice and image with millions of people we will never meet, the ability to beam speech out into space for God knows who to hear…!

Please excuse my geeking out! There is not much substance to what I’m saying(/writing/projecting directly into your mind) here, but I’m merely in awe at the moment that in a relatively short amount of time, technology has allowed human speech to transcend the physical circumstances that gave rise to it in the first place.

We once strove to be more alike, and this gave us language. After eons, we no longer understood one another. Then the cord was cut and our speech was let loose to traverse the globe, faster than the wind. Will our new era of instant, disembodied communication be enough to bring us back together? (Things to ponder when I don’t want to write my final papers…)

Every step of the way, we have wondered about the origin of language2. I think that for my part, I am more excited about its destination.


Word of the Day: koiné (Greek: κοινή) is used in linguistics to refer to a standard dialect that emerges over time from several mutually intelligible dialects that are in contact with one another, and in classics to refer to a specific variety of Ancient Greek that underwent this exact process. (Hey, metonymy!) If small communities of English speakers from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and the US all went to colonize Mars together, one might expect the type of English spoken on the Red Planet after a few generations to be a koiné that ‘mixed together’ or ‘leveled out’ the different Englishes that were originally spoken aboard the spaceship.

– – –

1 i.e. the COSMO model proposed by Moulin-Frier et al (2015)
2 the current Wikipedia article on the Origin of Language is a deep, deep rabbit hole.

About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in musings, what even is linguistics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Techno-Babel

  1. nancyfang says:

    Awesome! My mind is blown.


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