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The world’s first language

What did the world’s first language sound like?

The simple answer is that we just don’t know for sure. There could also have been multiple first languages.

But we can make some guesses based on what we know about how languages work. Creoles are often described as languages starting over. They lack complex conjugation, irregular verbs or difficult conjugation. They tend to be isolating. Creoles are languages that came about when a pidgin evolves into a full language. The first language would probably have looked a lot like a creole.

What do we know about the humans that spoke the first language? Linguists estimate that language emerged between 100 000 to 50 000 years ago. The first human speakers would have been extremely similar to us biologically, since 100 000 years is not a long time in the evolutionary time scale.

The humans who first spoke language must have had the mental capabilities to handle language. All humans, outside of those with disorders, can speak a language. This means there must be something in our biology that makes it easy for us to learn our first language.

This is important because it shows that language is part of what it means to be human. Other species just can’t manage to do what we do with language. Animals can be taught commands and even some simple concepts like colour, but none can even approach the linguistic abilities of a 5 year old.

Before we discuss more about how languages might have developed, let us talk a little about what language actually is.

Language is a system of communication that utilises arbitrary utterances (or signs in the case of sign language) to construct arbitrary long sentences (made up multiple of these utterances) that carry meaning.

Language is said to be “productive”. New forms and ideas can be created which adds to the expressive power of the language.

Imagine a situation where you have a time travel device. You go back in time and kill some famous historical figure, William Conqueror for instance. You have now changed history. You could now say you have zayped him.

Zayp means to go back in time and remove something, thus changing history. I zayped Hitler and there was no Second World War. I zayped Ghengis Khan, and there was no need to build the Great Wall. I have just created a word, used it and you understood.

Animals communicate all the time, but their communication system is not productive. They can say “I am sad” “I am hurt” “I need to go take a piss” “Don’t come any closer!” “Stay away from this house” and a few other things. They definitely cannot say, “I really hope some day we will have world peace”.

Language is also “arbitrary” meaning that any word or sign can come to represent any concept and these words or signs, as long as they obey grammatical norms, can be used to form any sentence.

Animals can says some very complex things, like bees can tell other bees where nectar is. But that is all they can say. They can’t talk about how they really enjoy reading linguistics articles where people come up with new words and use them.

Another really important part of human language, and this is more about psychology than the actual syntax of language, is displacement. Humans can talk about things not there.

You can teach an ape how to sign “banana”, “apple”, “mango” and a few other signs. Place a banana, apple and mango in front of an ape, ask them to pick one and they will give you their choice. But if their favourite is mango, they will only answer mango if there is a mango in front of them.

Whether this is true or not, I can say that the weather in Helsinki is very nice today and now you are thinking about Helsinki. Animals can’t do this.

Productivity, arbitrariness, and displacement all require a certain level of intelligence. What happened once all the prerequisites were in place to the emergence of language, we can’t say for sure, but again we can guess.

Humans are very good pattern matchers. If I draw a purple pineapple, and call it a zanka, and then I show you a picture of a purple pineapple in another scene, and ask you what fruit is in the picture, you can answer “zanka”. You have linked the word “zanka” with the concept of a purple pineapple.

So the first step in language was probably assigning arbitrary utterances to certain things. Ugg, the cavemen, would have gone over to an apple and said “muk”. His friend would have given him a quizzical look and he would have repeated “muk! muk!”. Now his friend repeats “muk!”. Now we have a word for apple. These two cavemen understand that whenever one of them says “muk”, they are refering to an apple.

But what if the next day the one caveman sees a banana, does he say “muk” or does he come up with a new word? Maybe he just says “muk” again and now “muk” means “fruit” instead of just “apple”. Over time they come up with vocabulary and share it with their neighbours. This probably happens at various points in time amongst all human communities of the time.

Next they probably invented verbs. One caveman is holding an apple and the other motions toward himself. “sa! sa!” He wants the apple. The other gives the apple. The next day he says “sa” again with the same result. Now they have a word for “give”.

Once humans had the mental capability to imagine what the other might be communicating, and then they started accompanying actions with sounds, humans probably would have quickly started building up a language.

How do we get from “muk! sa!” to
“To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer 1750
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.”?
A very long time with a whole bunch of developments in between.

Conjugations (the process of adding endings to verbs) probably evolved over time as a sluring of a word following a verb.

The Proto Indo European (the great grandfather of English) word for “am” is *h₁ésmi. The star indicates that we do not have documented evidence of it, but have reconstructed it based on how words change over time. We look at modern languages and use historical linguistics to rewind the clock.

h₁ésmi became *immi in Proto Germanic (the grandfather of English), then “eom” in Old English and finally “am” in Middle and Modern English

To be
I am
You are
He is

“am” has nothing in common with “are” and “is”. But in Proto Indo European, they did.

To be in Proto Indo European
*h₁ésmi (First person singular – I)
*h₁ési (Second person singular – You)
*h₁ésti (Third person singular – He / she / it)

You can see that they all start with h₁é and just have bits added to them (btw, h₁ is a breathy sound called a laryngeal but because no Indo Europeans exist today, we don’t really know what sound it actually was, so we just write h₁).

Over time each word got pronounced differently and eventually morphhed into the words we have today. Just so you know, “are” does not come from *h₁ési (it actually comes from Proto-Indo-European *er- which means to lift or move) but “is” does come from *h₁ésti.

And this all started when some caveman somewhere decided to make a weird sound with his mouth and someone else guessed that he was trying to communicate. The rest as they say, is history 🙂

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