The origin of language is perhaps one of the most contested histories in contemporary culture. It’s not simply a matter of lack of information, where it’s impossible to go back and find out when and where people first started to articulate in a recognizable way. It is also related to the complicated notion of history itself. If history begins with a record, then the possibility of finding a record of sound and utterance is not possible with the available tools. Despite the impossibility of finding a fixed origin, or perhaps because of it, the arguments and studies of origins of language are fascinating.
A dictionary definition of language will speak to the complex system of signs that people use to communicate ideas, events, abstractions and concrete realities. The word’s origin is connected to the tongue, like many words that refer to language and have roots common to the English toungue. Of course, there is much more to it than that. With approximately 5,000 spoken languages in the world right now, the metaphor of Babel is still one that plays itself out in everyday moments that suggest an impossibility to communicate clearly. Perhaps no language, and no speaker, is really capable of expressing something perfectly, since language is always a representation.
People have been speaking for a very long time, and there are many resonances between human languages and animal languages. This suggests that where there is a need to communicate something, biological creatures have been able to find ways of communicating. The question, or the mystery, is in investigating when it could have begun. The human and animal relationship is one that is essential for most linguists, where some argue that human language comes from the same developments in animal speech. Others will argue that human language is entirely unrelated to animal language, and belongs on another level entirely. This is the kind of argument that lead the Linguistic Society in Paris to ban all discussion of language origins in 1866.
Today, the most public figure speaking against a relationship to animal language is probably Noam Chomsky, who argues that human speech comes from reason rather than instinct, and, as such, is something that is entirely unique in the world. It’s hard to use language to argue origins of language, but most people would agree that it begins with the tongue. From here, it reaches in multiple directions, where it seems that every utterance takes us further from the starting point, and the origin is always vanishing further into the horizon.