Linguistic Universals, Theories on the Origins of Language, plus
Understanding How Languages Change Over Time…
Worldwide Similarities in Language & Story
1. Universals in Language
Language universals suggest that language is distinct to humanity.
Linguists have discovered that children in all parts of the world have the capacity to develop linguistic ability in whatever language(s) to which they are exposed in their first few years of life. They have also found the process of acquiring language occurs in similar stages worldwide. In addition, linguists have noted more similarities than differences between languages, an idea important to the concept of universal grammar.
Further, neurolinguists (those who study specific regions of the brain in regards to language) have identified connections between the development of language & the development of the brain itself. They say it is as if our brains hold all the ingredients necessary to acquire language. In fact, if we are not exposed to “an early & systematic experience with language,” our brains will actually develop differently.
2. Universal Stories
Similar stories also exist among differing cultures worldwide. All people globally have a history of oral language which includes storytelling. Among these stories are various kinds of tales. Some are considered true & some imaginative, but all cultures have stories that explore similar themes. For example, many cultures have a version of the Cinderella story. Additionally, all cultures have theories about how the world, man & language began.
Theories on the Origins of Language
In particular, stories of language origin are found in the religious or mythological stories of all cultures. In these stories, though the details differ, language is thought to originate from a divine origin. The universality of this concept suggests two traits of language.
First, language is seen as significant by people around the world. Second, language is associated with the supernatural. Whether speaking of the Judeo-Christian God who spoke & the world began or a fairy godmother whose word turned 4 white mice into 4 white horses, all cultures, including English-speaking ones, have stories associating words with power.
The idea that language sprang from a divine source along with other linguistic universals suggest to some that there was once one original language, a controversial concept found in multiple cultures. Humans have attempted to find this source language from as early as 664-610 BC. Proposed theories have included: Aramaic, Chinese, German, Hebrew & Phrygian (now extinct).
Other theories for how humans first began to speak are outlined below:
- imitative/echoic – imitating or echoing back what was heard in nature
- emotional exclamations – expressing feelings, such as surprise or pain
- rhythmic grunts – from a need to communicate as they worked together
- song – as a way to express themselves that later became a way to communicate
All of the theories are called such because we can neither prove nor disprove them.
The Evolution of Language & Literature
Kevin Stroud in his The History of the English Language podcast says, “you cannot separate the study of language from those who speak it.” In other words, any study of the history of linguistics is also an anthropological journey: language reflects the culture of the people to whom it belongs. We use language to tell our stories.
Language evolves naturally & geographical boundaries change over time. According to Stroud, these linguistic & geographic changes often occur alongside migration. He tells us linguists estimate it takes about one thousand years for a language to change to the degree that contemporary speakers are no longer able to recognize the original language as their own.
We use literature to preserve & share stories. In studying the literature of a particular culture over time, we can trace the evolution of the language. Take English, as an example.
Although Shakespeare is sometimes difficult for students to decipher, it is clear that his plays consist of English words. However, if you pick up a copy of Beowulf, one of the English language’s earliest epic tales, you would need not only help comprehending meaning, but also knowing how to pronounce the words. It doesn’t look like English in the same way that Shakespeare’s work does.
Beowulf & Shakespeare also give us insight into the particular times & cultures in which they were written. From reading each, we get an idea of who the original readers were, as well as an image of two distinct historical periods. Language & story reflect time & culture.
The content of this post is from three sources:
Linguistic-related references, including origin theories can be attributed to
Chapter 1-2 (quote from Chapter 2) of An Introduction to Language.
Story references are from Chapter 2 & 6 of Through the Eyes of A Child: An Introduction to Children’s Literature.
English-specific references are attributed to the podcast mentioned above.