The Origin of Language and its Biblical Implications

Professional linguists, archaeologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and other “ologists” typically have little to find consensus on.  However, one thing on which most would agree is that the origin of language in the human species is the hardest problem in science.  In the 19th and the first half of the 20th Centuries most scholars refused to recognize it as a suitable topic for serious study.  In fact, in 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris went so far as to ban debates on the subject, and most of the western world went along with this ban for the next 90 years.

One problem that makes the topic difficult to study is the lack of direct evidence.  Anyone wishing to study the origin of language is forced to draw inferences from other kinds of evidence, such as fossil and archaeological records, comparisons between human language and systems of communication among animals, human behavioral evidence, etc.

My interest in the subject is driven by my curiosity as to what language Adam and Eve spoke when they walked with God in the garden in the cool of the evening, as He taught them all they needed to know to tend the earth and its animals.  Was it an ancient form of Hebrew?  Was it a totally unique “Adamic” language?  Or was it the language of heaven?  I often wonder about such things that neither I nor anyone else can possibly know for sure until we get to heaven.  Yet I wonder.  Sometimes in these states of wondering, my day comes to an end feeling like the great theologian Thomas Aquinas must have felt as he searched for and often got divine inspiration as to the mysteries of heaven.  Other times my day ends feeling like Alfred E. Neuman.  Those of you too young to understand the analogy, google it.

But just because a topic is controversial and one of the most difficult things to understand, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t investigate it to the best of our ability.  God created perfect specimens of humankind in the persons of Adam and his mate Eve – free of any kind of disease or physical weakness as we know it today.  Neither of these creatures had a history, yet the Bible infers that they were able to communicate with God, probably from day one.  Does the absence of thirty years or so of real-life experiences to aid the maturation process disqualify the possibility that the Creator of the universe could also deposit a language and an adult mental capacity to understand and use that language in His first intelligent creatures?

Why is it really so difficult to accept?  Unregenerated mankind is so attuned to trusting in himself and to trying to operate exclusive of God that he declares such mysteries impossible.  How foolish the Bible says.  It reminds me of the words of Jesus as He concurrently spoke to the multitudes and prayed: “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things [this generation’s rejection of His works and His teachings] from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.  Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.  All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”  Matthew 11:25-27

I can understand why some of the 19th century theories have been ridiculed.  Some of them are really kind of humorous in the light of modern scientific methods.  For example, in 1861 linguist Max Müller published the following list of speculative theories:

The Bow-Wow or cuckoo theory, which Müller attributed to the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, saw early words as imitations of the cries of beasts and birds.

The Pooh-Pooh theory saw the first words as emotional interjections and exclamations triggered by pain, pleasure, surprise, etc.

The Ding-Dong theory states that all things have a vibrating natural resonance, echoed somehow by man in his earliest words.

The yo-he-ho theory saw language emerging out of collective rhythmic labor, the attempt to synchronize muscular effort resulting in sounds such as heave alternating with sounds such as ho.

Then in 1930, Sir Richard Paget came up with the Ta-Ta theory, whereby he believed humans made the earliest words by tongue movements that mimicked manual gestures, rendering them audible.

The problem with these theories is that they assume that once our ancestors “stumbled upon” the appropriate ingenious mechanism for linking sounds with meanings, then language automatically evolved and changed.

Language development – an obstacle to evolution

Scholarly interest in the question of the origin of language has only gradually been rekindled from the 1950s on, with the greatest interest and research done over the last twenty years.  A number of modern theories have been proposed, but most arrive at an interesting common conclusion: that language development requires an element of trust between the communicators.

From the perspective of modern science, the main obstacle to the evolution of language-like communication in nature is not a mechanistic one; rather, it is the fact that arbitrary associations of sounds with corresponding meanings are unreliable and may well be false. 1 And if there’s a constant concern that the signals are false, they won’t survive to become a stable strategy.

Animal vocal signals are for the most part intrinsically reliable.  When a cat purrs, the signal constitutes direct evidence of the animal’s contented state.  We can ‘trust’ the signal not because the cat is inclined to be honest, but because it just can’t fake that sound.  Even primate vocal calls are hard to fake. 2 Their social intelligence is self-serving and unconstrained by moral scruples. Monkeys and apes often attempt to deceive one another, while at the same time remaining constantly on guard against falling victim to deception themselves. 3 It is precisely primates’ resistance to deception that blocks the evolution of their signaling systems along language-like lines.  Language is ruled out, because the best way to guard against being deceived is to ignore all signals except those that are instantly verifiable.

Words automatically fail this test. 4 Words are easy to fake. For language to work, then, listeners must be confident that those with whom they are on speaking terms are generally likely to be honest. 5 A peculiar feature of language is ‘displaced reference’, which means reference to topics outside the currently perceptible situation.  This property prevents utterances from being corroborated in the immediate here and now.  For this reason, language presupposes relatively high levels of mutual trust in order to become established over time as a stable strategy.  This stability is born of a longstanding mutual trust and is what grants language its authority.  A theory of the origins of language must therefore explain why humans could begin trusting cheap signals in ways that other animals apparently cannot.

None of the studies referenced come to what I consider the most obvious conclusion: that the origin of language has to be the most honest and reliable person in the universe – God.  And in spite of man’s stubbornness to recognize God’s majesty and sovereignty, He continues to communicate more and more about the wonders of His creation to mankind every day.

Not only did God reveal in His written Word the signs that would signal the approach of “the end of days,”which so many Christians are so insistent on focusing upon, but He continues to bless His creation with information about the natural world we inhabit.  He provides knowledge that allows engineers and scientists to design medical equipment and drugs that aid in the cure of many sicknesses and diseases, at the same time as He opens up the mysteries of the vast universe which God intended that we have dominion over.  Yet, this explosion of scientific knowledge has turned many in our post-modern culture to worship the creation rather than the Creator.  God doesn’t fear what people do with the knowledge He communicates to us – for each response reveals a person’s heart – whether that heart is pursuing Him or is following the path that Lucifer once took – trying to becoming a god unto themselves.  And we know how that poor choice ended up!

1 Zahavi, A. (May 1993). “The fallacy of conventional signalling.”  Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 340 (1292): pp. 227–230.

2 Goodall, Jane (1986). The chimpanzees of Gombe : patterns of behavior. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

3 Byrne, Richard W.; Whiten, Andrew. (1988). Machiavellian intelligence : social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes, and humans. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

4 Knight, Chris (1998). “Ritual/speech coevolution: a solution to the problem of deception”. In James R Hurford; Michael Studdert-Kennedy; Chris Knight. Approaches to the evolution of language : social and cognitive base (Cambridge University Press). pp. 68–91.

5 Power, Camilla (1998). “Old wives’ tales: the gossip hypothesis and the reliability of cheap signals”.  In James R Hurford; Michael Studdert-Kennedy; Chris Knight. Approaches to the evolution of language : social and cognitive base (Cambridge University Press). pp. 111–129.

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