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Saturday, 21 March 2015

Blurred lines - the origin of languages

In 1977 there was a TV series called Roots and based upon the 1976 bestselling book by Alex Haley: Roots, The Saga of an American Family. It's about an Afro American who wants to find out about his roots. Ultimately, he visits an African tribe and listens to a song (and dance). That song lasts for many hours as it includes the heritage of all tribe members from centuries ago. Suddenly he hears them singing the name of his great grand father, Kunta Kinte. It's a very emotional moment for him.

There is a lot of literature about the use of music as an important tool in learning new languages. I feel that music is also the linking pin in the evolutional development from (human) communication towards language. Finding evidence for that link during my research was hard. The only support for that link is a 2005 book by Stephen Mithen, called "The Singing Neanderthals: the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body." Stephen Mithen: "While there has been considerable discussion and debate within palaeoanthropology regarding the origin and evolution of language and art, that of music and dance have been neglected. This is as surprising as it is unfortunate as these behaviours are universal amongst human communities today and in the historically documented past."

The origin of language in the human species has been the topic of scholarly discussions for several centuries. In spite of this, there is no consensus on the ultimate origin or age of human language. One problem makes the topic difficult to study: the lack of direct evidence. Consequently, scholars wishing to study the origins of language must draw inferences from other kinds of evidence such as the fossil record, archaeological evidence, contemporary language diversity, studies of language acquisition, and comparisons between human language and systems of communication existing among other animals (particularly other primates). Many argue that the origins of language probably relate closely to the origins of modern human behaviour, but there is little agreement about the implications and directionality of this connection. Source: Wikipedia - Origin of language

This shortage of empirical evidence has led many scholars to regard the entire topic as unsuitable for serious study. In 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned any existing or future debates on the subject, a prohibition which remained influential across much of the western world until late in the twentieth century. Today, there are numerous hypotheses about how, why, when, and where language might have emerged. There is scarcely more agreement today than a hundred years ago, when Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection provoked a rash of armchair speculations on the topic. Since the early 1990s, however, a growing number of professional linguists, archaeologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and others have attempted to address with new methods what some consider "the hardest problem in science." Source: Wikipedia (see above)

Oral forms like ballads and epics exist in every culture, originating long before the advent of written language. Oral traditions depend on human memory for their preservation. If a tradition is to survive, it must be stored in one person’s memory and be passed on to another person who is also capable of storing and retelling it. All this must occur over many generations. Oral traditions must, therefore, have developed forms of organisation and strategies to decrease the changes that human memory imposes on the more casual transmission of verbal material. What are these strategies? Tales that last for many generations tend to describe concrete actions rather than abstract concepts. They use powerful visual images. They are sung or chanted. And they employ patterns of sound: alliteration, assonance, repetition and, most of all, rhyme. Source: