Theories of the Origin of Language

Theories of the Origin of Language Infographics
Theories of the Origin of Language

There have been many attempts to unearth the origin
of language, but “most of these are”, says E. Sapir, “hardly more than
exercises of the speculative imagination.”
Of the various theories advanced to
explain the origin of language, four are well-known.

1. The Bow-wow Theory :

This theory by Max Muller supposes that human speech
originated in man’s attempt to imitate the sounds of nature. Thus a dog might
be called “bow-wow”, or a cow “moo”. There is no denying the fact that
such imitation accounts for a certain number of words in the English vocabulary
e.g. cuckoo, hiss, gurgle, whistle, whine, babbie, prattle, hoopoe,
etc. Words that have this origin are sometimes said to be
onomatopoeic. This theory forms a part of the larger subject of ‘sound

2. The Ding-dong Theory :

Another familiar theory of
the origin of language
is the ‘dingdong theory’. At one stage it was upheld by
Max Muller but later it was abandoned. It sought to explain the correspondence
between sound and sense, by a law of nature, a mysterious law of harmony, that
everything that is struck rings and rings in a peculiar way. The words ‘zigzag’
and ‘dazzle’ may be cited as examples. In the opinion of Prof. Taraporewala,
the Hindi word “Jana Gana” “Jog Mog” and a larger number of the Bengali words
(Dhonatyak Shobdo) may come under this head. Reduplications for the sake of
emphasis, as in “a big big man’, may come under this head.
3. The Pooh pooh Theory :

This theory seeks the origin
of language in such involuntary exclamations or interjections of pain,
surprise, wonder, disapproval, pleasure as oh! bah! pshaw! fie, and the like.
As a theory of the origin of language it stands upon a very slippery ground.
4. The Gesture Theory :

This holds that language
originates in gesture
. This theory was formulated and advanced by Wilhelm Wundt
and Sir Richard Paget. The gesture-theorists opine that the primitive people
communicated with one another by means of gestures made by hand, and ultimately
the language-equivalents were substituted for these gestures. Sir Percy Nunn in
his book Education, its Data and first Principles develops his theory in
full, and Macdonald Critchley deals with it elaborately in his work, The Language
of Gesture

They seem to point out that
in saying ‘I’ and ‘me’ the lips are drawn inwards as if hinting at the speaker,
and in saying ‘you’ and ‘thou’ the lips are moved outwards as if hinting at the
person addressed. Similarly, in saying ‘here’ and ‘there’ the lips are drawn
inwards and thrown outwards respectively.

5. The yo-he-ho Theory :

Noire enunciated the
‘yo-he-ho theory’. He saw the source of speech in acts of joint or common work,
in which, during intense physical effort, cries or sounds partly consonantal
might be emitted. Such sounds might come to be associated with the work
performed and so become a symbol for it; the first words would accordingly mean
something like ‘heave’ or ‘haul’.

The ta-ta Theory :

The idea of the origin of language is the use of tongue and mouth
gestures to mimic manual gestures. For example, saying ta-ta is like waving
goodbye with your tongue. But most of the things we talk about do not have
characteristic gestures associated with them, much less gestures you can
imitate with the tongue and mouth.

7. The la-la Theory :

The idea that speech emerged from the sounds of inspired playfulness,
love, poetic sensibility, and song. This one is lovely, and no more or less
likely than any of the others.
8. Biblical Theory :
Let us peep into the Biblical account of the
origin of language which is contained in the second chapter in the book of
Genesis. According to this account, “the Lord God formed man of dust from
the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a
living being.”
Afterwards he created trees and rivers. And then “out
of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of
the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and
whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave
names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the
It is an account of the birth of language in man, who is placed
at the centre of the world.
9.  Another theory to be mentioned was adduced
over a century ago in the early days of modern linguistics. In 1823 was
published in Edinburgh The History of the European Languages by
Alexander Murray, D.D.  In this work he
states 9 words which he calls “the foundations of language.” They were uttered
at first, and probably for several generations, in an insulated manner. The
circumstances of the actions were communicated by gestures and variable tunes
of the voice, but actions themselves were expressed through suitable

10. The last theory of the
origin of language
was proposed some years ago by the Danish linguist, Otto
Jespersen. This language expert says, ‘we must imagine primitive language as
consisting (chiefly, at least) of very long words, full of difficult sounds,
and sung rather than spoken’.
It is the strangest of all theories, but deserves
serious thought because of the learning of the author.

Jespersen, unlike many other
linguists of his day, was not prepared to accept the view that the origin of
is unknowable. He suggested that “there once was a time when all speech
was song, or rather when these two actions were not yet differentiated

According to him,
“Language was born in the courting days of mankind; the first utterances
of speech I fancy to myself like something between the nightly love-lyrics of
puss upon the tiles and melodious love-songs of the nightingale.”
Summing Up

All the theories noted above
are only partially true and do not seem to satisfy fully the intelligentsia. As
they are many, they frustrate any attempt at arriving at an acceptable and
convincing solution. For the present, we may rest content with ample knowledge
of the theories alone.


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