Did early man talk like Yoda?

20/08/2013 | Hayley

Last week, we published two articles focusing on the mystery of language and, in particular, the origins of human speech. While no one has cracked the code of where, when and how language evolved, we might be one step closer to learning what people sounded like when they first began to speak.

A popular theory in linguistics is that every world language that is and has ever been spoken – and there are more than 6,000 of them today – derived from just one language. Just like the Bible’s story of the Tower of Babel, it is thought that there was a time when all humans spoke with a common tongue, before different communities evolved their own unique way of speaking from this language. Then, within each of these languages different dialects formed too, resulting in the rich variety of languages and dialects we have today.

Language I learn

It is common to imagine Stone Age man grunting, but in fact the earliest human speakers probably sounded less like this and more like a character in one of the world’s biggest movie franchises. Yes – if you were to travel that far back in time you might find that everyone spoke an awful lot like Yoda.

Confused? Well, a study by Stanford University’s Merritt Ruhlen and Santa Fe Institute’s Murray Gell-Mann published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 revealed it’s all to do with ordering.

Languages all have their own ordering system. For instance, English sentences tend to begin with a subject, followed by a verb, followed by an objective, such as ‘I like you’, ‘You love Star Wars’, and so on. This is referred to as an SVO structure (subject-verb-object). Indeed, this is one of the most common word orders in use today and includes English and the Romance languages. There are those that differ from this rule, and SOV, OVS, OSV, VOS and even VSO structures also exist.

The researchers compiled a huge family tree of languages and followed it back to its earliest known point. From here, they theorised that the one root language from which all the others grew would have followed an SOV structure – ‘I you like’, ‘You Star Wars love’. But why did they conclude it was this order over the other five possibilities? In an email to Life’s Little Mysteries – a companion website to Live Science – Ruhlen explained: “The distribution of the six possible word orders did not vary randomly […] Rather, the distribution of these six types was highly structured, and the paths of linguistic change in word order were clear.”

SOV is the order that features in the largest number of individual languages in use today and more than half of the 2,000 modern languages featured in the family tree drawn up by the researchers. Meanwhile, the SVO, OSV and OVS orders are also directly derived from SOV. Finally, VOS and VSO are derived from SVO languages. As SVO comes from SOV, SOV must therefore have been the word order of the earliest human language from which all modern languages derive.

Our first voice

An earlier study, by University of Oregon linguist Tom Givon, appears to support the SOV order. Givon claimed that when infants first learn to speak they tend to have a natural inclination to speak in the SOV order. As they become fluent in their mother tongue, children start to lean towards that language’s word ordering until this becomes their natural choice.

Speaking to Life’s Little Mysteries, Ruhlen said the people speaking this early language probably came from East Africa and it is their influence that spread language throughout the rest of the world and made it the dominant way of speaking. As a result, this tribe can be viewed as the inventors of all modern languages. “[We believe] the reason there is a large number of languages with SOV word order is not because SOV word order is ‘universally preferred’ but because in many languages it is unchanged from the original order,” the researchers note in their paper.

The combined studies of genetics, linguistics and archaeology have pointed to a very sudden development of modern human behaviour among early mankind approximately 50,000 years ago. Developments during this time included the use of language, which played a huge role in mankind’s evolution and may be the single greatest thing to separate us from the animals. It is this characteristic that makes us worthy of the name homo sapiens – which means ‘wise man’ in Latin.

It was probably mankind’s’ early journey from Africa into the rest of the world that allowed them to develop language. The reason? While there is no definitive answer, it may have been all about survival. The tens of thousands of years it took the earliest humans to evolve to what is recognised as modern man were tough, with extreme climate change adding to the hardships of a hunter gatherer lifestyle spent on the move. Without developing the skills of communication, these tribes may not have completed their journey and might not even have survived. Other skills developed during this time that were integral to the species’ survival and set it apart from other animals included the making of clothes to keep warm, the cooking of food to render it safe to eat, the development of sophisticated tools and a desire among people to record their own lives, through painting and engraving. Most of all, humans formed larger and larger tribes and loyalty to these helped forge humanity’s success.

Today, language continues to evolve all the time, from the loss of old words to the development of new slang. Where it will be in ten thousand years’ time, no one can say.

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