The origins and evolution of human language

Presentation (Elaboration) 2006 4 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics




The natural-sound source
bow-wow theory
pooh-pooh theory
yo-heave-ho heory

The oral-gesture source





No other species has anything resembling the human language and it seems like there is no other communication system that could possibly match human language in flexibility, capacity and diversity.

But when did humans develop language? We will probably never know as spoken language leaves no traces in the historic record. Although the ultimate origin of language is likely to remain unknown several scientific approaches have been made that lead to various theories concerning the developement of human language.

The natural-sound source

One theory concerning the developement of language is the natural-sound source theory which is based on the process of onomatopoeia[1]. The basic idea of this theory is that early primitive words could have been imitations of natural sounds which were heard by the first humans and echoed to mimic the sounds of the world around them. This theory can be subdivided in several different concepts:

Bow-wow theory

One version of a natural-sound source is the so called bow-wow theory. The idea behind this theory is that the first humans imitated animal sounds in order to refer to a certain animal. So when the first humans heard a bird making a tweet-sound they could have imitated that sound to tell one of their fellows „Hey, a bird just flew by.“

Unfortunately this theory only works to a limited extent as it becomes quite difficult to immitate the sound of a rock, a tree or a cave. The bow-wow theory does not adequately explain the creation of words for inanimate or soundless objects nor does it explain how grammar or synthax developed. The bow-wow theory seems to assume that a language is only based on a set of words naming objects, therefore it is not considered to be a complete explanation for the origin of language.

Pooh-pooh theory

An other version of language developing from natural sounds is provided by the pooh-pooh theory. According to this hypothesis, the first words developed from natural cries of emotion made by the first humans. Exclamations of joy, anger, pain or surprise such as Ouch!, Ah!, Wow! or Hey! might have been the very first utterances of our ancestors.

But like the bow-wow theory this is also just an assumption and a rather restricted explanation for the origins of language. Emotional expressions such as Ah! are mostly produced with sudden intakes of breath and happen rather unintentionally. The expressive noises people make as an emotional reaction can hardly be considered as words and are therefore unlikely to be the source of language.

Yo-heave-ho theory

According to this hypothesis, language arose in rhythmic chants and vocalisms uttered by people involved in communal labour. The first humans might have developed a set of various grunts or calls that were uttered in a certain rythmic order to provide a group with instructions. Those „work songs“ would have to match the rhythm of the work that had to be done, „yo-heave-ho“ for example could have been used when a group of humans was trying to lift something up.

Although it’s an interesting idea it does not explain the origins of the sounds that were produced. It is uncertain from this hypothesis how meanings came to be associated with the calls uttered by the workers.

The oral-gesture source

A quite different approach trying to reveal the origins of language is made by the theory of an oral-gesture source. It suggests that the evolution of sounds involves a connection between physical gestures and orally produced sounds.

Most of our physical gestures are means of communication. Even with the abillitiy of speech we frequently use our hands, face and body to express certain emotions and intentions. The oral-gesture theory assumes a very close link between physical and oral gesture.

The idea behind this is that the first humans possesed a set of physical gestures that could be used to communicate with each other. As time passed by oral gestures developed that resembled the movements made with hands and body. Those oral gestures, particularly involving tounge, lips and mouth, used patterns that were similar to physical gestures such as waving. So instead of saying „Goodbye“ by waving a hand it is proposed that early humans started waving their tounges.

This theory is rather questionable as oral and physical gestures are very limited in expressing various intentions. Although it is possibly to mime simple expressions it remains quite difficult to visualize long and complex sentences such as „My car is broken so I took my wife’s car to get to work.“. The theory of an oral-gesture source may be reasonable to some extent but it does not expose the origins of language completely.


The speculations about the origins of language known under the name glossogenetics focus particularly on the biological basis and evolution of language, assuming that some distinctive physical features enable us to talk.

It all starts with the ability of two-legged locomotion that distinguishes us from other primates and probably led to other physical changes required for producing words. If we compare a human’s mouth to an ape we will notice certain differences:

- Unlike an ape’s teeth those of humans are upright which is quite helpful in producing such sounds as f, v and th.
- The human mouth is rather small and can be opened and closed rapidly, human lips are more flexible than those of apes and can produce p and b sounds.
- The human tounge is very flexible and can be used to produce a large variety of different sounds such as l.

An essential organ in producing sounds is the larynx[2], or voicebox. Due to the human’s upright posture the larynx differs in position from that of apes. The human larynx has moved lower what created a bigger cavity, called pharynx[3] which works as an resonator for sounds produced in the larynx and enables us to produce a larger range of different sounds.

There are obviously many physical features that were crucial in the developement of speech but unfortunately none of them gives us exact insight how the human communication system including synthax and other grammatical particles or abstract concepts was created.


Although all of the theories presented seem to be quite sensible, none of them can be named as the ultimate origin of language. Human language perhaps developed from a combination of all theories but we just do not know whether language emerged in one or several places or at different times in our history. It seems that language appeared from nowhere, since no other species has anything resembling human language. However, other animals do possess basic systems for perceiving and producing sounds that enable them to communicate. These systems may have been in place before the appearance of language. The mystery of language may be hidden in our genes, waiting for scientists to identify the genetic program responsible for this uniquely human ability.


Yule, George: The study of language, 2. edition, Cambridge University Press 1996



[1] from the Greek word meaning "name-making"; a figure of speech that describes a word that imitates (echoes) the object it is describing, such as "bang", "click", "fizz", "hush" or "buzz", or animal noises such as "moo", "quack" or "meow".

[2] larynx (voicebox), is an organ in the neck of mammals involved in sound production.

[3] pharynx is a combined part of the digestive system and respiratory system of many animals. It is situated immediately posterior to the mouth and nasal cavity.


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University of Duisburg-Essen – Department of Anglophone Studies
language linguistics evolution




Title: The origins and evolution of human language