The Gift of Language

Nobody knows how speech was born, although many interesting theories have been put forward. There are some who believe that man first made vocal sounds as an accompaniment to physical effort, and that more complicated forms of speech grew out of the range of grunts and interjections produced by bodily activity. There are others who believe that movements of the organs of speech grew out of an attempt to imitate gestures made by the hand. Still others believe that speech was an attempt to imitate directly the action or the object or the emotion being described.
Whatever the origin of speech, we can be certain that man did not begin to feel the need to speak until he began to live in communities, for speech is essentially social in character. It is, however, as difficult to explain the origins of speech as it is to explain why certain combinations of sound came to be associated with certain objects. Many primitive peoples believed, and some still believe, in the magical power of name; they believe, for example, that god’s name was a part of him and therefore possessed some of the divine powers of the god himself. A reflection of the same attitude may be seen in a child’s unwillingness to tell a stranger his name, since he feels that with his name he is giving a part of himself. Similarly; parents give their children the names of gods or the name will carry with it some of the great qualities of its original possessor. Most of us, too, feel annoyed or hurt if somebody mispronounces our name or calls us by the wrong name.

Man first discovered that everything could be given a name and later found out that, because words are really only symbols, the same object may be given several different names; to put it simply, that a cat may be called “a cat”, “an animal”, “a mammal”, or “a feline”. Class words like “animal”, “fruit”, “vegetable”, must have appeared at a much later stage than words like “lion”, “orange”, or “cabbage”. Names for abstract qualities, such as “patience” and “courage”, must have come much later.
In all there are about 7,000 different languages spoken in the world to-day, and just as the peoples of the world can be divided into families, so these 7,000 languages can be divided into about 200 families and into many more subfamilies. The members of a human family do not necessarily resemble one another physically, and the same is true of a linguistic family. One very large family of languages is derived from primitive Indo-European; a language which we believe was spoken by a relatively small group of people. Some of the languages of India and English are members of this particular family, yet it is difficult to discover any important resemblance between, for example, Hindi and English. Nevertheless, the resemblances are there, obscured by the changes produced by time and use; in primitive Indo-European, the word for “warm” was “GERMOS” which became “GHARMAS” in Sanskrit, “GARM” in Hindi, “THERMOS” in Greek, “FORMUS” in Latin and “WARM” in English; the English word “cow” and the Hindi word “GAE” are both descended from the primitive Indo-European “GWOUS”.

In the history of all languages the spoken from came first, to be followed at a much later date by the written forms. In some cases, in very early times symbols were used as substitutes for languages, as in the case of the SCYTHIANS, who once sent to the Persians a message consisting of a bird, a mouse, a frog and five arrows; this meant “Persians, can you fly like a bird, hide yourselves like a mouse and leap like a frog? If you cannot, do not make war upon us, for we shall rain arrows upon you and defeat you.” Knotted strings and notched sticks were also frequently used for sending messages. Many primitive peoples made use of pictorial symbols, which at first meant the object depicted and later the idea behind the picture; a picture of the sun first meant the object itself, and later day or heat; a man’s mouth meant speaking, an eye, seeing, an ear, hearing.

Ideographic systems of writing of this kind were used in Egypt, the Indus Valley and China. Gradually these systems were modified and perfected and in many cases the symbol came to bear little resemblance to the original ideography. Most modern languages make use of a script in which the symbols have a special sound or phonetic value; each one represents a sound or a group of sounds. A script may be syllabic – each symbol representing a consonant followed by a vowel – like Devanagri; or it may be alphabetic – each symbol representing a sound – as in English, although the system of English spelling is obviously imperfect.

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