Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

Because language defines the human experience, we humans naturally wish to trace the act of speech back to its very beginnings. Modern linguists know that humankind was not born with a ready-made language. They contend that our kind, over the course of millennia, evolved language and that our words trembled into birth.

Estimates of how long it has been since humans began speaking vary from 80,000 to a half million years. But we’ve known how to write for scarcely 6,000 years, from the invention of cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphic writing in ancient Egypt. The millennia that stretch between the first articulate grunts and exclamations and the time of the first inscriptions are a riddle wrapped in an enigma lost in a labyrinth. But the fact that the origins of language are shrouded in the mists of prehistory did not stop early theorists from offering imaginative answers to the mystery of how language began.

According to the “bow-wow theory” of language origin, the first human words were imitations of the cries of animals and other sounds in nature. It was argued that since children learn to speak by imitating sounds they hear — a dog is a “bow-wow” and a train a “choo-choo” — humankind’s first words were onomatopoeic and echoic, like click, boom and splash.

The “ding-dong theory” of language origin posited a mystical a priori correspondence between sound and sense, a special “ring” inherent in every object in nature. For example, when we say the word long, we create a long tube with our mouth. When we form words such as little, itty-bitty and teeny-weeny, we force air through a small opening. The word for mother in most languages begins with the letter m, which we make by putting our lips together in the manner of a suckling babe. Thus, primitive humans intuited the relationship between words and the things words stand for.

The “pooh-pooh theory” proposed that words were originally spontaneous exclamations and interjections of fear, surprise, anger, disgust, joy and other emotions. The drawn-out ooohhhs and aaahhhs heard at fireworks displays are the raw matter out of which the first words were spooled out. From such involuntary sounds thrust from the lips all languages began.

A fourth concept, the “yo-he-ho theory,” located the source of speech in the grunts, gasps, groans, ughs and whews evoked by strenuous physical labor. When our primordial ancestors cooperatively dug up roots and bulbs, held a beast at bay or hacked up a carcass, they vocalized rhythmic sounds that became associated with certain common tasks. When these sounds were repeated around the campfire at the end of a day’s labors, they became names for the activities that brought them to life.

As beguiling as these surmises are, they are fraught with problems. For example, if the ding-dong theory were true and all objects had a distinctive ring, why are there so many different languages? If a natural ring inhabits a dog, why is the animal called perro in Spanish, chien in French, Hund in German and kelb in Arabic?

If language arose from emotional exclamations, why is it that all people don’t cry out, “Ouch!” when they are hurt? (Some scream words that can’t be printed here.)

If, as the bow-wow theory claimed, words arose from the sounds of nature, why are there so few echo words in most languages? How did we create names for animals that don’t make characteristic sounds, like worms, clams and herrings? What about words like beauty, science and the?

Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Snoopy bark arf, bow-wow and woof; but they do that only because they are English-barking dogs. The rest of the world, it appears, doesn’t hear ear-to-ear with us:

  • Brazilian          au-au!
  • Chinese           wang-wang!
  • French             gnaf-gnaf!
  • German           wau-wau!
  • Hebrew           hav-hav!
  • Japanese          wan-wan!
  • Russian            gav-gav!
  • Swahili            hu-hu-hu-huuu!
  • Swedish          voff-voff!

And 60 million Italians are convinced their dogs bark like Bing Crosby — boo-boo!

Alas, there is no carbon dating test that can establish when and how the first speakers created the first words. All such explorations are built on the foundations of guesswork. Still, these conjectures indicate our unstinting urge to find answers to the transfixing question “How did human language begin?”