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Forming "Tones" into Words: A Meditation on the Origin of Language

Updated on June 13, 2016
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


How do we form tones into words?

Today I want to talk about how we form tones into words. On the Question and Answer board, hubber James Robertson asked the question: How do we form tones into words?

Thank you for the question, James Robertson. Anyway, I initially gave a short answer to the question, but as I thought about it, more and more, I grew more and more dissatisfied with the answer I gave. I feel like I did not address the question at all.

I re-read the answer I gave and it comes off as rather rambling. As I thought about the question, I realize that there is a critical part that I should have mentioned.

Now, I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea: I am not a linguist or a professional in a related field. But what I propose to do, here, is to remind all of you what you and I, and just about everyone, does when we atually do form tones into words.

What I'm saying is this: If we want to "know" how we form tones into words, why don't we simply recall how we do it? That is to say that we engage in this activity regularly, but it is so routine that we forget that we do it.

Does that make sense so far?

When we ask the question---(How do we form tones into words?)---we're really, ultimately asking how our ancestors did it. We're asking how the ancestors of modern humans did it. We are asking about the origin of language.

That is a daunting topic to deal with in an amateur essay. However, I believe we have a clue sitting right under our noses. I am not saying that the remarks I'll give here are definitive. How could they be? But with the appropriate caveats in place let us proceed.

So then, the question is: How did language develop? How did human ancestors create language? How did our species-ancestors form "tones" or sounds or "grunts," as the case may be, into words?

Well, how do we, presently, right now and as we speak, as I write this and as you read it, form tones into words? What do we do everyday when we speak?

We do not just speak with our vocal cords, throats, and mouths. If you think about it, we speak with our entire bodies, as our mouths are churning along. We use our eyes, faces, facial expressions, shoulders, heads; we flail our arms around; and we especially use our hands.

We, perhaps, most especially use our hands as we speak with our vocal cords, throats, and mouths, do we not?

Next time you are watching a person give a speech, just take note of what she is doing with her hands. Everything she does with them---her mannerisms, in part---means something, works in concert with the words, in aid of the words; and there are certain gestures that, strangely, seem to suggest that she is actually trying to shape, sculpt, and mold the words as they are coming out of her mouth. She is aiming for precision of expression when she commits to the latter kinds of hand gestures.

But it is not just "her." It is not just public speakers; it is all speakers; it is you and it is me and it is just about everybody we know.

It seems to me, therefore, that there is some connection between our species's evolutionary development, the creation of language, and the increasing degree of fine motor control given to human hands, and the tool-making capacity that this brought with it.

As "we" were able to make better, sharper, and more intricately carved weapons and tools, and the like, this tool-making capacity was even directed toward sharpening, refining, and making the "grunts" coming out of our ancestors's mouths into more and more precise sounds, until they became "words."

Again, I suppose that something like that must have happened, because that is how we use our hands, today, as we talk. Incidentally, this may, perhaps, suggest something about what species can evolve into sentience like ours.

Now, I trust that we do not have to contemplate how we come up with the "tones," since all animals, so far as we know, vocalize.

The "moral" of this story may very well be something like: No opposable thumbs and I am not typing this and you are not reading it. If we "gave" a horse hands, would the beast have any inclination to use them? On the other hand, don't beings always use what they are "given"?

We know that the story of human evolution, in becoming what we are today, is a complicated story of: increasing brain size; prolonged infancy; the upright stance and with it the ability to travel long distances by foot; the majority of our brain growth happening outside the womb, as opposed to inside the womb as is the case with other primates and other animals in general; and the drive to, somehow, express the myriad of "new" things "we" began to "feel" and "think"; and the way to express those things principally through use of the increasingly refined hands (tool-and-weapon-making, painting, and so forth, and not least of which speech, "talking with our hands"); and the fact that we do all of our learning outside of the womb, in contrast to other animals that are born, pretty much knowing what to do, how to function in a fixed environment.

The need for flexibility required something like language, so that human beings could pass along knowledge outside of the channel of genetic transmission.

Thank you so much for reading!



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    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 22 months ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Hi Chris. I've always been meaning to read that book. Are you saying that in my rambling, I accidentally wrote something meaningful?



    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 22 months ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thanks, Frank. I really appreciate the kind support!

      Take it easy.


    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 22 months ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel. Hand gestures are how she has early man communicating. I do believe this is exactly what happened. Great job explaining it.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 22 months ago from Shelton

      wow, this was interesting and entertaining winged.. yeah I like when you do these..:)