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Who Invented Language and Words?

Updated on February 12, 2013

Humans have been using words as symbols for thousands of years

Writing is deeply intertwined with human culture
Writing is deeply intertwined with human culture | Source

Introduction

Did humans invent words?

It is universally accepted that humans possess the only intellectual capacity to use language and understand words.

Research may overturn the so-called Human essence of language and word use

Neanderthals may have possessed a much higher intelligence than previously thought. Researchers are uncovering what may be a gene for symbolic thought, which currently is found only in humans and is the precursor to understanding the symbolic basis of words. Neanderthals, it seems, might have talked.

The difference between Humans and Neanderthal skulls

The differences between Humans and Neanderthals are obvious. The similarities are ,too, and  may extend to their abilities to communicate using words.
The differences between Humans and Neanderthals are obvious. The similarities are ,too, and may extend to their abilities to communicate using words. | Source

Language and the first use of words

Who invented words?

The answer to this question is perhaps the most important piece of information to the human species. Language, that symbolic use of arbitrary symbols to describe and interpret the world, is what distinguishes us from every other species on the plant. Our ability to communicate made us the best hunters, the most ingenious problem solvers, and the most dominate species ever. Human feats like skyscrapers and city planning would be impossible without it.

The back and forth exchange of ideas is unique to us. Sure, ants can make impressive tunnel structures, but they can only make what they are programmed to make. An ant cannot make something novel. They cannot build up they rich knowledge required to build a 200,000 ton cruise ship. Accomplishing that demands generations worth of knowledge about tool making, building materials, the properties of water, and hydrodynamics that could only be worked out incrementally over a time frame that far surpasses any one lifetime. Knowledge that sophisticated can only be passed on with the equally sophisticated means to pass it on.

Where did it all begin?

The use of words to symbolize our environment has been recorded in writing from as far back as 3200 BC in Sumeria and ancient Egypt. But as Elizabeth Pyatt, Instructional designer as Penn State University, points out, "Writing is not equal to speaking", eluding to the fact that words, in the oral sense, have been around far longer than their orthographic counterparts. Written words have a clear advantage, though. They are recorded, something that oral words cannot do. Therefore, the history of spoken words are subject to more educated guesses and probabilities, whereas written words can be pin pointed to a very narrow time frame.

Pyatt suggests that full language capacity had evolved by 100,000 BC while admitting that the date is merely a consensus based assumption. The evidence hinges on another assumption. Noam Chomsky, the father of modern Linguistics, described studying human language as approaching a so-called human essence. Language is the epitome of what it means to be human So the date given correlates with the first known appearance of Homo Sapiens, also known as the first modern human beings, who seemed to posses the brain size and vocal tract necessary to facilitate language. Yet, while language appears to be an essential characteristic of humanness, newly discovered evidence may be overturning theat assumptions.

Language and symbolic thought

Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy graduate from Harvard and Radcliffe and one of the most influential female philosophers of the 20th century, once wrote a compelling essay about the human mind's capacity for language. Entitled Language and Thought, it described how humans uniquely possess the capacity for symbolic thought. It is the intellectual precursor to the symbolic words the make up a language. As Langer so eloquently put it, "a sign causes us to think or act in the face of a thing symbolized, whereas a sumbol causes us to think about the thing symbolized". When someone says a word, for instance 'bear' The human mind is able to see the image of the bear, recall any previous encounters with it, and develop a course of action to deal with it based on the surrounds and knowledge about the way a bear acts. These thoughts are both real (bears are big and strong) and hypothetical (if I run, the bear may think I'm prey) and would be impossible if our brains didn't have the capacity to handle such complexity of thought.

New research on Neanderthal intelligence

Research has called this belief in question (in Langer's defense, she wrote her essay in 1953 when significantly less was known about the topic). The researchers include David frayer, out of the University of Kansas; Virginia Volpato, from the Senckenberg Institute in Frankfurt, Germany; and Jean-Jacques Hublin, from the California Academy of Sciences. Their researches indicate that Neanderthals may have shared brain lateralization. This hemespheric division, which explains why most people are right hand dominant, was also present in Neanderthals and would also suggest a linguistic competence similar to that of humans. According to Frayer, this discovery could push back the formation of the first words to the common ancestor of Humans and Neanderthals, as far back as 1.2 million years go to 600,000 years ago.

Humans still hold the distinction of the world's first talkers. Future research may soon debunk that..


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