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The origin of human languages can be termed as the surfacing of language among humans (Kenneally 10). This topic has remained highly controversial for a very long time. There is very little empirical evidence that can be used to guide research in this area. Numerous hypotheses have been put in place by different scholars to try and explain why and how language might have emerged and developed in human beings (Lieberman, McCarthy and Strait 1441).
This paper seeks to describe three hypotheses concerning the origin of human languages and set a personal point of view in regard to each hypothesis.
The mother tongue hypothesis
This hypothesis was put forward in the year 2004 to try and get a solution to the problem of language origin. The theory seems to suggest that the Darwinian principle of “kin selection- convergence of genetic interests between relatives- may be part of the solution” (Harrub, Thompson and Miller pp. 5).
Mother tongue hypothesis was put forward by Tecumseh Fitch who suggests that language initially developed as a form of communication between mothers and their own off springs in what is often described as mother tongue. (Kenneally 56)
This extended later to other relatives such as siblings and other close relatives. The theory dwells on the idea that the interests of closely associated speakers and listeners were common. According to Fitch, the shared genetic makeup enabled relatives to build a considerable amount of trust and cooperation for the intrinsically unreliable signals which were later accepted as trustworthy words fit for communication (Lieberman, McCarthy and Strait 1441, pp. 4).
The mother tongue hypothesis may offer some explanation as to how human language came about but it does not provide any empirical data to support the thinking. In my view, the theory does not offer any reason as to why language developed only in the human species. All other animals, including apes share genes and live in some form of communities. The theory does not explain why language did not develop in such animals. The theory does not offer any substantive reasons as to why early humans restricted communication to relatives.
Though the theory might offer some important leads to unraveling the mystery behind human language development but it needs more empirical data to substantiate the argument (Kenneally 57).
The obligatory reciprocal altruism hypothesis
It was put forward by Ib Ulbaek and it utilizes some principles from the Darwinian theory-reciprocal altruism, specifically to try and explain the high levels of confidence and honesty required for language development (Lieberman, McCarthy and Strait 1441). Reciprocal altruism can be described as the idea that “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” (Kenneally 102, pp. 5).
Reciprocal altruism as used in this theory can be depicted as the relationship that is natured between people or individuals who interact constantly. However, language development at community level requires universal reciprocity rather than individual. Ulbaek explains this by pointing out that early human society must have had some form of moral regulation.
Again, this hypothesis does not provide any evidence to support the thinking. It does not give a clear picture of what mechanisms were in place to ensure that obligatory reciprocal altruism was enforced at the community level (Harrub, Thompson and Miller, pp. 6). Although proponents have offered some explanations, its not enough validate the theory.
Some critics have pointed out that verbal communication doesn’t really work in terms reciprocal altruism. I find this to be true as people do not always talk to other people or individuals who are willing to listen to them. It’s common to see people offering information or communicating to any person who is willing to listen without expecting anything in return (Kenneally 125).
The gossip and grooming hypothesis
This hypothesis is based on the principle that “if you scratch my back I will scratch yours” and was put forward by Robin Dunbar (Kenneally 45, pp. 6). According to him, gossiping achieves the same objective for a group of humans living together as grooming in other primate species. Dunbar explains that, when human social groups began to swell up and become extremely large, the practice of grooming one’s associates became tiresome and problematic.
To counter this challenge, the early humans invented verbal communication as an efficient and cheap form of grooming (Harrub, Thompson and Miller, pp. 8). Thus to impress friends and other acquaintances, one only needed to utter some sounds. This would ensure that a large number of friends are kept happy simultaneously. Vocal grooming then gradually evolved into spoken language (Kenneally 120).
In my view, vocal grooming, as Dunbar calls it, could not have been a satisfactory alternative to manual grooming. The theory is however much better than the others as it offers a better explanation of what triggered verbal communication. But just like the others, it fails to offer any substantive explanation of how this verbal grooming transformed into a complex language (Kenneally 134).
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This paper sought to describe three hypotheses concerning the origin of human languages and set a personal point of view in regard to each hypothesis. The hypotheses identified include: the mother tongue hypothesis; the obligatory reciprocal altruism hypothesis; and the gossip and grooming hypothesis.
Proponents of three hypotheses try to offer some explanation of how human language came about but they extensively lack empirical evidence to support their arguments. More research is required to establish a more convincing explanation to this phenomenon.
Harrub, Brad, Bert Thompson and Dave Miller. “The Origin of Langauge and
Communication:True Origin Archive.” 2003. 22 November 2011 <https://www.trueorigin.org/language01.php>.
Kenneally, Christine. The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. New York: Viking, 2007.
Lieberman, Philip, Robert McCarthy and David Strait. “The recent origin of human speech.” J Acoust. Soc. Am (2006): 119(5): 3441-3441.