Is language an invention or a discovery


Gestures, grunts and screams - the language of primitive man

The ancestors of Homo sapiens still used a very simple language. They communicated with each other mainly through gestures, grunts, and screams.

Primates communicate in a similar way. In this way, they warn their conspecifics of dangers or communicate their own emotional state to the other. The language of our ancestors was still a long way from words and complex sentences.

From sounds to words

In the course of evolution, the shape of the head of primitive man changed. The skull stretched, the brain grew, and the tongue and larynx took up more space than before, as did the throat and nasal cavity. Presumably Homo erectus was already at least anatomically able to produce articulated sounds.

Linguists suspect that human language skills developed around 1.5 million to 40,000 years ago. A more precise period has not yet been determined. Using fossils or ancient tools, researchers can explain how intelligent our ancestors were, but not whether and how well they could speak.

It is possible that Homo erectus, who lived around 1.5 million years ago, could already speak. After all, he had a bigger brain than other people before him.

But presumably only modern humans (Homo sapiens) were able to speak. It only appeared about 150,000 years ago. The shape and position of his larynx gave him the ability to make more sounds than any other prehistoric man.

Man could not speak from one day to the next. He has only gradually acquired this ability over time. Language gave him an evolutionary advantage: From then on he no longer had to use gestures to communicate; he could now use his hands for other things.

What distinguishes humans from animals

Be it through scents, sounds or gestures - living beings on earth have found their way to communicate with one another. However, their communication is mostly limited to what is essential for survival: reproduction, foraging or warning of enemies.

In 2005, the British researchers Karen McComb and Stuart Semple found in their research that bonobos use 38 different sounds to communicate, mostly with screams.

Biologists at the University of St. Andrews discovered in 2010 that the orangutan uses 64 different gestures to communicate with others of its own kind. Some great apes can combine gestures and screams, but that's not enough for a thousand-page novel or a romantic poem.

There are no limits for your creativity

The sound repertoire of the German language consists of only 40 different sounds. With these, however, people can form numerous words and thus express almost anything they want.

According to estimates by the Duden, there are between 300,000 and 500,000 words in German. There is no exact number because the vocabulary is constantly changing. New words are being added, such as "Flashmob" or "Shitstorm", while others are disappearing or are only used very rarely, such as "stick cough" or "Mohammedanism".

On average, a person in Germany can easily understand around 50,000 words. In his active vocabulary he has between 12,000 and 16,000 words. These are the words, the meaning of which he knows and which he can safely use.

With these tools, a person can easily invent new words that no one has said before. He can develop new theories, tell imaginative stories and share his wishes and feelings with others.

A person doesn't even have to be particularly intelligent to acquire a language. Unless he is mentally or physically restricted to such an extent that language development suffers, he will be able to master the language with which he grew up when he reaches puberty.

The grammar brings order to the language

Whoever speaks does not just string together individual words. A short but incorrect sentence such as "It's a beautiful day today" can still be understood to some extent. This is more difficult with longer sentences.

The longer and more nested the sentence, the more it relies on a structure, a grammar. If there were no rules, it would hardly be possible for two people to have a nice conversation. The opposite would not be understood sensibly.

The grammar of a language dictates how the words must be arranged so that the sentence makes sense at the end. A grammar can be complex as in Latin - or simple as in English.

Latin, for example, distinguishes six different cases in its word forms (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative and ablative). English only has its own rule for the genitive - the genitive-S.

The grammar determines the order in which the words can appear in a sentence and whether, for example, the endings of individual words have to be changed in order to express something as clearly as possible.

Languages ​​that have a common origin, i.e. belong to the same language family, have a similar grammar. Italian, Spanish and French come from the family of Romance languages. They all developed from Latin. If you speak Italian, it is usually easier for you to understand Spanish as well.

Like Dutch and English, German comes from the Germanic language family. Many people who speak German as their mother tongue can understand Dutch especially well, even if they have never learned it.

The languages ​​from two different language families, however, usually differ very clearly, both in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

When a German explains the way to another German, he uses words like left and right. One Aborigine explains the way to another Aborigine by giving directions. Without a compass, this information would be of little use to many of us. An Aborigine, on the other hand, finds the information very easy to understand.