A common conception is that early man would lack the patience for anything as advanced as building up a language; that the primitive barbarity of the time and place meant they would rather bash each other’s brains out in their spare time than explore and develop their ability to speak. This view pitches dramatic cinema images of primeval savagery against logic; the former appeals to our visceral side; but if true, where did language come from? Language came before literacy; in fact we had language long before literacy. No-one knows exactly how long. Early man must have developed language, as it didn’t happen by magic. The corollary to this is that our notions of early man are wrong.

How old is language?

Organised settlement of the New World took place at least 10,000 years back; did American Indians bring language with them?
Genetic studies show that the Chinese were separate for over 20,000 years; taking us back to the height of last Ice Age. The last Ice Age was hardly an ideal for keeping in touch with distant neighbors so an older origin of language seems logical (and isn’t their tonal language different?)
Because of that climate and the fact that humans were still filling up the Earth; the Toba event 70,000 years ago killed off much of humanity and is held to have triggered the last Ice Age – we were reduced to about 10,000 breeding couples; I can imagine a common ancestral language back in pre-Toba times. It’s interesting to note that Neanderthal wasn’t killed off by Toba, so speculation about the origin of language could fork here.

How could language develop? Did they have the time? Were they even then, getting ready for the onset of literature by composing works that would easily transfer into written form? 🙂

The economic argument (how efficient were our ancestors with their hunter gathering ways?) determines whether they had free time. If they did have free time, punctuating it with random acts of savagery and murder, would seem counter-productive. Would their spare time have been filled listening to wannabee Shakespeares, rhyming off their creations with one eye on their posterity? Maybe no; but language as an analytical tool – of their life, their observations, even of teaching their young; we know that that pattern of life survived. Our ancestors lived it. To maintain language in pre-literate times would require special aptitudes; so the idea of a bard – in whom would be vested knowledge of language, customs and events; combined with a capacity to deliver pronouncements or other sayings that re-connect with cultural legacy in an appropriate way – becomes credible. Being a bard wasn’t a spare time job. Those patterns are mostly lost but the residuals of pre-historic cultures are still there to study – e.g. American Indians.
Incidentally hybrid languages (like English) lack elegance and simplicity and have many loan words. This may color opinion on the matter of how language is formed (if it’s hard for us, a primitive savage would be lost).

I’m struck by the eloquence of the illiterate in works such as Giacomo Casanova’s A History of my Life

Guide assumes idios, analogous to Neanderthal man, have the ability to speak and reason. Is that a big deal? Guide’s editor challenged this. The above expands on my reasoning for making man of 100,000 years ago, able to talk and reason. I think it’s plausible.


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