Origins of words

Etymologies of modern words can be traced back through older languages, but what about the very beginning of language? I know some words are onomatopoeic, but I can’t think of other possible origins for words. What other reasons are there for the association of a particular sound with some given meaning (or vice versa)?

Aristotle, I believe, theorized on the origins of words.

Anyhow, the names for things are, in most cases, completely arbitrary.

If there is some inherent connection between sound and meaning, it would be limited to a few types of words. Demonstrative pronouns and related words about spatial relationships are one example I can think of.

In a good many languages from different language families around the world, the vowel i appears in words like ‘this’, ‘here’, for anything that is close to the speaker, and the vowel a in words like ‘that’, ‘there’ for anything farther away from the speaker.

Compare the sounds of near and far.
In Tamil, ‘this’ is itu and ‘that’ is atu.
In Persian, ‘this’ is în and ‘that’ is ân.
See what I mean?

/i/ is a high front vowel, made by the tongue approaching near the front of the hard palate, leaving only a little space there. /a/ is a low back vowel, where the tongue is lowered and pulled back to leave a wide space in themouth. So to as far as this goes, I think one could make a limited case for sound symbolism as a linguistic universal.

God took Adam around and let him name stuff, or so I heard somewhere.

Or see: Origin of languages

Utimately lunguists don’t really have a good overall theory as to why languages came into being. There was a probably acrophycal story that a London club for linguists had a sign forbidding discussions of the origin.

Some theories of languague development included the “bow wow” theory (people imitated animals), the “yo heave ho” theory (people came up with a code to work togehter), the “ding dong” theory (imitation of musical notes), the “ha-ha” theory (laughter), and the “sing-song” theory. All have been discredited.

Robin Dunbar, in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, advances the thesis that language evolved as a substitute for physical intimacy (grooming, not sex) as the basis for bonding a social group. As human communities grew too large for each member to personally groom each other member, we developed language as a means of “grooming” verbally, if not physically, a greater number of companions. The structure of language, including the words that we use, is designed for the purpose of advancing the social and sociological goals of the communities and individuals who use them.

I don’t know exactly how the languages that are around now came into existence thousands of years ago, but I’ve heard that people in groups naturally create languages to communicate. One story I remember hearing in a psych class is that a bunch of deaf kids growing up together in some sort of institution had no experience of any language, but researchers who saw them as adolescents noticed that they were communicating with each other in some sort of sign language that they had developed.

That doesn’t really answer the OP. I think the only answer to that matching sounds to meaning is basically arbitrary. Just listening to the vast array of sounds of different languages (including languages that did not arise in Eurasia & use clicks and so forth) should make that answer not too surprising. Once the relationship between sound and meaning is established, though, it tends to stick around. The reason why is pretty obvious - why and how would you create a new language if everyone around you was already communicating in a language that you knew? We can see the results in Cecil’s column (linked by C K Dexter Haven) - we can trace roots back to roots in PIE 5000 years ago.

Interestingly, bodily motions & sign language can have closer relationships to meaning than spoken language, but spoken language is the norm. I guess it’s more efficient/convenient. Also, much of the meaning of spoken languge is transferred by non-verbal cues like tone of voice & facial expressions.

Terence McKenna’s theory of language origin appeals to me. He said that protohumans began to speak when inspired by eating psychedelic mushrooms.

If its origins of different languages then here:

sorry, I just can’t help being an ass today…trying to bring a little humor, it’s been one of those days :wally

The question of the origin of language is a pretty difficult one. Many books have been written about it, and some of the theories espoused in them are obviously crackpot notions. If you’re not well-versed in linguistics, you might want to read some basic texts in that subject.

The dictionary traces most back to “echoic” “immitative”, etc.
Like sign language before it and pictographic writing after it, verbal language started with the obvious. Then when you couldn’t figure out an obvious sound to refer to something you had to make one up or vary one you already had. That’s really the only choices.

Interesting, we spoke on this in my archaeology class a few weeks ago. In pre-history, languages don’t leave traces in the archaeological record, it’s at best a guess game when we, as anatomically humans were first speaking.

Right now, I would hazard a guess of some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, when the Neandertals were dying out and anatomically modern humans were breeding like crazy. It appears, from the archaeological record, that some shift in symbol usage happened at this time. Anatomically modern humans started making fancy tools, arts, crafts, etc. It can be conjectured that language came into being with this shift.

Please tell us the title of the dictionary you are looking at where “most” of the etymologies say that. I have never seen such a dictionary. I use the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., and most of the words are traced back to Proto-Indo-European.


You might be able to make an argument that “fully articulate language”, ie, with elaborate tenses and declentions, may not have originated until 50ky ago, but I think the OP is more concerned with the most primitive languate one could think of-- indivdual nouns. In that case, I’d find it hard to believe that pre-sapiens hominids didn’t have the ability to speak in terms of nouns.

I’d gues that Homo erectus could point to a lion or an antelope and make some sound that differentiated between the two. And I’m talking about a species that existed 1.8My ago. How did they come up with the sounds that went with these nouns? No one know, although some of the earlier posters have pointed out the common theories.

Another theory about language is that one can see somewhat of an example of its evolution in the language acquisition of children. They go thru the one noun phase, the two noun phase, and then burst into pretty elaborate full sentences by age 3 or 4.

There is a guy at Stanford, Joseph Greenberg, who tried to trace all modern languages back to the one “Mother Tongue” which I think he placed at about 100ky ago. His most famous word, tik, was said to mean “one” or “finger”. Needless to say, this theory is somewhat controversial, although it does loosely match up with the genetic data which puts the emergence of Homo sapiens to be about 100ky ago.

Most linguists think that it’s simply impossible to trace back the lineage of languages more than about 10,000 years. There’s no real evidence that there was an “individual noun” language before the full-developed languages of today. You’re just guessing when you talk about the languages of a million years ago.

Wendell: Agreed. If you read my post you’ll note that I said Greenberg’s theory were controversial and that I was guessing about the “noun language”. No one knows anything for sure about the answer to the OP. We’re all guessing. This is not really a subject for GQ ad there is not even remotely an answer.