What Happened to the First Ever Language?

March 26, 2019


The answer is a mystery that is slow to unravel as archaeologists today seek to uncover evidence of when Homo sapiens first emerged as a species. As strictly an oral medium, once the direct speakers of a language pass away, there is no one left to document it. Some linguists like Merritt Ruhlen (Stanford University) believes our "ancestor language" began with simple sounds, such as ku for who or ma for what. The common ancestor of all living humans (Mitochondrial Eve) may have spoken the first language as far back as 200,000 years ago before our ancestors left Africa.

Communication systems of other animals like our closest relatives the chimpanzees have at most a few dozen distinct words or calls. These are used to communicate immediate issues involving danger, threats, or food. Human language, on the other hand, can express thoughts on an unlimited number of topics and can be used to convey information as well as solicit information. Most human languages have a huge vocabulary built from numerous speech sounds. So, we know languages evolve with isolated populations, words change to suit different functions, and some languages will become extinct.

Researchers suspect that language evolved in stages over millions of years. Before hominid vocal tracts fully developed, it was anatomically impossible for early man to produce a modern range of speech sounds. In fact, some linguists suggest that human communications began as sign language, which gradually or suddenly switched to vocalized expressions with complex meanings that were produced using combinations of sounds. Nonetheless, if we are ever going to answer the question about how the first human language evolved, the evidence will probably come from the human genome, which preserves so much of our history. The challenge in the future will be for genomic linguists to decode it.  

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