Ask A Scientist

How did words start?

Asked by: Kayleigh Eames
School: African Road Elementary School
Grade: 4
Teacher: Miss Weisbrod
Hobbies/Interests: Softball, dance, art, reading, the Yankees, swimming, dogs, fish and summer.
Career Interest: A Yankees baseball player and the first female President.

Answer from Douglas Glick

Assistant Professor of Anthropology & Linguistics

Research area:
Language Registers, Sociolinguistics, Mass Media, Ideology, Hebrew

PhD School:
University of Chicago

Interests/hobbies:
Music, Sports and Movies

Web page address:
website

Before answering, Keyleigh, I want to congratulate you for asking what turns out to be an ancient question that people have been asking now for centuries! So how did words start? As with most things that people think about, different people think many different things. They are of course influenced by when and where they lived and whom they heard answers from. Even scientists have answered your question in many different ways. Some scientists have pointed to the development of the human brain. As the brain developed, they believe words became possible. The problem here, however, is that skeletons of human beings don't really show any physical signs of language use. So it is hard to know how and when the human body made it possible for us to speak for the first time. Other groups of scientists have pointed to different kinds of imitation in order to explain how words began. Some believe that words that sound like cries or noises that animals made were the first words. Examples of such words (called onomatopoeia) include 'bow-wow', 'boom' and 'buzz'. Other scientists believe that words came from imitating the sounds that were associated with a particular activity. For them, somehow a word like 'row' would emerge from the sounds people made when they actually rowed. Others believe that the sounds early humans made when communicating with each other led to words. For them, early yells and signs for something like 'danger!' would have led to that particular word. Other scientists however have pointed out problems with all of these answers. Why would languages have different words for things? Where would words for simple objects, like 'rock', and complicated grammatical ideas, like 'the', come from? Other scientists have tried to solve this debate by arguing that the words of language were created by evolution. People started using words, they argue, because that kind of communication helped people to better adapt to their environment. Others simply believe that the ability to use words is a human instinct that has developed. As you can see, Keyleigh, there are many answers to your question. In fact, in different combinations most of the above answers (and others!) are still around today. Since we can't get information on how people first started using words with each other, many people today believe that this is a question that we simply can't answer. In fact, even way back in 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris (which was a very important one back then) decided to make a rule that their members were no longer allowed to ask questions about how languages and their words started! So what is my answer for you? While I believe that this is one of those questions that we will never answer, I, like you, enjoy hearing the stories that different groups of people create to answer it. Sometimes too the most important part of learning is figuring out which questions we can answer. You should be proud that at such a young age you asked one that has been asked for so long now! You can also start to think now of new questions that some people have been asking when they decided that they couldn't answer this one. Can I finish here then by asking you some new questions? (Hint: they are related to questions that people interested in language are asking today.) Do you think the words of different languages are related to each other? Do you think that as a baby becomes a child, its words develop and start to communicate in new ways? Perhaps the way words start being used by a child is similar to how it developed for all people? That is a way of looking at the question of where words came from that I like to think about. But it is clearly another question for another day. For now, thanks for letting me answer your wonderful question!

Last Updated: 9/18/13