Christian Long

Murray Gell-Mann: The Ancestor of Language

In TED Talks on April 11, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Reflection by RIVU D.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Murray Gell-Mann:  The Ancestor of Language

Albeit extremely short in length, this video sparks some interesting thoughts about something we all use every single day, but never really take the time to think about:  language.

Being multilingual myself, I’ve always found some things about different languages interesting. It’s fun, for lack of a better word, to see connections between different languages that you didn’t even know exist. Sometimes words are even completely the same in two different languages, just pronounced differently. But what Murray Gell-Mann talks about is a bit more interesting than the connections between languages. What he broaches is the origin of modern language, and all language in general.

There are numerous different groups of languages, such as the Romantic languages and the Germanic languages. But have we ever stopped to think, where did all of these languages come from?

Surely they all had to originate somewhere. You can’t be certain of the origin, due to the fact that the answer lies millennia back in time, but one can make educated guesses. But first, one must know how far back in time to go. Mr. Murray Gell-Mann does this by referencing cave paintings, as it would seem as though tribal paintings would have a precursor of language. But then, one would have to consider what was used for language to prove to be foundation for said tribes, as groups of people can not come together without some form of communication, especially groups so primitive. You cant be certain of what time period to go to, because there are so many conflicting ideas.

Take religion as an example. In the Bible, Adam can communicate to Eve and God from the onset. In other religious texts such as the Hindu Mahabharata, the Gods themselves have the ability to talk and pass on the ability to their creations. Whenever religion gets involved in sciences everlasting search for answers, finding an actual answer proves all the more difficult due to the skepticism it receives from different religious bodies. But there are many other factors to consider besides the factor of religion.

Is there only one origin of language? Or are there multiple?

The question is incredibly difficult to answer due to its scope, and because of the inevitable involvement of religion. To answer whether there was one origin of language or multiple origins that developed at the same time, you would have to have knowledge of whether the first human beings on Pangaea were put on the planet together or in separate regions. Or, if humans could talk from the onset as the Bible and other religious texts suggest. If people were placed in separate regions of the earth, they would all develop they’re own unique languages, which would then branch out into multiple different languages and eventually evolve into what we have today. But there is also the possibility that humans were placed in the same relative area and a common language was developed and then that one common language or system of communication become the mother of all of the languages we have today.

The issue with finding an ancestor of language is that the vast amount of time that has passed since the first human beings walked the earth makes it difficult to have any knowledge of events that took place, or what the world was like, or where people lived and on what parts of the earth they were located. Perhaps in the future, advancements in technology will permit us to gain sufficient knowledge about that time period, but until then, you can only wonder.


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