eli5 How did “words” come to be before any language was developed? Like before words existed how did a group of people just collectively decide a banana is a banana and not a “ksirjrnwpx”


eli5 How did “words” come to be before any language was developed? Like before words existed how did a group of people just collectively decide a banana is a banana and not a “ksirjrnwpx”

In: 11

I don’t know, but take your answers with a grain of salt. We’re talking about prehistoric events here. I’m sure there are interesting theories, but no one can know for sure about human activity that happened millennia before humans could even write anything down.

At least, that’s my layman’s assumption. Maybe someone smarter than me will give you a good answer.

Amateur (armchair) linguist here. I’ve always been fascinated by this particular topic too. And unfortunately, it’s not a fully answerable question, but I can try my best:

So assuming consciousness doesn’t need to be analyzed or explained further than being aware it exists— once humans were able to do more than just survive, they were able to do more than just forage, hunt, or sleep; they had time to think. Time to think, conceptualize, and invent or innovate. With this ability, it became a necessity to be able to communicate these breakthroughs with one another. Some were probably obvious over the course of early humanity: sex feels good and also leads to procreation. Fire burns.

Some were more subtle: these berries are good, but not THOSE berries. Some of these particular observations became passed on into instinctual responses, such as being put off by the smell of rotten (deadly) foods, or responding to the cry of a helpless baby.

Those that weren’t readily programmed into us over generations of natural selection had to be taught in some way, shape or form.

How does this all tie together? Once we became aware enough of our environment and our inter-tribal interactions, we probably came to the obvious, albeit complex conclusion that we needed ways to discern certain people, plants, animals, objects— eventually to the point of being able to describe feelings and ideas that are wholly abstract.

The common words for mom and dad in most languages begin with “m,” “p” or “d”, respectively. This is because these are the easiest shapes for a baby to make as it learns how to utilize language. They require simple mouth or tongue movements, and are identifiably unique sounds. I would assume if these words were the first to be ‘invented’, it came about because people needed to be able to communicate with their immediate family, with whom most people develop their most important relationships with, and therefore take priority in survival scenarios.

I can’t tell you what the first words were, what they meant, or what purpose they served. And I don’t think any linguist worth their salt could either.

TL;DR: Humans are unique in their ability to react cognitively to their environment rather than instinctually. As survival rates and longevity went up, the complexity of human interaction did as well, which necessitated the creation of language that allowed generational and cultural exchanges of information that would be lost otherwise. Or at the very least served to help identify Caveman A from Caveman B, or deadly berries from tasty berries.

Sorry for the ramble, but I’m not an expert, just an amateur language lover overtired at 3AM.

EDIT: This is simply meant to expound on the last part of your question— Once words were created, spread throughout a culture, and became well-known, their pronunciation and spelling would often evolve as peoples accents and the eccentricities of the way the people they conquered learned to speak their rulers’ newly imposed language. Some languages developed simply because a conquered nation could not learn how to voice certain syllables, and as these mispronunciations carried on over time, they evolved into entirely new dialects, sometimes into entirely new languages.

We are creatures with cognitive abilities in a chaotic existence. We naturally strive to organize our surroundings in some manner, and due to our intelligence, it happened to be most efficient to be able to describe our experiences, thoughts, and observations with language. It almost serves as a form of time travel in that it allows us to pass ideas on to generations that may not have even known we existed otherwise. Swaths of the greatest advancements of Mankind would be wiped clean if we had only maintained an oral history that couldn’t be faithfully encoded into a physical record.

So first and most obviously foremost is that all language is arbitrary and is spawned out of necessity or utility.

There are some sort of modern day spontaneous pidgin languages that people have used to communicate with eachother but I can’t immediately find a good example. But I know that these examples can give good perspective about how language can form so it’s something worth looking into.

But when I studied linguistics in upper level academia, the received wisdom of how any of this started came down to pointing.

Some people pointed to a thing and uttered a sound and several others agreed that this utterance was how we referred to the thing. I think it’s no more complicated than that.

Eventually we started to codify it but in its infancy it’s just pointing at a thing and making a sound, and community mutually agreeing that the sound indicated the thing

Usage, I suppose. The Oxford dictionary is constantly adding words as they enter the zeitgeist, as more and more people refer to (something) by the same word. It may start as a quirk, or a sound bite, then become slang, then unofficial/ colloquial usage, then formally accepted as part of the language.

As others have said, we can only speculate because there are no records of the original process, but we can see analogies in the modern day, both in humans and in animals.

*All* language is about communication, and communication is fundamentally a two-party thing. If the listener (or reader or whatever) isn’t able to understand (or at least *guess*) your meaning, you need to adapt to that. At the same time, the listener is trying to discern your intended meaning in the face of innumerable ambiguities. The truth of this isn’t really affected by how much shared language you already have, just the amount of ambiguity that needs to be clarified (and inversely how much meaning gets successfully communicated through those ambiguities)

Whatever sounds (or actions or facial expressions etc.) you start with, providing the meaning is effectively communicated, they can be re-used next time without having to go through the whole rigmarole of working out what you meant. Of course, they may be abbreviated or modified to save time and strain on the vocal chords or whatever. Miaow replaces “myEAAAHwwrr!” or whatever, ditto words like “thud” or “clap”. This is similar to what happens to loan words where the donor language uses sounds not generally used in the recipient language (so anglophones rarely pronounce “Paris” with the guttural “R” of the original, for example) The most frequently used words are generally very short partly because we don’t have the patience to say “The Person That Is Talking” every time we want to say “I”.

The first “words” are likely to have been motivated by particularly important (or urgent) communication requirements, such as getting attention or warnings of danger. Use of sounds rather than, say, pointing means you don’t rely on them already looking at you, or even being in line of sight.

We see this in the surprisingly sophisticated vocabulary of some animals – they can have different alert calls for snakes vs. birds of prey, for example (which direction you look / run matters!) I would expect that a human (or proto-human) would have similarly used a variety of different sounds in the period before the use of more concrete “words” – perhaps some of our words are 1000th generation descendents of such sounds…

Referring to various objects (or actions) is a little less “urgent” but still an extremely powerful improvement over no language at all. Onomatopoeia* probably formed a key part of very early language development.

If you want to refer to something that makes a sound of its own, it’s very easy to just use the sound it makes and that’s easier for a random second caveman to guess the meaning of than some randomly chosen sound that needs “explaining” by pointing or miming or whatever. E.g. In Mandarin the word for “cat” is pretty much a miaow, “Māo” (as in “Mao Zedong”, making the “[Chairman Miaow](https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/512FB96B5XL.jpg)” jokes amusingly circular :-P)

The sounds made by objects are also affected by what’s being done with them, so you start to have ways to indicate actions. With nouns and verbs, you’ve got a pretty good start on “language”.

Referring to, say, a stone by the “tok tok” sound it makes when smacking it against another is a pretty simple way to get started here. Perhaps you could use a deeper version of the sound to indicate a larger rock. Perhaps a “shik shik” sound to indicate a sharp rock used for scraping, or a “scrunch!” sound for when it’s used to stove in the skull of a hapless meal.

Less obvious forms of onomatopoeia can also be seen, where a sound that represents some *non sound* characteristic of a thing. See the [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/kiki_effect effect](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/kiki_effect), for example. The “sharpness” of a sound is near universally perceived to correspond to the “sharpness” of a shape. I imagine a lot of early words would be formed with reference to this kind of pattern.

“[Metonymy](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metonymy)” is another multiplier of vocabulary, perhaps the different shapes of rocks used for bashing seeds vs. skinning a wildebeest vs. stoving in its skull so it objects less to the skinning could be referred to with sounds that previously indicated the actions, rather than the tool.

If you want to refer to something that doesn’t have a word, but you see some kind of similarity with something you *do* have a word for, you can re-use that word by *metaphor*. Perhaps you use the sound for “rock” to indicate a particularly hard stick, and your co-cavemen realise you don’t actually mean a “rock” but something else *similar*.

Some of these words will be modified to distinguish between different uses, perhaps combining it with another word – a sound indicating “big” and a sound representing a “cat” might be used together to indicate a “lion”.

If you’re trying to communicate with somebody and you don’t share a language, you’ll go through all the same processes except for the initial invention of sounds to use (you’ll start with your own language’s words) but with a little imagination / pantomiming / pointing etc. you’ll soon start to grasp the meaning of words from the other’s language. Eventually, you’ll both be able to communicate by using whatever bits of each other’s language you’ve managed to learn the meaning of, and a shared repertoire of sounds you both realise are likely to be understood, based on the other’s response to your attempts to use them.

If you want to try a fun experiment, hop over to some random part of the world where nobody speaks your language (and you don’t speak any of theirs) and try to communicate, but refuse to use any English at all. Make up some sounds and use them instead. I’d wager that (with sufficiently kind-hearted and patient locals) you’ll be able to communicate without using either your own language *or* the local language. Congratulations, you are now a caveman 😛

* *so* proud I spelled that right first attempt!