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When Tintin sets foot on the island that could be the location of Red Rackham's treasure, he is struck dumb in amazement. He discovers parrots that are still squawking Sir Francis Haddock's insults, many generations after the illustrious Sir Francis left the island. Are we nothing more than parrots ourselves? Where do all the languages we speak today come from? Is there a unique and original language?
You need to stand on your back legs to speak!
To repeat something "parrot-fashion": how many times have we heard this little expression? The multi-coloured birds have a bad reputation: they only imitate sounds without being aware of the meanings. And what about us? Many thousands of years ago, our ancestors had to do the same thing: repeat sounds, but in this case those grunted by another human being. And these sounds took on special meanings, which allowed dialogue to develop. More and more scientists have been researching why humans are the only living beings to have developed spoken communication. Some believe that when our far-off ancestors (a few million years ago) began walking on their hind legs (thereby becoming bipeds), this also affected their physical development including the arrangement of their internal organs. One of the organs affected was the larynx, which developed in a very different way than that of our nearest cousins, chimpanzees and... pigs, which walk on four legs.
The first spoken language.
The mystery of the first language ever spoken by a human being, has captivated thinkers since ancient antiquity. In an attempt to solve the riddle, in the sixth century B.C. the Spartans conducted an experiment. They took two new-born babies from their mothers and left them with... sheep. The shepherds that were chosen to look after them were all unable to speak. The aim was to isolate the children from all human influence and to discover what words they would spontaneously exclaim when they reached a certain age.
Sooner or later the two children began to make noises that sound like "bekos". This word meant bread in Spartan dialect, and the children repeated it when they were hungry. The Spartans thought that this was proof that the oldest language ever spoken was Spartan. Never mind the witty Athenian who remarked that "bekos" sounded like the bleating noise the sheep were making!
Did you know?
- Not all parrots speak. In fact, there is only one type of parrot that repeats the words it hears: the grey parrot of Africa (see the Snowy report that discusses parrots). The magnificent Amazonian macaws have only got their bright colours to make them stand out.
- The colours of a parrot's plumage are a kind of visual language. During its life, a macaw sees its feathers take on different tinges according to mating seasons.
- A chimpanzee can understand words and react accordingly. But, contrary to what we see in films like Planet of the Apes, no monkey can yet speak, and we are becoming more and more certain that this will never be possible.
The Tower of Babel
One of the biblical myths recounts the tale of the Tower of Babel. King Nimrod, a descendant of Noah, dreamed of creating a huge tower as the centre of civilisation. He chose Babel, located in present-day Iraq, as the location of his would-be skyscraper. Many people from different nations worked on the construction. It was a time (around 4,000 B.C.) when everyone spoke the same language. It was what we call an Adamaic language, in reference to Adam, the first human being.
But God did not like this initiative: it was far too ostentatious for mere human beings. God sabotaged the work and made the workers speak different languages, which caused them to fall out with each other. From then on Babel was referred to as Babylon, which means confusion. No-one can really say that this is a true story: no remains of the Tower of Babel have been discovered and no-one can give any indication of the original and unique language that was spoken.
A cake is not a cat!
When considering modern vocabulary, it is clear that recent words have obvious origins. For example the word "television" is made up of the words "tele" (from the Greek word for "far away") and "vision": the television shows images from far away.
For older words, linguists (specialists in languages) take several elements into consideration when trying to pinpoint the origins of words. An interesting point is that the same object can be referred to by the same sounds in different languages. English people say "apple" while Germans say "apfel" and Dutch people say "appel". These are very similar sounds that refer to the same object, an "apple". How can it be that some of our ancestors were inspired by the sound "ap" for this fruit, while others, the French for example, were inspired by the sound "pom" (pomme means apple in French)? The fruit is called "malus" in Latin, which may have inspired the Spanish word "manzana", although it is far-removed from the Persian word for apple, "sib". The far-off origins of these names remain a mystery. All the same, if you order a "gateau" (the French word for cake) in a Spanish restaurant, and depending on the waiter's eagerness to please, you will be served a cat ("gato" in Spanish). Here we see two similar sounds - "ga" and "tow" - that mean two completely different things... despite the fact that France and Spain are located right next to each other.
A primal language?
The fact that there are many dozens of languages in the world has not discouraged some people from looking for the language that was spoken by the first homo sapiens, the species to which we belong. The first homo sapiens appeared around 400,000 B.C. (remains found in Quessem, near Tel-Aviv, Israel). If homo sapiens was the first to "speak", why did he attribute certain sounds to certain objects and not others? Once again, we are forced to make guesses. At Edinburgh University (Scotland), researchers have studied the relationship between taste and sounds. The scientists have been working on the hypothesis that the first words referred to sensations. For example: The letters "S" and "N" seemed to be associated with smell: "sniff", "smell", "stench".
As we are on the subject, did you know that kissing evolved from sniffing? The first human beings sniffed each other, like animals. The odours of a living being can reveal feelings, origins, recent past, where they come from, etc. Does someone smell like they have recently travelled through a plain, a desert or a forest? These days perfume and aftershave all but mask our real smell! When we find ourselves near someone who smells, we say "Urgghh". Our ancestors preferred sounds based on "B": "burk", "bah", etc. Expressions of pain always contain the sounds "A", "W" and "OU": this is true of all the people alive on the planet today.
It is paradoxical that the origins of language, a human phenomenon, can be traced to our animal nature. The first men emitted guttural sounds, very much like those that they heard in their environment. Comic strips sometimes depict how animals have their own way of expressing that they are happy, satisfied, unhappy, nervous, angry, ready to attack, overcome with pain, etc. Snowy disposes of a large repertoire of sounds beyond "woof"! In real life a contented gorilla makes a happy grunting sound. This is imitated by certain human beings: "grunts of satisfaction".
Sounds based on "A" are more numerous, and have a longer history behind them.
When some animals or human beings want to show that they have triumphed over something, they open their mouths wide and emit a heartfelt "AAAHHHHH".
The most primal feelings are evoked with "A": pain ("Aaahhh"), satisfaction ("Aaahhh") and joy ("Ha ha ha"). It is no accident that the first alphabets that appeared around the Mediterranean included the letter "A" as the first letter. "A" could well be the first universal sound known by human beings.
Fancy a chat?
Once we have made some progress in identifying the origins of sounds and words emitted by human beings, we still have to understand how this sound or word is understood by another person. When the word ("apple" for example) has been understood, then the next question regards its adoption by a group of people. In other words, why and how did a group of human beings accept that the word "apple" referred to a particular green fruit that grows on trees? At the beginning of this report we saw that the word for an apple is different in English, German, Dutch, Persian and many other languages. Scientists have learned that the more names an object has in different languages, the easier it is to identify. In effect, each linguistic group has a subtly different take on the same object. It could be that the apple, so widely available in southern Europe, never really gave people who picked it a sense of satisfaction. This is where the "O" sound in the words "pomme" and "bof" (a French expression meaning "I don't care") comes from: a sense of the blasé. On the other hand, in colder regions perhaps finding an apple was more of an event to be celebrated, which accounts for the "A" sound in "apple", "apfel" and "appel".
Not all languages are spoken.
Languages are not only made up of sounds and words. Animals have not forgotten this! Bizarrely, adopting languages has gone some way toward diminishing mankind's view of nature. While animals do not use words, they communicate in often-intricate ways using signs that many human beings no longer perceive.
Hair standing up, accompanied by a grin revealing teeth? The cat is angry! Ears flat? It is scared. Looking you directly in the eyes? This is a challenge. Certain animals change colour according to their feelings: fear, desire, etc. Dogs have a sense of smell that is 40 times more sensitive that ours. These non-spoken languages are essential for the survival of animals in their natural environments.
If words help us to survive in an urban environment, they are not so helpful in the middle of a tropical jungle. Of course, it is possible to meet a tribe such as the Arumbaya (soon to be at the centre of a new exhibition at the Hergé Museum).
But then again, this particular tribe speaks a rather obscure dialect: the Arumbaya language (in the French-language Tintin books) is based on the Brussels dialect that Hergé's grandmother spoke; in the English translations the members of the tribe converse in thick Cockney slang!