Notes on the development of language

“Uh.”
“M.”

These are arguably two of the very first utterances by our early ancestors. Simple sounds that do little more than acknowledge the existence of the ‘speaker’ and their immediate environment. How then did our complex capacity for personal expression develop from that point? Let’s imagine a scenario in prehistoric social interaction.

“Uh.” [Hello.]
“Uh.” [(Cautiously) Hello…]

As we can see, the possibilities are a bit limited thus far, but let’s press on for the time being.

“UH!” [Food!]
“Uh?” [Where?]
“Uh (with use of extended forefinger).” [There.]
“Uh.” [Oh, yes.]
“UH?” [Hungry?]
“uh-uh” [Not really.]

So, we can now see that the basic construction ‘uh’ is a truly multipurpose linguistic unit, and much can be done with it. However, we can be fairly confident that ‘uh’ wasn’t the be-all and end-all of the prehistoric vocal toolbox; for example, consider this similar interchange:

“UH!” [Food!]
“Uh?” [Where?]
“Uh (with forefinger extended).” [There.]
“Uh. Mm.” [Oh, yes. How right you are.]
“UH?” [Hungry?]
“MMmmm!” [You kidding? I haven’t eaten since…]

Now our friends are getting somewhere, and are finding copious possibilities for nuances of expression, within those very few sounds. Of course, development beyond this stage would take some considerable time; it would be generations before any real progress was made. It is instructive though, to take a look at the simple addition of one extra letter into the vocabulary – a letter that we believe would have been available prior to this stage, but of which we can find no hard evidence. This is, of course, the letter ‘R.’ Now, back to the conversation:

“UH!” [Food!]
“Uh?” [Where?]
“Uh (with forefinger).” [There.]
“Uh. Mm.” [Oh, yes. How right you are.]
“UH?” [Hungry?]
“Urrh.” [Not sure; maybe.]

(At this point, it is worth emphasizing the use of the double ‘r’; to use a single ‘r’ would, of course, convey quite a different meaning. For more on the primitive single ‘r’, see Chapter 5.)

Of course, the simple fact of adding ‘r’ allows the following form of exchange:

“UH?” [Hungry?]
“Urrh, hurrh; mmm.” [Yes, but how about a beer first?]

We are now approaching the situation where early humankind can entertain the thought of entering into vibrant discussions on a variety of pressing matters, using language that, while not yet including such advanced concepts as use of the subjunctive mood, forming a gerund and debating whether last night’s Idol was a low point in televisual programming for the masses, nevertheless allows for the avoidance of ambiguity.

It will not take long for ‘g’, ‘f’, ‘o’, ‘s’, and ‘ouch’ to be added to the toolkit, with ‘damn’ following just a little later, and it is just a matter of time before “Have you seen my keys?”, and “He started it” become prevalent. Beyond that point, use of language and a fully-stocked alphabet will decline, with spin, blame-shifting and idiom rapidly taking over. Ultimately, the decline of language will be complete with the arrival of the iPod, txt-spk and complete abdication of personal responsibility. The writing is on the wall: “Ugh.”

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Copyright Duncan Waldron © 2010
This work may not be reproduced without permission
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Notes on the development of language

Duncan Waldron

Camira, Australia

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A light-hearted examination of the development of human language.

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