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Origin of Language by Abdul Q Kundi

Language is one of the most profound human enterprise without which the world cannot function. By language here I mean ability to label things and create associations between them to convey old or totally new thoughts and ideas using signs, symbols and sounds. In other words we are not talking about cultural expressions like French, English or Urdu but rather human ability to develop these various forms of it. The question we are trying to explore is whether the ability to use language is an a priori or an acquired faculty through evolution. Let me try to explain this challenge a little more. When a child is still quite young the language comes naturally to him. He starts producing grammatically correct sentences without any difficulty while he has not gone to school yet to learn grammar. Although the parent help a toddler remember names of things but grammar comes naturally to the child. Another example is adults that have not gone to school but they are proficient in a language and all its complexities.

An evolutionist would say that over millions of years human species have developed this faculty. But the problem is that we have yet to find evidence of a community where some form of language was not used. Another challenge is that how this faculty evolved. Philosophers Adam Smith and Noam Chomsky presented their own theories on origin of language faculty in humans and attribute it to chance mutation that produced an almost overnight ability to have a language. Apart from that there are many theories explaining the process like bow-wow and pooh pooh. They sound funny but these are actual theories. Bow-wow theory suggest that humans started giving names to things based on the sounds generated by things, animals and birds. The pooh-pooh theory on the other hand suggest that names were given to things not based on the sounds they produced but independent of it. In other words it was a more artistic rendering of the world around us. There is still no definitive answer available about the evolution of grammar which plays a very critical part in language. For instance when we say the apple is sweet. It is easy to understand apple was a name given to an object and sweet a name given to a sensation. But how did we develop the articles the and is used in this example as well as the rules to use it. This requires consensus on rules because a communication involve more than one person. Now consider that there is not one but thousands of languages used around the world each as complex as the other.

Another challenge to the theory of evolution is that complexity of the language is unique to human while other species seems to have been lagged behind. This does not mean animals do not have language faculty but that they don’t have ability to preserve and convey ideas for instance writing a book. Their ability to transmit knowledge to the next generation is through genes. Also animals don’t seem to use language for discovery and development of new technologies and tools. There is no apparent desire in them to improve their lives. There seems to be no answer to this wide difference in language faculty when comparison is made between humans and other animals which adds to the complexity of the question.

Now let’s refer back to the example of a child having faculty of language. A scientist or an evolutionist will say that the child acquired this ability from the parents and it is encoded in the genes. This is fine but when we go back in time when and where was this first mutation of genes that produced first person who could use language. There is no scientific answer yet to this question although there are certain theories but they don’t provide any definitive answer. So now let’s turn to religion, here is what Bible says about Prophet Adam (RATA) in Genesis 2:19-2:20:

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

Here is Quranic version of Adam’s ability to speak in Sura Baqara (Chapter 2) Verses 30 – 32:

Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.” And He taught Adam the names of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: “Tell me the names of these if ye are right.” They said: “Glory to Thee, of knowledge We have none, save what Thou Hast taught us: In truth it is Thou Who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom.” He said: “O Adam! Tell them their names.” When he had told them, Allah said: “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know what ye reveal and what ye conceal?

There is an interesting difference between the two narrations of first man Prophet Adam (RATA) to speak. In the story of Bible it is more in conformity with theory of evolution as Adam named things as he experienced them. Bible does not provide any insight into how this ability to name things was originally acquired by Adam because in the absence of a faculty it is not possible to name them. In the story of Quran it clearly stipulates that God granted men ability to have faculty of language by teaching him logos. In other words ability to acquire language was an a priori in first man and so the challenge for science should be to prove that Quran is wrong.

There are many other aspects of language that we have to explore for instance what impact written and spoken language has on the development of intellect and consciousness. It is important to explore because a deaf person can’t hear words and a blind can’t read words atleast not in a normative way. But apparently this does not have an impact on their intellectual capability. This possess another question that whether intellect is independent of expression to develop. Meaning that intellect does not need language for its development but only uses it as a tool to satisfy the ego by expressing it outwardly.

Another question is whether it is possible to have thoughts without a language. A thought is a conversation with self. In the absence of language how could that happen?

What Next?

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