The history of “language”

In yesterday’s post I referred to language — in particular, I referred to people referring to language as “language”.

Latest research suggests that the species homo sapiens is at least 300,000 years old. (1) . It would be reasonable to presume that natural language is therefore much older than that. But when did we evolve a word for “language” in any natural language?

In order for a society to have the concept of a language, as opposed to having the language itself, it might be necessary to encounter another society that does not share their language. It seems a sure bet that once any such two ancient tribes were to encounter each other, a word for language itself would quickly enter their respective vocabularies.

But could such a word evolve in the absence of such an encounter? I wonder whether there is any way to answer this question empirically. Perhaps we would need to find a tribe of people who have remained culturally isolated, and learn their language quickly, before our own presence contaminated that language. Of course a number of such tribes have been encountered in the last two centuries. I wonder whether anyone checked their language for the word “language”.

(1) Callaway, Ewan “Oldest Homo sapiens fossil claim rewrites our species’ history”. Nature, June 7, 2017.

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