Why do people talk? That is the central question of this blog: what was the purpose of the utterance, the first time somebody said something? I have been taking it for granted that the first intention was informative, as in enemy or carcass thataway. But other ambitions are possible. Maybe language began with a curse or a prayer. I seem to recall reading in Stephen Pinker that cursing uses a different part of the brain, so perhaps we can toss that purpose aside. But was the first utterance a prayer?
That doesn’t look impossible. Imagine Homo earlymus on a vast, grassy plain surrounded by barking hyenas. It looks like a good time for a prayer. But prayers require a concept of at least a higher power, and such a concept seems unlikely to arise without there already being a language with which to work out the notion of some kind of power to pray to. It seems a secondary reason to speak, that is a reason to be discovered by a person already endowed with speech.
Actually, it seems like a tertiary reason. You have language (for whatever purpose) and then you develop the ability to work or reason out such things as there must be a god of the hyenas, and then you start praying to said god to call off his earthly manifestations. But if prayer is too advanced a reason for using language, we cannot assume our ancestor trapped on the African savanna was forced into silence. He/She might have cried out with some sort of magical purpose – say abracadabra and the hyenas will leave. Yet even that seems a bit too advanced for the first use of language. Ancestors surrounded by yelping hyenas may have cried in despair or shrieked in horror, but these sorts of emotional ejaculations are too primitive to be called language. It’s more of a joke than anything else to propose that the first linguistic utterance was Oh no!
Magic, by the way, may have led to the whole range of speech acts in which people do accomplish effects by using words as in marrying someone or promising to do something. I don’t think I can rule out on first principles that the first word wasn’t something like Selah or something similar said to seal a new relationship.
Another use of language that requires pre-existing speech is signaling attention. One person may be telling a story (using language to amuse) while a listener periodically says un hunh or wow or I see. These interjections are socially important, but by definition require speech to have already existed before they were introduced into human communications.
Some people have suggested, tongue a bit in cheek, that language began as a method of deceiving others. Ogg said carcass thataway, when really it was t’otherway so Ogg could have the whole feast to his greedy self. The argument against deception as the original purpose is that language would never have survived if it had been lies from the beginning. For it to become an essential part of our lives, it had to be useful so that we kept language even as we recognized speech meant we would be surrounded by liars. This same argument can be used to dismiss a variety of anti-social purposes behind speech. Donald Trump often uses language to confuse people and situations, but if the first speaker had been a prehistoric Trump, language would have died aborning.
Trump also uses language to splinter a group, as happened in his announcement of his candidacy, when he denounced Mexican immigrants, costing him the support of one group but winning the support of anti-immigrant voters. Might the first word have been the prehistoric equivalent of wetback? It ousted one group while increasing the solidarity of another.
Language does not have to divide if it is to solidify. Many politicians are able to increase solidarity without splintering. The finest example is probably Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which does a splendid job of giving friends of the Union cause some principles to rally around yet the speech never attacks the Confederacy head on. But Lincoln’s use of language was quite sophisticated and depended upon earlier language. It seems unlikely that the first words were so independently noble. A more ordinary way of increasing solidarity is through social customs such as saying thank you or hello. I can't rule out Thanks as the first word, though if it was, it took a second reason for people to realize how useful language could be.
Other possible first uses might be as a command such as go with finger pointed toward the horizon, or as a request this time with the finger pointed toward a table top while the pointer utters salt. These kinds of usages, however, remind me of the old bow-wow theories of language origins that got the inquiry into such ill repute to begin with. It’s not that these usages are impossible, although they are impossible to prove/disprove, but they offer no clue as to how language got from such an unpromising start to the wonder that it is today.
Tom Wolfe wrote a book a year or so ago in which he had the unusual suggestion that language began as a way of improving one’s memory, and there is no doubt that naming aids in one’s memory. If you want to describe the route from New York City to Boston, it helps if you have names to remind you of the places in between. But that explanation is based on the out of date belief that language is naming. It is more than that. When Adam named the giraffe a giraffe he still needed verbs to tell us something about the giraffe and prepositions to locate it. When trying to understand where language came from, it is best to recall what language does in the first place.
So where does that leave us? Promising first uses may have been to inform, or to perform a speech act, or to splinter a group. The other uses seem to depend on language already existing, or point to dead ends.
Note: I have put in bold-underline the various uses I see for language: inform/deceive; amuse/confuse; pray/curse; increase solidarity/splinter a group; perform magic; perform a speech act; give names; signal attention; request; work or reason out a notion; emotional ejaculation; command. What have I left out?