Sounds - The Universal Language

Language is such an integral component of the human experience that even when we have no one to talk to, we talk to our pets, our plants and ourselves. So how and why did language evolve? There is little argument over why it developed - language simply imparts users an enormous competitive benefit over groups that do not have one. An advantage like this would enable a particular culture to overwhelm and usurp the resources of another culture which doesn't possess one - in turn propelling the evolution of even more sophisticated languages. The question of how language evolved, on the other hand, is still under fierce debate.

One thing, however, is clear. Humans exhibit an autonomous response to sounds from the moment they're born. Millions of years before language evolved, humans and other animals were using grunts and primal sounds to communicate their emotions. Over time, the process of evolution has hard-wired our reactions to these sounds with profound effects and implications for how we respond to words and names today.

The Evolution of the Brain

Inside the skull of virtually every vertebrate on earth we find a relatively small mass of neural fibers known as the medulla oblongata, also known as the reptilian brain. This primitive structure is responsible for basic survival functions in all animals - fight, flight, hunger, sex, and fear. Because it appeared relatively early on in the evolution of life, we share its effects with crocodiles, frogs, lions and probably with dinosaurs as well. It is ground-zero to our instincts and a hallmark of all complex biological beings.

Around the time of the dinosaurs, another section of brain matter began to evolve in an inconsequential group of animals known as mammals. What we now call the cerebellum, also called the mammalian brain, is regarded as the seat of emotions. It gives us additional survival skills and imparts the ability to feel emotions of tenderness, anger, anxiety, sadness and adoration. It also enables us to be social and drives our desire to communicate and understand the roles of dominance and submission, selfishness and altruism. This is where we differ from reptiles and amphibians, but what we have in common with other mammals.

The third part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, is where conscious rational thought occurs. And it is here that man's brain exhibits the only significant departure from that of animals. Within the cortex reside specialized areas with the ability to record the residue of our experiences and with the ability for self-reflection, facial recognition, and highly advanced cognitive thought. Our cerebral cortex is so advanced in fact that it's capable on occasion of overriding the two other parts of our brain. The cerebral cortex is the mark of our humanity. But if we simply bask in its glory and ignore the influence of our reptilian and mammalian brains, we're in danger of overlooking some very subtle but important survival techniques.

On its most basic level our reptilian brains are hardwired to produce adrenaline in the presence of unexpected sounds. Yell 'BOO' to the person sitting next to you and you can see this reflex in action. But it's not simply the volume of the sound that produces this effect -it's the way the sound of the word stands in contrast to background sounds. Our brains are tuned to notice differences in the environment, which is why a flashing light is so much more visible than a static one, and why a cat is more likely to chase after a running mouse than a stationary one.

Most mammals respond to a hiss in a similar fashion. Our reptilian brains short circuit our cognitive thinking processes and we find ourselves instinctively on the alert for a possible snake. That's why a cat's hiss is so effective at scaring off potential attackers. But as we shall see, there is a wide range of sounds - some obvious, some subtle - to which we are also programmed to respond.

Sounds in Animal Communication

To illustrate just how pervasive is this mammalian predisposition for understanding the meaning of sounds; consider the prairie dog. Prairie dogs spend their lives in constant communication with each other using a spoken language surpassed only by our own. Living communally in massive coteries numbering up to 100 million individuals, they even display the components of rudimentary sentence construction. For example, when an alarm call is sounded to describe an approaching man, the noun for man is modified by an additional sound when the man is carrying a gun. The alarm then describes a gun-man or hunter. By combining 'adjectives' with 'nouns', prairie dogs have a vocabulary that approaches some two hundred words and phrases.

Elephants have evolved a sophisticated long-distance form of communication that originates from low frequency rumbles in their stomachs. These long-wavelength sounds, which carry over enormous distances, can be transmitted through the ground and 'heard' by sensitive organelles in the elephants' feet. While this language doesn't display the sophistication of other species, it's clear that information about the fundamental four F's of survival (Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing and Sex) can be readily transmitted from herd to herd. Read more about the four F's at The Animal in You Personality Quiz

Cats, on the other hand have discovered an even more efficient form of communication - silence. Many theories as to why cats purr have been postulated; ranging from an expression of contentment, or that purring helps to strengthen bones (at 27-44 hertz, it might similar to ultrasound). But to really understand this clever device, consider what happens when a cat stops purring. A clowder of cats lying contentedly under a tree purrs softly to signal that all is well. But if one of the cats spots a rabbit strolling by and wants to alert the group to the rabbit's presence, it simply stops purring. The sudden silence instantly alerts the other cats that something is afoot. This clever device avoids sudden movements or noise that might scare off the prey. Every cat then stops purring and the hunt can begin. In short, by maintaining a low-energy purr at times of rest, the absence of sound becomes a significant communication device. Human beings react in a similar fashion when we perceive a sudden eerie silence.

Scientists agree that early hominids (proto-humans) lived in small groups of individuals dominated by one or two alpha-males. These groups divided resource-gathering duties, shared in providing a common defense, and provided a stable structure for reproduction. But troop size was necessarily limited in number because dominant males could only keep control over fifty individuals or so before social instabilities would spin off new factions and spawn additional territories. In small groups of individuals, there was no evolutionary pressure to form sophisticated language. With the exception of the growling, shrieking, and hooting that we find in primates today, there's no reason to suspect that hominids had the brain pathways capable of complex syntax which is necessary for true language.

However, as these proto-human groups slowly established themselves as the dominant predator on the African veldt, they soon found themselves in competition for resources with rival groups of hominids. Small skirmishes and territorial contests were inevitable, which meant that evolutionary pressure was coming primarily from intra-species competition. At this point, something dramatic occurred in man's history. Even though a group of fifty individuals was more than sufficient to ward off attacks by saber-toothed tigers, leopards and lions, with the emergence of his fellow man as his chief predator, there was a powerful reason to increase one's group size. Groups with larger populations had an enormous advantage in a clash with a smaller group. However, since large groups of individuals were inherently unstable, something had to change. And the most obvious lever of change was the evolution of the ability to effectively communicate... allowing warfare and group defense to be coordinated on a large scale.

It was undoubtedly at this point that the first simple words were formed. These words were by necessity concise and easy to pronounce, and probably associated with actions and objects on the order of "throw stones, stop here, look out, go home, and get sticks". We can see the residual effects of these early attempts at word and sentence development in our own language today. Most verbs associated with immediate action tend to be single syllable words loaded with one or more explosive 'stop-consonants'; kick, go, jump, sit, look, kill, stab, run, push, beat, break, cut, etc. The terse structure of these words still echoes in the human brain, which responds far more readily to a cry of "duck!" than it does to 'lower your head!'

Early man accumulated these words and benefited from the subsequent improvements in their social organization. The group could now communicate and collaborate to ostracize an unwanted individual or overthrow an overly aggressive leader. Under such pressures, individuals would have to conform to the expectations of the group and the alpha-male was forced to substitute his brute aggression with a more cooperative form of leadership. Groups that improved their internal communication flourished and dominated groups that failed to do so. To put it another way, if you couldn't communicate efficiently - your resources were usurped, your females kidnapped and your genetic lineage destroyed. Due to this strong evolutionary pressure, group sizes began to increase, from nomadic tribes of two hundred, to small settlements of five hundred, to towns of thousands, and ultimately to cities and states of millions of people. And with the emergence of these larger populations came the need for an even more efficient form of communication: writing and the alphabet.

Knowledge proved to be power. As societies became increasingly complex and language more sophisticated, power became concentrated in the hands of those who commanded the most information, spurring the next great leap over the communication divide ... the invention of writing which facilitated the transfer of knowledge among allies and between generations.

Three basic strategies of writing emerged. The first idea was to use logograms in which one symbol represented one word. While this is the basic idea of the Chinese writing system, some remnants of this logographic technique still persists in modern English in the use of symbols %, $, @ and numbers 1 through 9.

The second strategy employs a system in which each syllable is allocated a sign. The word bar-ber therefore would require two distinct symbols. Although this somewhat awkward system requires many convoluted techniques to implement, some examples continue to persist like the Kana system used by the Japanese today for foreign words.

The third system of writing, which employs an alphabet, seems quite simple. But developing a system like this (and convincing everyone to agree on it) was a major human achievement. It can be traced back to Egyptian hieroglyphs, which used symbols to represent the twenty-four Egyptian consonants. But it was the Semites - around 4,000 years ago - who took the step of discarding all logograms and relied solely on their alphabet to spell words. Most alphabets today consist of a manageable 20-30 letters, representing the bulk of sounds that can be made by the human vocal system. Any sounds (phonemes) not directly represented can easily be created by two letter combinations like -sh and -th.

The modern English alphabet is a study in theft. In the fourth century A.D., Bishop Ulfilas created the first Germanic language alphabet with characters pilfered from the Greek, Roman and Runic alphabets. Even now our alphabet undergoes periodic changes as the need arises, as attested to by the recent examples of the W and the V, which were added less than a thousand years ago.

Brave New Words

We can often deduce at what point a particular word entered our language purely by evaluating the word's simplicity. Think about domain names on the Internet. When we see a website called Books.com, Buy.com, or Frames.com - we know that these sites must have been reserved fairly early in the creation of the Internet in comparison to sites with names like Buybookshere.com or ExclamationMall.com. As previously discussed, words associated with fundamental survival needs tend to be short and simple (cow, dog, head, face, ear, eye, nose, toe, stone) while more conceptual words, which arrived much later, were naturally more intricate and complex (family, redemption, atmosphere, regardless, and inconsequential.)

The same concept holds true about the way people perceive our names. Names that are short, abrupt, and simple, tend to signify no-nonsense, down-to-earth, active individuals, while longer multi-syllabled names evoke complex and imaginative personalities. Consider the example of Percival. Its indulgent three-syllabled complexity requires extra work simply to pronounce and suggests a self-important individual. The more succinct rendering of Percy, on the other hand, connotes a far more practical and unpretentious fellow. Since this individual could elect to use either name, the one he chooses says a great deal about who he is as a person.

Like all living things, languages must adapt to keep pace with a changing environment. A flexible vocabulary is an indication of a robust civilization and one can in fact take the pulse of a culture's economic growth by measuring the frequency of new words incorporated to its language. Driven by technology and teenage slang, American English adds hundreds of new words each year. We not only utilize new words like fax, e-trade, shockjock, transgender, and phat, we find new meanings for old words like spam (junk e-mail), boot (start a computer) and fly (very agreeable).

In an effort to establish how people actually make up words, researcher Margaret Manus asked a group of people from different language backgrounds to invent words to describe specific actions. One task was to invent a word that depicted the act of scraping the black stuff off overdone toast. Interestingly, even though many of the respondents created word using the S, K and R sounds from the original word scrape, the letter P was not chosen with any more frequency than the letter appears in English in general. This shows how effective the SKR combination is in setting our teeth on edge with words like screech, scream, scrawl, scruff, and scratch. Asked to create a word for the spikes on a hairbrush, the sharp toned letter B occurred in almost 60% of these words while the soft letters H, S, and V failed to be chosen even once.

Of course, it's much easier to steal words than to invent new ones. That's why we readily adopt words from other cultures such as sushi, kamikaze,and karaoke from Japan, or orange and pepper from the Orient, and chutzpah and schlep from Yiddish. This carefree approach to adding new words to its lexicon mirrors the American attitude that change is good and that anything is possible. The same cannot be said for Britain, the birthplace of English, where there is often strong resistance to such change. In fact, English as spoken by the English is a topic of concern taken up even by Parliament where there is a feeling that the mother tongue is being destroyed by the uncouth Americans.

Language as a Reflection of Culture

If a name can convey the personality of an individual, it's arguable that a language can communicate the personality of a culture. Germanic languages for example, consist largely of sharp, precise guttural tones, which perhaps unfairly stereotype Germans as a rigid, authority-fearing, regulation-infatuated people. In the United States, however, where individual expression and free-thinking is worshipped, it's not surprising that we find casual speech, loose phrasing and slang the order of the day.

French, on the other hand, with its universally pleasing, smoothly flowing (if somewhat nasal) syntax, reflects a people in love with the delicate pleasures of life and love. This is, after all, the country that perfected the rules of Chivalry or Courtly Love and established the world's first restaurants.

Neighboring Italy sports a full-blooded romance language crammed with passionate rolling Rs and emotive vowel sounds, which aptly mirrors the passions of this hot-blooded Mediterranean culture. The British upper classes clearly reveal their aspiration for status in their heavily affected 'Queen's English' speech pattern. This overly exaggerated accent is a relatively recent fabrication, stemming from the encroachment on their status by the newly moneyed middle-classes during the industrial revolution.

Facial Cues

Facial expressions are almost certainly the most primitive form of language and are universal throughout every culture on the planet. The ability to interpret facial contortions depicting happiness (smile), sadness (frown), anxiety (puckered brow), anger (frown and puckered brow), and surprise (wide open mouth) is deeply ingrained in the mammalian brain. Not only do infants communicate their emotional states through these techniques, humans are able to read the emotive states of other social carnivores (dogs, ferrets, chimpanzees, etc.) through their facial signals. Interestingly enough, even congenitally blind people make faces to express their mood, proving that these facial distortions are part of a powerfully ingrained heritage.

Being able to read these facial distortions are so important to the survival of social animals that it provides an important clue into the origins of language. It's very evident that word pronunciation has a marked effect on the expressions of the face. Try saying cheese without a slight smile, or ow without forming your mouth in a circle. Given this, it's possible that language evolved as an extension of facial cues. Still, while facial expressions of pain are sufficient to alert a small group of nearby individuals to the presence of danger, it is not a particularly effective means of communication when the group size is larger. Instead of simply making a face of pain, emitting a sound that communicates that pain would signal the danger more widely to larger number of people. These sounds would not be arbitrary, but formed from sounds that utilized the same facial expressions that represent the emotion being communicated.

Thus, sounds of pain and surprise, made with an open-mouthed expression of pain, would logically contain a high proportion of vowel sounds. Since vowels are the only letters that can be formed with an open mouth, this is why ooh, aah, ow, oops, eek, yow are such universal expressions of quick surprise.

As we shall see, humans, as preeminently social animals, usurped a wide range of these sounds to convey their wide spectrum of emotional states. It was these sounds that came to form the building blocks of our now richly diverse languages.