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13.1 No One Primitive Language

It is improbable that there was ever such a thing as a common human language. We know nothing of the language of Paleolithic man; we do not even know whether Paleolithic man talked freely.

We know that Paleolithic man had a keen sense of form and attitude, because of his drawings; and it has been suggested that he communicated his ideas very largely by gesture. Probably such words as the earlier men used were mainly cries of alarm or passion or names for concrete things, and in many cases they were probably imitative sounds made by or associated with the things named.[1]

The first languages were probably small collections of such words; they consisted of interjections and nouns. Probably the nouns were said in different intonations to convey different meanings. If Paleolithic man had a word for “horse” or “bear”, he probably showed by tone or gesture whether he meant “bear is coming”, “bear is going”, “bear is to be hunted”, “dead bear”, “bear has been here”, “bear did this”, and so on. Only very slowly did the human mind develop methods of indicating action and relationship in a formal manner.

Modern languages contain many thousands of words, but the earlier languages could have consisted only of a few hundred. It is said that even modern European peasants can get along with something less than a thousand words, and it is quite conceivable that so late as the Early Neolithic Period that was the limit of the available vocabulary. Probably men did not indulge in those days in conversation or description. For narrative purposes they danced and acted rather than told. They had no method of counting beyond a method of indicating two by a dual number, and some way of expressing many. The growth of speech was at first a very slow process indeed, and grammatical forms and the expression of abstract ideas may have come very late in human history, perhaps only 400 or 500 generations ago.

[1]Sir Arthur Evans suggests that in America sign-language arose before speech, because the sign-language is common to all Indians in North America, whereas the languages are different. See his Anthropology and the Classics. —G. M.

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