Have you ever heard of the “ta-ta” or the “yo-he-ho” theories of language evolution? These and several others started off as jokes, yet, you can find them mentioned in serious textbooks nowadays. It is as if most of the mystery of language’s origins had been relegated to speculation, and as if jokes had become the new “science”. But we can do a bit better than that!

– (book) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871
– (book) Allan Keith et al., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics, chapter 1 (by Salikoko S. Mufwene), pp.1-41.


Hello and welcome to language with Chu. I hope you’ve watched the previous parts of the series. This one is just to give you a little bit more detail about Darwin and the time he was writing at. And also to share with you some of the funny theories of language evolution in case you don’t know them. So we’ll go through it quickly, but it’s just for fun.

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But let’s be serious for a minute and let me remind you that Darwin wrote first “The Origin of the Species”, where he started talking about random mutations and evolution, etc. in 1861. And he kind of left a thread dangling, which is, what about man? He explained animal species and plants, but he kind of left the human being alone because he didn’t have an explanation at the time. And people like Müller (Friederich Max Müller) started making fun of him for many things, including that. But then…

So there comes 10 years later the response from Darwin, in 1871, with “The Descent of Man”. And he explains what I told you on part one of the series. But basically, for Darwin evolution of language was parallel to the evolution of mind and of man, and it was thanks to language that man was able to have more complex thoughts. And it was language and words that made a complex thought possible, because language is linear, so it allows us to organize our thoughts, etc. But you could argue that thought is MORE complex than speech then, because we can think without that linearity, we can dream without that linearity, necessarily. Never mind. At that time, that’s what they thought.

Also, given the context, this was not too strange, but now we know how ridiculous it is. When the Europeans were conquering left and right, and “meeting” with other cultures, they got to interact with their languages too. And for them, they were savage languages, and everything that wasn’t like European languages was too primitive.

For example, if a language had too complex a morphology (that means that their words were much more complex than European ones) that was because they didn’t have enough abstract thought, they didn’t know how to organize their thoughts in their heads, etc. So they needed more chunks of words, right? Except that nowadays we know the complexity of those words, and you realize how ridiculous that claim is.

If they had no morphology, like isolating languages (languages that have, like Chinese, one character per meaning or word, almost) then those people were primitive as well. They didn’t have the capacity to make beautiful French sentences or something. And it was also thought that they didn’t have any abstract terms, that all they knew how to talk about was “Me love you”, and “Me eat bison”, or whatever. That, of course, was the ignorance of the time, the imperialistic motives of the time. Now we know that that’s not correct.

But Darwin did say that language was an instinctive tendency to speak, not an instinct per se, but an instinct to learn, to learn anything. Well, okay, that still prevails today, that we have an instinct to learn. Why not? I think culture also plays a role, but obviously, we do have an instinct to learn. That’s not rocket science. But okay, let’s give him credit for that.

On the other hand came this Max Müller, and he was making fun of Darwin all the time. He said, “There’s no way you’re going to find the link between an ape, a primate, and a human being. Their difference is just too big.” I agree. He added that humans are different because they have an inner faculty for abstraction, which animals don’t have. Not so much for speech, speech comes afterwards for Müller.

But on the other hand…, they were… Supposedly they were enemies, or Müller really, really made fun of Darwin. On the other hand, he thought the same thing about the “primitive” languages. And he also thought that language had started from emotional cries that we shared with animals, and only then had rational language appeared with rationality for humans, etc. So, really, he stayed within the ideology of the times. The only thing he dared to do was criticize Darwin for jumping from primates to human beings.

BUT, thanks to Müller (and I think all of them he invented, or if not, most of them) we have some funny theories of evolution of language.

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The first one is the “bow-wow” theory. And it says that speech arose from people imitating sounds that things make. So, mooo, baaahhh, etc. Very logical for when you think about the subjunctive in language, sure! Then, the “poo-poo” theory. It was automatic responses to pain, to fear, to surprise, to other emotions. So laughing became a word, gasping became a word… Don’t ask me how, but that’s how, if you follow Darwin’s logic, that’s what would have happened.

Then you have the “ding-dong” theory, according to which speech reflects some mystical resonance or harmony connected with things in the world. Well, I wouldn’t make too much fun of this one, because of what we talked about in the Sounds and Meaning series. There may be some truth to that, that speech is a reflection of something else in nature, in the universe, etc., and that we are connected to it somehow. Obviously it’s not because of that you should call a bell “dingdong” or whatever, but the idea in itself may not be so bad. That’s not Darwinian, though. Darwin was super materialistic, and so are all the academics that followed him up to this date.

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Number four is the “yo-he-ho” theory, and it was rhythmic chants and grunts to coordinate physical actions when people worked together. So, I always think of the dwarves in Snow White, and how they sang together when working. “Ay-ho, ay-ho…”, etc. So, yeah, that’s supposedly how, again, a complex grammar and things like the dative case would have come about.

Number five: the “ta-ta” theory. Language came from gestures (and many linguists today still believe that it came from gestures). So, in the same way that you say “ta-ta!” to say goodbye, all languages started like that, Sure! And then finally, the “la-la” theory: when they were a little more advanced, human beings wanted to use it not just for reproduction, but they wanted language to play, to love, for poetic reasons, etc. So language evolved from singing and being poetic, etc.

I hope you see that none of these really make sense, and that from what we’ve seen up until now, it just can’t be so simple. And that we have to keep exploring and finding out where the theory doesn’t hold water, and what other possibilities there may be.

I summarized all of this up to this point by saying that I really believe that there is a design. Who the designer is (or the designers), how it came about, how it all works… I still don’t know, and I think many of you may be wondering the same. And we need to keep exploring this, because if you look at any linguistic text, you won’t find this. And if you look at many other disciplines, you won’t find it.

Archaeology, biology, psychology… there’s always a mystery. And language is one of the main mysteries of science. I’m biased, maybe, but I think it is the origin of language and who we are, and how we came to be the complex human beings that we are, why we are so different from animals, etc. And these scientists are not even looking at the complexity, from the tiniest flagellum, like Behe said, to the most complex part of language.

In language, we explored sounds before, and I barely touched on the basic principles. And you see already how complex the sound system is. That to me is almost like the equivalent of the bacterial flagellum. And as I told you before, it’s not mainstream linguistics or common knowledge, even. So let’s keep exploring, and let’s see if we find out more in the next videos.

Thanks for watching, thank you for liking the video and subscribing to my channel. See you next time!