Where is The Stage One of a Language?

From the Lecture Series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Stage One of a language is when it develops whole words to convey bits of meaning, like gender. It is an early stage of overdevelopment when languages begin to add decorative features that are not essential to understanding and communication but become parts of grammar. Is it possible to find Stage One of a language?

Surreal concept of a man rising stairs to try to reach the top.
Stage One of a language is when it starts to develop parts that are not necessary, but make the message more explicit. (Image: fran_kies/Shutterstock)

Languages get complex through grammaticalization. They develop unnecessary parts that act like decorative statues on top of a cathedral, built hundreds of years ago. Usually, each bit begins as a whole word and eventually gets reduced to prefixes and suffixes. When the words are in their first stage, it is the Stage One of a language in overdevelopment.

Dyirbal, the Australian Language

There is an Australian language called Dyirbal, with four noun classes. Every noun needs to be preceded by another word that shows its class: men and animals, females, food that is not flesh, and miscellaneous.

The word that shows male category is bayi, which has to precede all male nouns. The word for man is yara, which is not used alone, so bayi yara is man. Likewise, balan gabay is girl, with balan showing the female category. Balam is for non-flesh food, and bala is for the last category. No noun can be used without the category word. This is the Stage One of a language.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Grammaticalization

When a language develops words to show categories, they bear meanings at the beginning. However, they eventually turn into smaller parts that might not mean anything on their own anymore. Words that were used before a word turn into a prefix, and those used after, turn into a suffix.

Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock at UT 211 near Monticello, Utah, USA
Languages eventually develop grammar and grammar eventually leads to overdevelopment and new stages. (Image: Barbara Ash/Shutterstock)

The process is called grammaticalization. For example, Swahili can have seven genders in a way, and it’s because of these noun classes.

The m- prefix shows that something is people. Next, mtu is a man and mtoto is a child. Perhaps, at an earlier stage of this language, tu was man and toto was child. The m- started out as a free word and is now a prefix. There is also an animal class, whose prefix is n. So, ndege is birdnzige is locust. These patterns belong to the next stage – the one after the Stage One of a language.

Learn more about how language changes-many directions.

The Next Stage

Languages eventually develop grammatical bits, different patterns, and sound changes. They slowly turn the words into prefixes and suffixes that no longer have any meaning on their own. When it comes to gender, they develop patterns that might not even make sense anymore.

Usually, all nouns have grammatical gender, even if they do not refer to a living thing. In German, girl is maedchen, which is neuter, not female. Also, the spoon, fork, and knife are male, female, and neuter respectively. There seems to be no logic, and they have merely developed like this.

Unlike what many people think, these changes and attributions are not cultural.

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The Ground Zero of Language

The ground zero of language is the level where only the necessary parts of a language exist, and the decorative parts are not created yet. However, it is a hypothetical situation, and so far, nobody has found it in any language.

All languages have these unnecessary parts, but what criteria determine the necessity? For example, English has the perfect tense which is not necessary as it describes almost the same thing that past tense does. The definite and indefinite articles are not necessary for most languages either.

Are regular tenses, like past and future, necessary? According to some languages, no. Some languages in New Guinea, for example, just do not have tenses, and they still communicate successfully.

Learn more about the case for the world’s first language.

Tense and Person

Neither tense nor person are necessary for a language. For instance, talking about the past is not accurate without mentioning the time. The context can usually show that one is talking about a past event, so the verb does not need to.

Close up on hand holding brush while writing calligraphy
Many elements in a language seem unnecessary, but it is not easy to find the ground zero of a language which consists of only necessary parts. (Image: shutterpix/Shutterstock)

Another thing is conjugation and pronouns. Although most languages have pronouns, they are required only when the speaker needs to be very explicit, not all the time. Here, too, the context can show who you are talking about.

However, languages do not stop growing. Once a language is made, it just keeps developing until it is overdeveloped and has many unnecessary features. Those features become parts of the language. If the language is going to have prefixes and suffixes, it will start at Stage One, where all of these determining parts are whole meaningful words.

Stage One of a language is just the beginning of overdevelopment.

Common Questions about Stage One of a Language

Q: What is the Stage One of an overdeveloped language?

The Stage One of a language, in an overdeveloped language is that there are languages that use whole words before a noun instead of using a prefix or a suffix for conveying gender or other meanings.

Q: Is it easy to find Stage One?

No, Stage One of a language usually gets lost in the evolution and development of that language. It is normally not easy to trace back the prefixes and suffixes to the words they used to be.

Q: How are prefixes and suffixes in a language developed?

After Stage One of a language, the words that show gender or similar concepts eventually get minimized to prefixes and suffixes. Once they turn into prefixes and suffixes, they are no longer independent parts of the language.

Q: What is the ground zero of language?

The ground zero of language refers to the minimum necessary language items for communication and g which does not, to anybody’s knowledge, exist. Like the Stage One of a language, finding ground zero is also not easy.

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