Primitive languages do not exist

Primitive languages do not exist

Photo Credits: JESSE STESHENKO / AGGIE

We need to end discrimination through language

Language is what makes us human. Language, the driving force behind how we function today, has been the foundation of society for every human culture on Earth. Our language has developed over thousands of years to fit our needs as a species, so calling any language primitive is just a way to denigrate other groups to feel better about yourself. The concept behind “primitive languages” is discriminatory in nature and void of scientific merit, making it a construct best left deep in the past.

To truly grasp how the concept of a “primitive language” came to be, we have to go back to the beginning of our language studies and language itself. Before naturalist Charles Darwin’s work, language was considered a gift from God, as read in the Bible. After Darwin countered by insinuating that language came from evolution, the roots of language became a touchy topic. It got so contentious that scientific societies even banned papers on the origin of language. 

However, in 1905, a master’s student named Edward Sapir, revived the debate and birthed the myth of “primitive language” still prevalent today. Sapir theorized that because language comes from sound we should be able to analyze the languages of “less-evolved” people to find out how speech emerged, which implied that these indigenous tribes to be studied were primitive and inferior to normal humans. Sapir assumed that, because of their language, these groups were genetically inferior because they weren’t the same as he was—which is discrimination to a T. Sapir even believed that they were so inferior that we could study them as less-evolved versions of ourselves. 

Franz Boas, an anthropologist and Sapir’s own professor, proved all this false. His studies of Indigenous people produced the paradigm-shifting result that every human on earth is equal in terms of evolution. He proved that the entire difference between the “civilized” world and the “lawless” world of the indigenous peoples resulted from cultural differences. Sapir took it upon himself to prove this in the realm of linguistics and confirmed Boas, but his discriminatory assumption is still responsible for the continuation of the “primitive language” myth.

An interesting study about this and the embodiment of what we mean by “cultural differences” is the ethnographic study of the Pirahã people, an indigenous group of people native to South America. The Pirahã live in small groups on the Amazon River and had made no contact with any other group until seen by Brazilians in the 1700s, effectively making them the most “primitive” humans in our world. If primitive languages existed, they would’ve been here. However, it became clear the differences in language between the Pirahã and the rest of the world was purely cultural. 

For example, the Pirahã have no word for directions as we understand them, only referencing “upriver” and “downriver” because their location compared to the Amazon River is all that mattered to them. They also have no past tense or future tense in their language because their society functions purely in the present. This cultural representation of “if I can’t see it, then it doesn’t exist” is also why all attempts to teach the tribe Christianity have been unsuccessful. Their language doesn’t have these things because they don’t need it culturally, not because it’s primitive.

If you have to call a language primitive, I’ll give you one. The Neanderthals spoke a primitive language. They spoke it because the larynx in their throat was slightly higher than ours and their mouths slightly smaller. They could not create the vowels we could due to their throats and couldn’t speak as clearly because their long nose made their mouth small. That was our only advantage over the Neanderthals.

Quick question, which of these species went extinct 8,000 years ago? The one with a primitive language, or humans? 

There is no excuse to call any language (or group of people) primitive in our modern world, yet it still happens all the time. Calling languages (or groups of people) primitive needs to stop. You would never call your own language primitive, and that’s the crux of the problem. You would never assign such a negative label to your own spoken language, yet people see it as fine to place upon the language of others. Saying a language is primitive is incredibly discriminatory and offensive towards its speakers. It is insulting and also completely false. Insulting people based on their culture is not something we do anymore, so stop calling the speech of others primitive. It’s that simple.

Written by: Alex Motawi — almotawi@ucdavis.edu 

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