In some ways, we take languages for granted. They’re an everyday part of our lives – something we’ve grown up with and use without thinking. Yet language has been an essential part in our evolution. A social tool without comparison, it has allowed us to share ideas, co-operate on discoveries, work together, improve the world around us, tell stories and preserve knowledge for future generations.
Languages are hugely important to our cultural identities, but where do they come from? Can we definitively trace them back to a first language or, at least, hazard an educated guess to their true origins?
The origin of language
Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist and historian, once said that if a Martian looked at humans in the same way we look at frogs, they might conclude that there is fundamentally one language with minor deviations. In other words, to an outside ear, most human languages will sound like a similar collection of noises that share a common link – just like the croaks of many different species of frogs can sound the same to human ears.
This observation is an expression of Chomsky’s concept of a “universal grammar” – because part of our brain is hardwired towards creating and understanding language, then all human languages will share certain similarities and follow certain linguistic rules because they are created by our genetic makeup. If this is true, then all our languages could be pinpointed as developing from one part of the world at one particular time in our past.
Finding this birthplace of language has proved difficult, with many thinking it is impossible. This is because there is very little evidence available, as language began far back in human prehistory well before we had any (known) form of writing.
There have been different hypotheses put forward as to where and when language might have emerged, with much dispute as to which are correct.
One study explored the rate at which phonemes (which are any distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another) naturally develop. It then compared this to some of the oldest languages in Africa – where the “modern” human species is often thought to have originated. Using this theory, it was suggested that language evolved first from Homo sapiens between 150,000 to 3500,00 years ago. This places the birth of modern speech in sub-Saharan Africa somewhere in the Middle Stone Age.
The evolution of language
The evolution of language is gradual with new words being added and some existing words changing their meaning over time. For example, if you’ve read any Shakespeare, then you’ll have encountered words that aren’t used in modern dialect or even discovered some of the many words he created that are now in common usage.
There is also the ‘borrowing’ of words and letters which move from one language over to another. For example, peace, war, just and very are actually derived from French, and leg, sky, take and they have been ‘borrowed’ from Scandinavian languages.
What is interesting is that instead of different languages being mutually exclusive, they share similar traits with recurring patterns in language structure. It was thought that this is due to languages evolving to the same sets of rules set by the way our brain work.
Michael Dunn, an evolutionary linguist at the Max Planck Institute, recently worked with Russel Gray, computational linguist at the University of Auckland to test the theory that languages should evolve according to the same set of rules. So, if there were two features of language that were somehow linked together structurally, they should be linked together the same way in all languages.
What they discovered was a surprise as there was far more diversity in terms of language evolution than first thought. In fact, looking at the different language groups of Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan, which contain over a third of all languages, they found that each language family was evolving to its own set of rules. No two were the same.
“Our study shows that different processes occur in different language families,” says Michael Dunn. “The evolution of language does not follow one universal set of rules.”
The San Bushmen
The San are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa and speak an ancient language quiet unlike anything we see around rest of the world. They live in the arid Kalahari Desert in Botswana and their language is made up of different clicks that represent what we would think of as consonants.
This endangered language is considered by some to be our glimpse back in time to how language began. But, at the same time others disagree, saying that the San language, as all languages do, will have evolved over time, which means we cannot give it the label of a true ‘ancient language’. San as it is spoken now may be incomprehensible to a San speaker from, say, a thousand years ago.
With so many contradicting viewpoints on the language, we may never conclusively pinpoint where it all started and what it sounded like. But one thing we can rely on is that in the meantime it will keep evolving around us.
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