A Brief History of Language Posted by Malachi Rempen on Jun 22, 2015 in Archived Posts
Sometimes it’s hard for us humans to keep time in perspective. I suppose it’s a good thing—after all, if we were constantly thinking about the fact that we’ve been around for about 200,000 years and for 98.5% of that time we never wrote anything down, we probably wouldn’t be able to function in our day-to-day lives. As a side effect, however, we have trouble putting things into historical context or take account of relativity (see: the comic above). Also, if you’re like me, everything you learn slowly drips out of your ears at night, and you occasionally have to replenish the stocks.
To that end, let’s visit—briefly, entertainingly and quite incompletely—the history of languages on this planet.
Birth of Language (60,000 – 200,000 years ago)
That number is a total shot in the dark. We have no idea when language as we know it was created, how it was created, why it was created or even really what language is. Do the grunts of apes count as language? Was language developed in one place and spread with mankind across the globe, or is it innate within us, and rose across the world at various points simultaneously? Did other Homo sapiens relatives speak language as well, or is it unique to us? We just don’t know. You’re welcome.
Age of the Proto-Language (4,000 – 10,000 years ago)
A “proto-language” is a hypothetical “root” language, from which, theoretically, several language families bloomed and branched into sub-groups, languages and dialects. If a language family is a tree, the proto-language is the base of the trunk. Again, we don’t know a whole lot about them, as most are purely speculative. But scholars place their use, if they did exist, somewhere around this time. The big, important proto-language you might want to know about is Proto-Indo-European, the great-granddaddy of every European and Near Eastern language from Albanian to Latvian to Urdu to Yiddish. Other language families like Sino-Tibetan may have had a proto-language, but…we just don’t know, get it?!
The First Written Word (1,000 BCE – 2nd century BCE-ish)
When people got the bright idea to start putting quill to parchment, or chisel to stone, or blood to tanned leather, languages stopped wandering about quite as aimlessly and began settling down and starting families and sprouting more dedicated groups. Around here you’ll find the “birth” of such noble old languages as Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek and Old Chinese, as well as “newer” languages later on, like Hebrew, Latin, Old Persian and Aramaic. They weren’t, of course, actually born by dint of them being written down, but otherwise – say it with me – we just don’t knooooooow!
The Old Timers (First millennium CE)
The Middle Ages was good for a lot more than just mead and catapults. Thanks to the explosion in writing, we’re able to get more precise with our dating (we know a little moooooore!) and salute venerable languages such as Old English (Anglo-Saxon—think Beowulf rather than Shakespeare), Old High German, Old French, Classical Arabic and so on. Rather than just fumbling about in the dark as before, we can trace our contemporary languages to these fellows with confidence. They’ll be followed by Middle and Middle High versions, each at varying stages at various times, which may look the same to you as the Old ones but are not, so don’t even think about it.
Standardization (1500 – 1900 CE)
World conquerors have always known that the best way to assimilate a people into your empire is to squash their local religions, customs and languages and force them to speak what you speak. Alexander the Great knew it, Julius Caesar knew it, and Genghis Khan knew it but couldn’t be bothered, and so just killed everyone he met. However, it wasn’t until about this time that world-conquering became a less successful pursuit and the standardizing of languages actually stuck, mostly because bureaucracy is irritating enough without competing languages on all the forms. Some, like the Italians and Spanish, created a standard based on literary classics, while most others, such as the French, English, Tibetans, and Chinese just used the dialect from their capital city, or whatever dialect they considered to be “polite.” This period includes the standardization of Sign Language, which had existed in myriad forms throughout history, but only now became normalized, by the French.
The Age of the Artificial (1900 – present)
As if in response to the rapid extinction of languages and dialects after standardization, people have recently started making up their own languages. An intrepid young man named L. L. Zamenhof developed Esperanto as an idealized lingua franca for the world; J. R. R. Tolkien created Quenya, a fully-realized invented Elvish tongue around which he built his Middle-Earth of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; and Marc Okrand’s Klingon language, created for the fictional Star Trek alien race of the same name, is actually spoken fluently by many people. I suppose I could include computer programming languages such as C++ or Java here, but I’m not sure they count—they’re more mathematical than linguistic. In any case, the most recently created language is Na’vi, created for James Cameron’s film Avatar in 2009 by linguistic professor Paul Frommer.
So there you have it, an extremely broad and generalized overview of the history of languages. Who knows where the future will lead? Resurrection of extinct languages due to time travel? A return to regional dialects thanks to advanced translation technology? Or perhaps we’ll all use Esperanto? Let’s speculate and argue about it in the comments below!
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