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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An interesting term to ponder is the “ethnosphere” where feral languages roam, evolve, and die, along with their supporting cultures. Thanks for the good food for thought.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I foresee the survival and continued use of Esperanto. all things considered, it has actually done amazingly well. In 128 years, Esperanto has managed to grow from a drawing-board project with just one speaker in one country to a complete and living natural language with probably a couple of million speakers in over 120 countries and a rich literature and cosmopolitan culture, with little or no official backing and even bouts of persecution. It hasn’t taken the world by storm – yet – but it’s slowly but surely moving in that direction, with the Internet giving it a significant boost in recent years. About 30,000 people have signed on for the new (beta)Duolingo Esperanto course in just three weeks.
This summer some 2,500 Esperanto speakers from 85 countries will come together in Lille, France, in what might be seen as the parliament of a dispersed speaker population. I shall be one of the fifty participants from Britain.
@Bill Chapman When I went to the Polyglot Gathering in May I was amazed to find that aside from English, Esperanto was the lingua franca of choice. It was pretty neat, made me want to pick it up!
@Bill Chapman Thanks for those updates on Esperanto.I would think that for someone studying grammar and klinguistics that would be a great experiment. I would never have thought it was so popular though . There are so many other cultural riches, Chinese being so amazing as the oldest language with no interruption.
So sorry but I feel an obligation to the oldest!
Klingon is pretty cool though, I could learn some phrases that would make me feel like I know some of the language!
Xie xie everyone.
Language history and evolution is fascinating – thanks for a fun post! I love studying historical changes, and speculating on future ones… Will texting have a permanent impact on English spelling? Will emoticons someday be considered as ordinary as punctuation marks? Will cursive writing go the way of heiroglyphics? We’ll all have to find out!
Your cartoon also reminded me of a saying I’ve heard before – “The difference between Europe and America is that in Europe, 200 miles is a long distance, and in America, 200 years is a long time.”
One minor correction – it should be “Elvish”, not “Elfish”, in reference to Tolkien’s language. =-)
@Janet Whatmough Thanks for the tip, I’ll change it. Don’t want to offend the elves, they’re a touchy bunch.
@Malachi Rempen OK, that made me laugh out loud. Thanks!
Jens S. Larsen:
Very accurate considering it’s written for the laughs, but we actually know more than that about the beginnings.
> Do the grunts of apes count as language?
Nope. Animals get smarter and smarter the more we study them, but at the same time it gets ever more clear that none of them have anything that compares to human language. If it approaches language in complexity, it’s only to impress females, not to express ideas with. If it’s a communication system, it consists of a fixed set of sentences, whereas human language is open-ended.
> 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?
We can be absolutely sure that it is innate and that it developed in one place, just as our species as such.
> Did other Homo sapiens relatives speak language as
> well, or is it unique to us?
Now, _that_ is actually an unknown. It’s even possible that some of our pre-sapiens ancestors were born with a faculty of language that was superior to ours, but that it died out with the species.
@Jens S. Larsen Thanks! Do you have citations to back that up? I know, I know, I didn’t cite anything in my article…
Brian Barker (@Brian_Barker):
May I add a comment on the international language, Esperanto?
Esperanto is indeed a great success story. It is one of the languages in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook.Google translate recently added it to its prestigious list of 64 languages.
Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to Russia, and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.
If you want to check if Esperanto is a living language – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CwJ9I8q-L0&feature=player_embedded#! Also, Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can’t be bad 🙂
@Brian Barker (@Brian_Barker) Gratulojn!
Artificial language has existed much longer than just the past century or so. In fact, according to Arika Okrent in “In the Land of Invented Languages”, people have been creating artificial languages for at least the past 900 years. The earliest recorded artificial language was by St. Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century. Artificial language has been around much longer than most people realize.
@Anonymous I don’t doubt it. There’s the Voynich Manuscript, for one, written in 500 years ago at least – if indeed that is a language and not just gibberish.
However I’m sure you’d agree that artificial languages didn’t really take off in popularity until the last century or so, which is why I categorized it that way.
Perhaps, the first standardization of a language happened in Sanskrit. Panini’s standardization of rules for Sanskrit around 500 BC is well known, though there might have been earlier attempts.
I guess it is important to mention Panini when you mention standardization of languages in an historical context.
“Language is a mirror of History”
Owen K. Smith:
If it is said, there are more than 5,000 languages spoken, and Africans speaks a third, then how is it none of the so called “PROTO-LAUNGUAGE” has any root to even Swahili, the most spoken language on the Continent. It begs the question then, is Africa the start of the human race, if so did they communicate only by grunts before the arrival of Arabic?. On the west of the continent, Hausa is spoken.
Then comes COLONIZATION. “Standardization, 1500 CE to present,” Perhaps.” I quote, “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” Please enlighten
@Owen K. Smith You’re right, this article leaves out the several African proto-languages, including Proto-Niger-Congo which includes Swahili in its family, and the Afrasian family that Hausa is a part of. In 2011, anthropologist Quentin K. Atkinson published his abstract “Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa” in Science, which supports the idea that all languages can be traced back to Africa through common phonemes. (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/332/6027/346.abstract).
You’re correct that European languages spoken in African countries are the result of wide-spread colonization, particularly the truly disgustingly named “Scramble For Africa” that resulted in myriad reigns of terror from Belgium, England, Germany and other European countries. During this time, forced assimilation in many cases made the speaking of native languages illegal. As you quoted, “the best way to assimilate people into your empire” is to remove their means of communication. These European languages are still spoken in African countries today, but the resurgence of native languages is on the uptick, even in the US. Last year, the US census found that the fastest growing languages in the US were African languages (https://qz.com/africa/1723269/african-languages-are-fastest-growing-in-the-united-states/).