Christopher’s Ongoing Look at Language, Part II: History of Language

As I noted in my first blog entry here, we spend a lot of time doing the business of language, but amazingly little time talking about language itself. In that article, I took on the surprisingly tricky question of determining just how many languages there are. Today, I would like to talk a bit about the history of language.

Sadly, there were no time-travelers about with recording devices in hand to witness the birth of language. As a result, we can only hypothesize about language’s origins. Opinions vary wildly: some researchers think we have possessed speech in at least rudimentary form for as long as 2.3 million years, since our ancestor Homo habilis. Others believe it is far more recent and that only our current evolutionary iteration, Homo sapiens, has possessed this gift, which would put it as recently as 50,000 and as long as 200,000 years ago.

But we have to make a clear distinction here between speech and language. While we may have had speech (i.e., the ability to make intelligible sounds) for a very long time, full-blown language (a coherent system of speech with structure and rules used to communicate complex ideas) is definitely much more recent and probably doesn’t pre-date Homo sapiens.

Using methods similar to the linguistic analysis that led to the theoretical Proto-Indo-European language that is supposed to be the root of most European languages (among others), researchers have determined that the current diversity of world languages would have required about 100,000 years to develop its present level of complexity and diversity, which just so happens to dovetail nicely with the rise and spread of Homo sapiens. And a recent discovery that pushes back the first known use of paint to around 100,000 years ago would also seem to argue in favor of that being the latest possible date for language to be in use. (Producing and using paint are of course not direct links to language development, but I find it hard to grasp how a group of primates lacking language could even formulate the desire – never mind carry out the work – to fashion a paint production workshop and employ those pigments. To my mind, paint is tightly bound to abstract thought because unlike, say, a hammer or ax, it is not a strictly utilitarian technology.) An even more recent study suggests that more complex, structured language evolved from a precursor spoken in East Africa about 50,000 years ago, so that 100,000 to 50,000 year time frame seems pretty well established by those bookends.

Regardless of the when, once language did take hold, it was here to stay. No crude tool we had ever developed was nearly as powerful as language. Now knowledge could be spread effectively and quickly, sending technological achievement on a path that led to ever-faster innovation. And with language came the birth of ideas as opposed to just technology and know-how. While it may be a bit slower and trickier, you can fashion pretty effective tools and show someone else how to use them without language; but without language, you can’t have true ideas, those little packets of abstract thought that give rise to the Really Big Things. In other words, you can have a hammer without language, but you can’t conceive or share the significance of that hammer and its meaning to you without language.

So language was the one thing all human populations took with them as they colonized the planet, and as they did, it invariably changed. Fast forward to today and we find ourselves with between 6000 and 7000 languages belonging to many different families. Of those families, though, just five make up roughly 85% of all speakers: Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Altaic, Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic.

And what of the future of language? It’s impossible to say for sure, but I think that if we maintain and build upon our current trends in technology and its accompanying degree of interconnectedness, we will slowly move towards just a few world languages – and maybe just one. That vision of the future is also supported by the fact that languages are disappearing at an alarming rate these days, with the last native speakers of unused languages dying off slowly but surely. But yikes, if we whittle it down to just one language, that means I will be out of a job! Fortunately for my job security, however, that process will take hundreds of years. In the meantime, I will keep plugging away at the business of helping to empower people to communicate globally.


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