The Story of Human Language

@There are 6,000 languages in the world, in so much variety that many languages would leave English speakers wondering just how a human being could possibly learn and use them.

The world’s languages are the result of a long “natural history,” which began with a single first language spoken in Africa. As human populations migrated to new places on the planet, each group’s version of the language changed in different ways, until there were several languages where there was once one. Eventually, there were thousands.

Languages change in ways that make old sounds into new sounds and words into grammar, and they shift in different directions, so that eventually a languages that is not gradually turning upside-down is one on the verge of extinction. This kind of change is so relentless that it even creates “languages within languages.” In separate populations who speak the same language, changes differ. The result is variations upon the language –that is, dialects. But dialects that are usually just spoken keep on changing at a more normal pace.

Then, the languages of the world tend to mix together on various levels. All languages borrow words from one another; there is no “pure” vocabulary. But some borrow so much vocabulary that there is little original material left, such as in English.

Ordinarily, languages change is an exuberant process that makes languages develop far more machinery than they need. For example, when people learn a language quickly, they develop a pidgin version of it; then, if they need to use this pidgin on an everyday basis, it becomes a real language, called a Creole. Creoles are language starting again in a fashion–immediately they divide into dialects, mix with other languages, and start building up the decorations that older languages have.

Just as there is an extinction crisis among many of the world’s animals and plants, it is estimated that 5,500 of the world’s languages will no longer be spoken in 2,100. Globalization and urbanization tend to bring people toward one of a few dozen politically dominant languages, and once a generation is not raised in a language, it no longer survives except in writing — if linguists have gotten to it yet. As a language dies, it passes through a “pidgin” stage on its way to expiration.

Language Timeline

150,000-80,000 a.c. Estimated time during which human language arose
4000 b.c. Probable origin of Proto-Indo-European
3500 b.c. First attested writing
3000 b.c. Probable origin of Semitic
2000 b.c. Bantu speakers begin migrations south and eastward

450-480 First attestation of English
787 First Scandinavian invasions of England
mid-1300s Beginning of the standardization of English
1400 Beginning of the Great Vowel Shift in English
1564 Birth of William Shakespeare
c. 1680 The origin of Saramaccan creole
1786 Sir William Jones gives first account of Proto-Indo-European
1887 Ludwig Zamenhof creates Esperanto
c. 1900 The birth of Hawaiian Creole English
1916 Discovery of Hittite

Source:  The Teaching Company – Professor John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute – Social Science