Do the first words date back as many as 1 million years?
All social animals – from bees and ants to whales and monkeys – communicate with each other, but only human beings have developed a language consisting of more than a sequence of certain signals.
Our language is also different from the communication of other creatures on a physical level. It is produced in a language-processing area of the brain which does not work instinctively, but processes sounds and meanings rationally. This part of the brain is unique to humans.
While it is impossible to say when and how the ability to speak developed, it may reasonably be assumed that it was a lengthy evolutionary process.
It is more than likely that our ancestors were already capable of speaking one million years ago. However, they probably did so more slowly, using a more limited vocabulary and, most importantly, less complex grammatical structures than we do nowadays.
The origins of language
The origins of human speech may continue to be enshrouded in mystery until the end of time. The roots and history of individual languages, on the other hand, have been the subject of very elaborate research over the past 20 years.
In our day and time, more than 5000 languages are spoken around the globe (one third of them in Africa), but scientists have assigned them to a relatively small number of language families, presumably less than 20. Languages are associated with each other by means of shared words, sounds or grammatical constructions. Theory has it that the members of every single language group are the descendants of the same ancestor and thus one single language. To everybody’s surprise, many experts believe that this proto-language was still spoken in the not so distant past – possibly no more than a few thousand years ago.
The emergence of language groups in the year 3000 B.C.
The single largest language group these days, Indo-European comprises languages which are spoken by half of the Earth’s population. This group, which includes anything from Hindi and Persian to Norwegian and English, is said to have emerged from the language of a nomadic tribe that moved across the plateaus in Eastern Europe and Western Asia approx. 3000 years ago.
As of approx. 2000 B.C., the speakers of Indo-European languages started spreading throughout Europe and eventually populated all areas as far as the Atlantic coast and the northern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, they advanced deep into Asia, taking in the Iranian plateau and vast parts of India in the process.
Another family of languages that has played an important part in the more recent past of Western Asia and continues to do so to this day are the Semitic languages. The latter are also believed to have evolved from the language spoken by one single tribe – possibly Nomads in Southern Arabia.
Around 3000 B.C., the Semitic languages were spoken across a vast desert territory extending from Southern Arabia to the North of Syria. Some Semitic peoples such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hebrews and Phoenicians played a relevant role in the early population of this territory. For a certain time, a Semitic language, namely Aramaic, was even known to be the “lingua franca“ of the Middle East.
Language and race
Languages from the same family are not necessarily linked in terms of race, and yet this difference is frequently blurred in modern times. Within the Indo-European language family, for example, there are several smaller Indo-Iranian language groups, also known as Aryan, which are spoken from Persia to India. According to an absolutely untenable racial theory dating back to the late 19th century, the National Socialists used the term “Aryan” to describe a fair-haired “master race”. Fair-haired or not – when it comes down to it, the word Aryan refers to a language family rather than a genetic unit.
The same applies to the Semitic family of languages, which includes two groups that have played a very important part in the history of humankind – the Jews and the Arabs.
On a linguistic map of the world, most of the major language families “occupy” their own compact territory. The two exceptions in this regard are the Indo-European and the Finno-Ugrian groups.
Since the beginning of modern times, the Indo-European languages have spread across the entire globe as a result of European colonialism – to North and South America, Australia and New Zealand. The merging of Indo-European and Finno-Ugrian, however, which used to make up a colourful pattern of different languages in Europe, happened at an earlier stage and for different reasons.
Together with Estonia on the other side of the Baltic Sea, Finland is an isolated area of the Finno-Ugrian group (the Finnish part). Hungary represents the other, i.e. the Ugrian part.
The reason for this vast geographic separation is the great European plateau which the Finno-Ugrian and the Indo-European tribes shared and over which they had fought over the centuries. The proto-language of the Finns, Estonians and Hungarians used to be spoken in a dense area between the Baltic Sea and the Ural Mountains – until the inhabitants were driven apart by the Indo-Europeans.
After 500 A.D. – the Romance languages and Germanic begin to emerge
In the course of history, languages have influenced each other time and time again, as certain words were spread by means of conquests, empires, trade, religion, technology, or, in our day and time, the global entertainment industry.
A good example of this process is the language barrier in Western Europe which separates the Romance from the Germanic languages. The family of Romance languages includes Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian – the outcome of a successful Roman campaign in the 2nd century anno domini. Among the Germanic languages are English, Dutch, Flemish, German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic.
This linguistic division makes the impact of the Roman Empire very clear. Italy, France and the Iberian Peninsula were sufficiently stable regions in the Roman world to uphold the influence of Latin after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Germanic regions to the east and the north of the river Rhine were never fully under Roman rule (to this day, the exact linguistic border can still be found in Belgium, where the population speaks French in the south and Flemish in the north).
Over a period of three centuries, England was safe within the Roman Empire. However, the Romanised Celts were not strong enough to put up resistance against the invading Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons. Their languages survived in the shape of Anglo-Saxon.
Modern English, with its vocabulary of approximately 50 percent Germanic and 50 percent Romance origins, assumes a median position among the West European language families.
The reason behind this is not Britain’s relative instability within the Roman Empire, but rather the conquest by the Normans. After the Normans had seized control of Northwest France and had taken on the local language, they came to England with French as an essential element of their cultural heritage. Several centuries of Normannic rule and the associated Middle French had the effect of reintroducing Latin words to the English language.
The ongoing battle of the languages is a process which is very similar to that of evolution. Like a gene, a word “goes on its travels” and will subsequently either survive or not, depending on its purposefulness and the extent to which it is used. The ability of a word to survive can depend on a desirable new invention or substance, or simply on the fact whether the word is entertaining or serves a purpose.
”Aspirin“, which was given its name in 1899 by its German inventor on the basis of acetylated spiraeic acid (acetylsalicylic acid), is a word which was immediately used on an international scale. In a less serious context, the English word “snob“, the current meaning of which was born in the middle of the 19th century, is now an integral part of countless languages.
Just like evolution itself, the development of language is driven by an unstoppable force which traditionalists continuously tried to restrain in order to protect the language from changes. The useful word “hopefully“, which many Germans have been using instead of “it is to be hoped“ for quite some time, has made its way into the English language over the past years via the general public and despite the protestations of the upholders of linguistic standards.
On a wider scale, the French government passes laws to restrict the influence of English words and their integration into the French language. From time to time, this results in combinations of the two languages which are referred to as franglais (français – French, anglais – English). A good example of this tangle of languages is the advertising sign for a tweed jacket as seen in a Parisian shop window:
Très snob, presque cad (very snobbish, almost knavish).
The French fear of being “corrupted“ by the English language must be considered in a greater context within the evolutionary battle between the languages (although the English influence is insiginificant as compared to the overwhelming effect Norman French had on English in the past).
One of the major objectives of every language is to become a “lingua franca“. After the zenith of France’s international influence under Louis XIV, the French language almost exclusively achieved this status on the basis of power and prestige. In later years, this role of the French language would be assumed by English – first by the British Empire, and then much more significantly by the American predominance in the 20th century.
In the late 20th century, the English language is in the fortunate position to be the “lingua franca“ at an extraordinary point in time. For the first time in history, a global language is used for practical purposes (by scientists, pilots etc.). At this stage, there is a communication system which disseminates knowledge about the English language to a broad audience via radio, television and the internet.
Unlike ever before, the imperial power that substantiates the status of American English as a “lingua franca“ is of a more cultural and economic rather than a military nature.
But time has shown that English is unlikely to remain the last “lingua franca“ on Earth. Others will come and go. It is also correct that the predominance of English depends on its dissemination to a greater extent than it does on the number of people who speak it.
Chinese is spoken by more people than English (albeit only in a part of the world), and the future lies in the hands of the new global economic player China. However, the complexity of Chinese might have placed this language in a different competitive league. One of the major advantages of English is that it can be spoken effortlessly on a basic level, but is very complex in terms of its idiomatic expressions.
Meanwhile, the evolution of languages continues. Already, countless “subspecies” of the English language are being used around the world. Pidgin English, which evolved in New Guinea, is becoming an outsider. Initially “invented“ as a convenient trade language, it was reduced to its most basic elements and developed its very own multifaceted character. In the same way, English-speaking communities not only in the West Indies and in India, but also in America created their own regional terms, expressions and structures, which provided their respective language version with distinctive characteristics.
The astonishing development and diffusion of the Indo-European languages a mere 5000 years ago, all of which can be traced back to one single proto-language, is something that will not reoccur in the more densely networked modern world. The quest of language to continue to develop, on the other hand, will never cease.