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There are estimated to be around 6,500 spoken languages in the world today. But more than
half the world’s population uses only 20 of them and a language dies out every 14 days.
The most spoken language is Mandarin, with 955 million native speakers, followed by Spanish
with 470 million and then English with 360 million. But how did language originate? And
why don’t we all speak the same language? Let’s find out.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for around 7 million years, and modern humans as we know
them today have been around for 200,000 years. The human race is ancient, but we’ve only
been able to communicate with each other via language for a, rather short, 100,000 years.
Scientists believe that humans have always possessed the building blocks for language,
but it wasn’t until 100,000 years ago when a chance mutation occurred in a single human
that put the final building block in place inside the brain, which enabled humans to
finally be able to talk using legible words.
It’s thought that the very first words were emulations of noises that would have been
heard in nature, such as the noises of animals, and the wind blowing through the trees. Scientists
theorise that the very first words spoken by humans could very well have sounded like
these: Bow-wow, Pooh-pooh, Ding-dong, Yo-he-ho and Ta-ta.
But the truth is we know very little about primitive languages because writing wasn’t
developed until much later, and without writing we have almost no evidence of ancient languages.
The first written language we have found evidence for is ancient Egyptian. We have found Egyptian
hieroglyphs dating back as far as 2690 BC.
But why do we have different languages, wouldn’t it be much simpler if we all spoke the same
language? To understand this we first need to understand how languages develop. thousands
of years ago, isolated civilisations across the globe all had the same problem, they needed
a way to describe the things they owned, the tools they used and the things they did, to
their fellow citizens. So they came up with words for all their tools, possessions and
actions, these names would start with one person calling an object by a made up word,
and after referring to it as that word for some time. Other people would begin calling
it by the same name, and eventually, the word would stick. This enabled them to work together
more efficiently and get more done.
Today we can get from one side of the planet to the other in just a few hours, but back
then travel took so long that most people didn’t bother. This meant most groups of
people where in isolation from the rest of the world, this led to thousands of different
groups of people coming up with thousands of different words for various objects. That’s
why some people may call this an apple, and other would call it a pomme. Over time these
isolated groups of people met with other isolated groups of people, when this happened they
needed a common way to describe objects, so they both adapted their self taught languages
to create a new language that was a mix of the both. This happened time and time again,
and after enough groups of people mixed their languages together, a new super-language was
created, which was a combination of all the sub groups. This would eventually grow to
become one of the many languages we know today, such as English or French.
But proximity has a huge effect on how languages develop, countries next to each other often
share similar words, for example tree in French is arbre, tree in Italian is albero and tree
in Spanish is árbol. Whereas countries far away from each other have virtually zero similarities
in their languages. This is why the English alphabet looks so different to the Japanese
alphabet, because, both languages were developed in complete isolation from each other.
However in the modern day where everyone is so well connected and we can communicate with
people on the other side of the world in seconds, wouldn’t it be beneficial if we all spoke
the same language. Many predict that a single global language would significantly increase
collaboration and productivity, and some groups have actually pushed for a universal language,
but all attempts to do so have so far failed. The problem is, that if the world were to
adopt a universal language, who would have to give up their native tongue and who gets
to keep it, it’s not an easy decision. Language is just too deeply embedded within our cultures
to just give it up. To do so would be surrendering your countries culture and history. So, for
the foreseeable future, languages as we know them today are here to stay.
But language does change, and quite rapidly in fact. In the short time we’ve had the
internet the English language has already changed quite considerably. In March 2011
the Oxford English Dictionary officially recognised “LOL” as a word. But what will the English
language look like in 1000 years from now. Well Justin B Rye challenged this question,
taking all the effects of different cultures and technology into consideration. He proposed
a new language, Futurese.
Justin took the following sentence “We children beg you, teacher, that you should teach us
to speak correctly, because we are ignorant and we speak corruptly” and translated it
into Futurese to illustrate what it might look like in 1000 years. He came up with this:
When pronounced correctly it reads: zaw khee-ud we-shong yuh teez-og duh yagaw-red-uket’n
wuh-tsawg’n leedla khuz bn eugnurr’n n wuh-tsawg khurup
Sounds like something from science fiction doesn’t it? But you can just imagine people
speaking something similar to this in the year 3000.
And finally I’ll leave you with these facts: There is a language in Botswana that consists
of mainly 5 types of clicks. Most languages have over 50,000 words or more, but most speakers
only know and use a fraction of them. In fact, in everyday conversation people only use the
same few hundred words. India is home to a menagerie of different languages, 780 different
languages are spoken in India, however 220 of them were lost in the last 50 years.