Folium: How Languages Evolve via TED
What is language? According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, “language” is the “body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.” The dictionary entry continues on through six other definitions, ending with a “communication of meaning in any way; medium that is expressive, significant, etc.” Language is not a physical, tangible object. It is a concept, an idea, and especially a malleable object. But, from where did our languages come? Why do we speak different languages from other peoples? Why are some languages similar, while others do not even use the same characters or grammatical patterns?
The “Tower of Babel” myth states that there was once one language of which everyone in the world spoke. Eventually the people speaking this language were divided into many groups who were no longer able to understand each other. Most likely, this is an over-simplification of the process of language evolution. Different languages evolved as a direct result of human migration. As groups of peoples traveled in opposite directions in search of food and land, they settled in different areas from each other. They became accustomed to certain ways of life, they ate certain foods, and they communicated with their community similarly to other members of their own community. As they evolved as a people, their languages in isolation evolved to the point that they were no longer speaking the same language as their former comrades from whom they traveled. Languages did not simply die while others were born from nothing. Different dialects slowly evolved into completely different languages. And thus, the many branches of languages grew from the original “proto-languages” spoken by the world’s earliest inhabitants.
So, how many languages are there in the world? The answer to this question varies depending on the entity answering the question. It also depends on the specific breakdown and analysis of a “language” versus a “dialect.” Ethnologue and UNESCO both estimate that there are approximately 7,000 different languages throughout the world. Despite the assumption that languages would be evenly distributed across the world, there is a large difference depending on geographical location. For instance, in Europe there are approximately 200 different languages spoken, while in Asia, there are over 2,000 different languages. There are 150-200 million different languages spoken amongst only one million people, while an estimated 46 languages have only one remaining living speaker. One of the most interesting studies of language differences are the people of Papua New Guinea, of whom speak over 800 different languages amongst the total population of 3.9 million people. That averages to roughly 4,500 speakers of each language.
As previously stated, the number of languages tallied also varies depending on one’s definition of language versus a dialect. The most common distinction between languages and dialect is actually not a linguistic difference, but instead a socio-political difference. A group of different communicative languages spoken under the realm of one nation are referred to as dialects, while those spoken by different nations are referred to as languages. It is for this reason that the different dialects of Chinese such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, and Shanghainese are mutually unintelligible from each other even though they are all spoken by one nation. Contrastingly, the Romance languages of Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian are so similar that speakers of the other Romance languages can sometimes understand them. Additionally, Hindi and Urdu are actually very similar, if not the same, language; however, Hindi is spoken in India, while Urdu is spoken in Pakistan.
So where will the evolution of languages take us? According to linguistics experts, while there are currently thousands of different established languages, the number of languages is not growing as one would think, but instead it is declining. Through the advancement of current major languages of the world, through technologies and an increase and ease of international communication, the need for so many different languages has decreased. A language can only live while there is someone there to speak it, and youth there to whom to teach it. As soon as it is no longer taught to children, its final days are numbered. When the last native speakers die, with them does the language. It is estimated that a quarter of the world’s languages currently have less than one hundred remaining native speakers. Furthermore, approximately 46 languages only have one remaining living native speaker. It is believed that within the next century alone almost 3,000, or half, of the current languages spoken will become extinct.
Language is not a stagnant, but an ever-changing concept. The language of our parents is different than that which we speak, which will be different than that of our children. While the mythology leaves us to believe that there was one, or at least a few, original proto-languages of the world which spread and grew and changed as the population did the same, perhaps we are working slowly back to one language of the world. In centuries to come, we can only wonder and hypothesize where languages will go and what they will become.
- Ted: Alex Gendler – Dig Deeper
- Dictionary.com: Language
- Linguistic Society: How Many Languages?
- BBC: Languages
- Wikimedia: Indo-European Language Tree
- Wikipedia: The Origin of Language
The LEAF Project
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