Where do languages come from?

October 18, 2011 by admin

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I recently read a fascinating article about the evolution of language (BBC Focus magazine), and was inspired to write today’s blog on the same subject. I’ve always been interested in language, the differences between them and, later in life, how we learn languages and indeed how the spoken word changes over periods of time. Differences between languages and indeed between variants of the same language (Canadian and British English, for example) are a whole other kettle of fish so I won’t go into that now. However, I will share some of my thoughts on the evolution of languages.

It always amazes me how rapidly new words come into our everyday vocabulary and how old ones are left by the wayside. Across the generations of people alive today the changes are noticeable, and that only covers a few decades. I remember having to consciously make an effort to speak as ‘normally’ as possible in front of my grandmother, and adapt my choice of vocabulary (leaving out the slang, for example) so that she could understand what I was saying! And you only have to dip into a Shakespeare play, or say a piece from Chaucer to see how radically different our English language was 5-600 years ago. Go back even further, say 900 years and it is unlikely we’d be able to recognise the language we call ‘English’ today.

In fact, scientists believe that language or some form of communication has been around for more than 50,000 years- some of the earliest artefacts and evidence we have showing modern human behaviour.  So it seems, just as we humans are all descended from a common ancestry so too have our languages (from somewhere in East Africa) . This is incredibly hard to believe in today’s world, seeing how radical the differences between some languages are which are, supposedly, descended from the same initial language. So as humans developed, with survival of the fittest and all that, the same can be applied to languages. Each language across the generations has evolved and performed its own natural selection so as to fit the needs for efficient communication of the time.

It’s clear that language will continue to change, those that don’t die out. So we, in turn, may find ourselves confused by some of the turns of phrase our grandchildren will come out with.  But in the meantime, it is very curious to think that we may once have spoken in click consonants as found in the Khoisan language families of east and southern Africa.

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