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Linguistics : Abstracts

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This page was last updated: February 04, 2003


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Languages into the Modern Era

Today, the globalization of the whole human society, more needs of a uniform way of communication and many other things are threatening the existence of most of the 6,000 languages that exist today. Many have already become extinct and many are on the way. People speaking indigenous languages are forgetting their mother tongue as they have to learn the language of state affairs to get a job. Their children probably don't even know a word of their original language. So, these languages need preservation, and not only policies can prove effective; because in most cases, the indigenous languages are not preserved, practised and written in a systematic manner; there must be provided practical fields of use of these languages, if they are to survive.

However, let us discuss the evolution of languages in the historic era. I have already tried to show how many proto-languages and their off-springs may have evolved from one single language, thus forming language families.

In the ages after the ancient civilizations started decaying, there were again diversities created in languages. Some languages died, some of them left off off-springs, some changed comparably to form new languages. Domination of foreign nations also played a part. Extinctions also occurred in the modern era, take for example, Cornish is a member of the Celtic branch, Brythonic group of Indo-European languages. The last person who spoke it was an old woman who died in the 19th Century. See how easy it is for a language to become extinct!

In the middle ages, the evolution continued in various languages. Very few remained unchanged (take for example, Greek, which has still got some ancient characteristics). After Middle Age passed and the New World was discovered (or should I say, rediscovered!), colonization began and the European Powers gained the upper hand. In this period, there was extensive exchange of words between native languages and the languages of the colonialists. Education and development in medical research, law, science also gave rise to new words and new terminologies. A lot of Latin and Greek went into English and French by way of laws, science, and religion. The same case is the influence of Sanskrit and Pali on Bangla before Muslim Conquest and Farsi, Eastern Turkish and Arabic after the Conquest. In this way, languages evolved once again in the modern era - or I should say, accumulated more resources rather than evolve. Say, have you ever heard a Polynesian speak Pidgin? I bet you won't understand a word of it, though it is a mixture of English, French and some native words! Pidgin English developed in the few centuries of colonialism! So, how much do you think languages have changed in the 100,000 or 40,000 years of human existence, if they can change in a century or even a decade! If the Pakistani Government in the 1950's did manage to compel the Bengalis of East Bengal to write their language in Arabic letters, and, of course, if Bangladesh never became independent, then our Bangla may well have become a different language from the Bangla of the West Bengalis by now!

Now, let us think if it is possible for traits of the original parent language to remain in the modern world. Definitely if it really existed, it would be in a remote isolated place, the people of which places have long resisted assimilation with foreigners, and their genetic threads would also remain intact over a long period of time. Some radical linguists believe that the language of the Basque people in Spain and France (800,000 speakers) is one such language. It is an isolate - because it cannot be put into any definite language family. The Basques call their language Euskara, and they themselves have resisted foreign domination for a long time - even now they are fighting in Spain! These linguists believe without considerable evidence that the original language was a Saharan language of a proto-civilization developed around Lake Chad. They also have tried to show that the Dravidian languages of India (170 million speakers) also show properties of the Saharan language. And another is the language of the Ainu people on the island of Hokkaido in Japan (18,000 speakers). These hypotheses are very much debatable.

In the present age, the numerous languages have been classified into as many as around 70 or 80 families - some of these constituting isolates. The major families are: Indo-European (English, Bangla, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit all fall in this family), Altaic (Turkish and Mongolian), Finno-Ugric (Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian) - much research have been done on these families, and some linguists today claim that they have constructed a pre-Indo-European language that gave birth to these three families, some call it Nostratic. To name some other families, there are in Africa: Nilo-Saharan, Afro-Asiatic (Ancient Egyptian, Ethiopic and numerous other languages) , Niger-Congo and Khoisan; in Asia, apart from the ones mentioned: Afro-Asiatic (the well-known Semitic subfamily is a member of this family), Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese, etc.), Dravidian, Austronesian (I am not quite sure, but I think the indigenous languages of Bengal fall in this category, specially the languages of the Santal, the Mundas, and the Garos - who are all indigenous people now living in parts of Bangladesh and West Bengal) etc.; in Australia: the Australian aboriginal family; in North America: Amerind, Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut (still debated).

 

 

 

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