This page has been visited times

Linguistics : Abstracts

Previous Page Next Page

This page was last updated: February 04, 2003

Up One Level
Language Story
Languages into Modern Era
Linguists know...
Origins of Indo-Europeans

Languages tell the Story of Mankind...

Well, however interesting the biblical story of Babel may be, there needs to be a logical way of explaining the evolution of languages. So, I will start right from the beginning - when the ancestors of mankind really became human.

There is fossil evidence from Ethiopia, where human skull fragments were discovered in the nineteen-sixties, that the ancestors of men evolved into modern human beings around 100,000 years from now. I will not go into the debate whether the theory of evolution by the Darwinists is completely correct. So, let us take it for granted for the time being.

Wherever modern human fossils were discovered, there were also stone tools and hunting equipments of stone found near the fossil sites. So, the humans were developing considerably around 100,000 years before present age. It is widely believed, and also genetic proofs exist, that human beings first originated in South-Central Africa. The first stone-age human communities were hunters, they were not yet able to develop agriculture. So, how was their language? Many linguists say that human words evolved from ape grunts. We all know that dolphins can also communicate with each other by use of several sounds that they make by whistling. Ape grunts were no less an animalistic way of communicating. What happened to human beings was not completely an evolution of the speaking organs; but actually in course of time, they managed to sufficiently control the sound produced by the larynx, by the tongue, the lips and other parts of the mouth, which finally gave rise to meaningful sounds. Now, the necessity of the origination of these sounds was indeed inevitable for hunter societies. The primate ancestors of humans might have had a language of gestures and a few sounds. But as the hunting societies grew and their skills of hunting improved, they required more sounds - meaningful ones. Say, you are a caveman in a hunting community! You go to a mammoth-chase. Your mates are just over there behind bushes waiting for your signal to attack. What would you need? Definitely not only gestures will prove effective! You would need at least a number of sounds to give your troop of hunters the directions. Probably that's how the first meaningful sounds were developed. Then, as time went by, our ancestors found out that more meaningful ways of communication can be achieved by combining various sounds together - thus producing the first words. Then slowly, sentence structures developed, words increased. This is the most simple way to look at it, but what the truth is may be very complex!

Anyway, linguists believe from the evidences of early human behaviour that they should have achieved a well-spoken language by 40,000 years from now. The primary achievements of this language may be the invention of proper nouns used to denote body parts, basic numbers, trees, animals, etc. With passing time, verbs were also invented. And then was required a well-developed grammatical structure. These all evolved from the necessity of communicating; communication being the necessity for survival. The early communities of Africa, who had settled in the Sub-Saharan region, were faced with natural disasters around 18,000 years from now. As the deglaciation was occurring and the ice was moving northwards from Europe, desertification forced the communities to leave their homeland and migrate to other parts of the world. They journeyed through Eastern Mediterranean shores to Central Asia and China and through India and the Malay Archipelago to Australia. Waves of migration took place between 9,000 to 5,500 years from now. Recent genetic research has shown that the earliest trace of human gene can be found in Australia right after Africa. The migrations did not take place only once at a time or from only one place; whenever it was needed for survival, communities migrated from different places at different times, leaving behind a remnant of their fellow humans. Anyway, the communities, which may have spoken one single language in the distant past, now spread to the farthest corners of the world. Even around 15,000 years ago, when the Ice Age was not yet over in Siberia, hunter communities migrated to the North American Continent, by land and ice bridges on the Bering Straits. But after the Ice Age was over, they were completely isolated and slowly developed their own ways of living. Their language also developed independently, which went on unhindered until the Spanish Conquest. Therefore, the native languages of the Americas now constitute families different from those found in Eurasia. The ancient hunter societies of the world, later on, emerged as sheep-herding communities, just as the Indo-Europeans were.

Anyway, we can conclude that the parent language changed as mankind journeyed and they evolved with new places, new things, new trees, new animals, and above all new ways of survival. The isolation of human communities around the world now provided the field of independent evolution of languages. Sounds changed, words changed, sentence structures were modified. Moreover, there was no standardization of the spoken languages; even after writing systems developed, different dialects were spoken in different localities occupied by the speakers of the same parent language. In this context, I would like to refer to a funny story which is of much more recent time.

In the 15/16th century, a new religious thinking emerged in Bengal within Hinduism. The new cult was centered around Śri Ċaitanyadeva, a saint who preached that God was invisible and there is no separation between the creator and the created. A devotee must utilize the compulsive power of his own emotion in trying to find union with God. And in loving God, he must be free from any motive other than the desire to love. This religion called the Vaisnava is still practised in parts of East and West Bengal. Anyway, even back then, considerable differences had existed between the peoples and the languages of East and West Bengal. One Sanskrit verse of this religion tells the devotee not to accept the blessings of a 'baangaal' -- as the East Bengalis were and still are called by the West Bengalis -- because when giving blessings, instead of saying 'śatāyujivati' (may you live hundred years), they say 'hatāyurbadati' (may your life be extinguished)! This typical mutilation of the ś sound to h is characteristic of the dialects of the south-western districts of Bangladesh even until now!

So, you see, the same language has several dialects in different areas. The same should indeed be true with the single parent language we are talking  about. Based on such formulas of sound change as s -> h, s -> k, k -> ch, t -> d, or d -> t etc. the language changed differently in different areas, and several proto-languages originated. The speakers of these proto-languages again scattered themselves around, and several other languages sprang up from them. The dialects became independent languages in their own rights! Following these simple formulas again, words from modern languages of the same family can be traced back to words of their parent proto-language.

Now let us return to the original story of human civilization. The various communities were already spread around the world just after the Ice Age was over. There was a burst of human activities in different places which were friendly to human survival. Complex civilizations developed in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, and in Indus Valley. Agriculture was already invented by the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent. There were already many languages spoken in human-inhabited lands. As new professions emerged, such as farming, textiles, and administration and religion got more complex, languages needed more words, more complex or simpler sentence structures. These languages developed unaware of the progress going on in one of its distant cousins in a far-away land. The brand-new words that came in a language after separation from the parent language can be traced back up to that separation, but before that the different groups of languages that originated from the parent language will not show anything common regarding those words. Writing systems developed and records were being written. From here on, we get definite evidences of the ancient languages and their antecedents. These ancient languages also changed over time, due to conquest by a foreign nation, for emigration and immigration, cultural and religious influences of other foreign languages, etc. In course of time, some of these languages died (for example, Hittite, Tocharian, Ancient Egyptian were illegible until they were deciphered recently), sometimes probably a whole language family died, and the other surviving ones finally evolved to such form that they would seem a completely foreign language to the speaker of their antecedents. For example, if you see some Old English writing, it will seem to you a completely foreign language; a careful observation might show that it is closer to German than our Modern English.

So, the summary is - probably there was one single language of mankind back in the stone age; may be, but the possibility is little, that at least a few original languages were spoken in place of one single; but that really is not worth counting, because if a single language existed, it would not take it even longer than a century to develop dialects in various regions.





Previous Page Next Page

Home - About Me - My Interests - Photo Gallery - Favorite Links

e-mail me: