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The Scrivener: The Invention Of Language

...it might surprise you to know, for instance, that English is related not only to German, French and Dutch but also to Persian, Urdu and Ukrainian...

Brian Barratt considers the beginnings of our most wonderful achievement - our ability to turn our thoughts into words.

Chimpanzees cannot speak but they do use a form of non-verbal language. They have over 30 grunts, squeaks, squeals and barks. Similarly, their cousins the Bonobos communicate with each other using a range of sounds. Researchers tell us that Bonobos also listen intelligently to each other.

Homo Sapiens, our lot, seem to have evolved in Africa 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Our cousins Homo Neanderthalis lived alongside us for a while but became extinct about 30,000 years ago for reasons we do not yet fully understand. There could have been a bit of interbreeding along the way. Can we safely assume that both humans and Neanderthals progressed beyond grunts and squeals to actual speech? If they did speak, what was their language? Was there ever a standard 'original' language?

We have to rely on what is left of bones, skulls, skeletons, weapons, artefacts and rock art, and to some extent genetics, for our knowledge of our distant forebears. According to a writer in Wikipedia:

The origin of language in the human species has been the topic of scholarly discussions for several centuries. In spite of this, there is no consensus on its ultimate origin or age. One problem that makes the topic difficult to study is the lack of direct evidence. Consequently, scholars wishing to study the origins of language must draw inferences from other kinds of evidence such as the fossil record or from archaeological evidence, from contemporary language diversity, from studies of language acquisition, and from comparisons between human language and systems of communication existing among other animals, particularly other primates. It is generally agreed that the origins of language are closely tied to the origins of modern human behavior, but there is little agreement about the implications and directionality of this connection.

From the 18th century onward, scholars have worked out that our own language, English, is one of many in what they call the Indo-European language group. There are relationships, for example, in words from ancient Roman Latin and ancient Indian Sanskrit. Common words such as 'mother' and 'father' have very similar counterparts in a wide range of European, Middle Eastern and northern Indian languages. In this context, it might surprise you to know, for instance, that English is related not only to German, French and Dutch but also to Persian, Urdu and Ukrainian.

The Indo-European languages might have developed from a theoretical language spoken in southern Asia about 7,000 years ago. However, the origin and development of some words goes back even further. The Washington Post reported on 6 May 2013:

A research team led by Mark Pagel at the University of Reading in England has identified 23 “ultraconserved words” that have remained largely unchanged for 15,000 years. Words that sound and mean the same thing in different languages are called “cognates”. These are five words that have cognates in at least four of the seven Eurasiatic language families. Those languages, about 700 in all, are spoken in an area extending from the British Isles to western China and from the Arctic to southern India.

15,000 years? Impressive, yes, but merely a tiny fraction of the time humans have been roaming the planet. The 'Out of Africa' hypothesis suggests that early humans gradually spread from Africa to other parts of the world. I think we can safely assume that 100,000 or more years ago they had rudimentary verbal languages to enable communication, identification, planning, organisation, and the expansion of intelligence, rather than being ape-like hominids who merely grunted, barked and squealed.

So-called 'Creation Scientists' who believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God have their own theory. It is based on the story of the Tower of Babel to be found in the book of Genesis, which was written about 3,000 years ago. We read in one website:

...Modern religious thinkers often suggest that the Babel story was a symbolic fiction—in short, a myth—intended to explain why different peoples of the world speak different languages. This criticism fails to account for recent evidence, from philology, history, and archaeology, that not only could the Tower have been built as described, but also that humanity did once speak a common language from which all other languages spoken today derive. (Reference needed)

Note that the final statement that there was once a single language from which all other language are derived, arising simply from the story of the Tower of Babel, is annotated 'Reference needed'. Readers who take the Bible literally believe that the Tower of Babel was built about 4,000 years ago. Scholarly citations are required to support the idea that humanity spoke its first and only original language a mere 4,000 years ago rather than when we moved out of Africa 60,000 to 125,000 years ago.

There is greater wisdom in the words of the scholars who compiled the first edition of Encyclopædia Britannica published in 1771. They created no entry for 'Babel' but wrote this in their extensive section on 'Language':

We shall not here enter upon any fruitless inquiries, with a view to discover if only one language was originally formed, or if any language that we are acquainted with has a greater claim to that much envied pre-eminence than others. We have seen, that the discovery of language is entirely within our reach, and evidently the invention of man; and therefor that the invention of different languages by different societies is extremely probable. But these different societies, in process of time, behoved to intermix by war and commerce, and their different languages would likewise become mixed. Hence during the succession of many ages, while the principles of language were not understood, many different languages must have been formed, while others may have sunk into oblivion, especially in those early ages before the invention of letters, which alone could preserve their memory.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2013


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