The history of language
Words on the brain: from 1 million years ago?
All social animals communicate with each other, from bees and ants to whales and apes, but only humans have developed a language which is more than a set of prearranged signals.
Our speech even differs in a physical way from the communication of other animals. It comes from a cortical speech centre which does not respond instinctively, but organises sound and meaning on a rational basis. This section of the brain is unique to humans.
When and how the special talent of language developed is impossible to say. But it is generally assumed that its evolution must have been a long process.
Our ancestors were probably speaking a million years ago, but with a slower delivery, a smaller vocabulary and above all a simpler grammar than we are accustomed to.
Origins of language
The origins of human language will perhaps remain for ever obscure. By contrast the origin of individual languages has been the subject of very precise study over the past two centuries.
There are about 5000 languages spoken in the world today (a third of them in Africa), but scholars group them together into relatively few families – probably less than twenty. Languages are linked to each other by shared words or sounds or grammatical constructions. The theory is that the members of each linguistic group have descended from one language, a common ancestor. In many cases that original language is judged by the experts to have been spoken in surprisingly recent times – as little as a few thousand years ago.
Linguistic groups: from 3000 BC
The most widespread group of languages today is the Indo-European, spoken by half the world’s population. This entire group, ranging from Hindi and Persian to Norwegian and English, is believed to descend from the language of a tribe of nomads roaming the plains of eastern Europe and western Asia (in modern terms centring on the Ukraine) as recently as about 3000 BC.
From about 2000 BC people speaking Indo-European languages begin to spread through Europe, eventually reaching the Atlantic coast and the northern shores of the Mediterranean. They also penetrate far into Asia – occupying the Iranian plateau and much of India.
Another linguistic group, of significance in the early history of west Asia and still of great importance today, is the Semitic family of languages. These also are believed to derive from the language of just one tribal group, possibly nomads in southern Arabia.
By about 3000 BC Semitic languages are spoken over a large tract of desert territory from southern Arabia to the north of Syria. Several Semitic peoples play a prominent part in the early civilization of the region, from the Babylonians and Assyrians to the Hebrews and Phoenicians. And one Semitic language, Aramaic, becomes for a while the Lingua franca of the Middle East.
Language and race
A shared linguistic family does not imply any racial link, though in modern times this distinction has often been blurred. Within the Indo-European family, for example, there is a smaller Indo-Iranian group of languages, also known as Aryan, which are spoken from Persia to India. In keeping with a totally unfounded racist theory of the late 19th century, the Nazis chose the term Aryan to identify a blond master race. Blond or not, the Aryans are essentially a linguistic rather than a genetic family.
The same is true of the Semitic family, including two groups which have played a major part in human history – the Jews and the Arabs.
Enclaves of language
On a Linguistic map of the world, most of the great language families occupy one distinct and self-contained territory. The two exceptions are the Indo-European and the Finno-Ugric groups.
In modern times the Indo-European languages have spread across the globe – to North and South America, Australia and New Zealand – as a result of European colonialism. But the intermingling of Indo-European and Finno-Ugric, forming a patchwork quilt across Europe, has come about for a different and earlier reason.
Finland, together with Estonia on the opposite shore of the Baltic, forms one isolated pocket of the Finno-Ugric group (the Finno part). Hungary is another (the Ugric element).
The cause of this wide separation is the great plateau of Europe which Finno-Ugric and Indo-European tribes have shared and fought over through the centuries. The ancestral language of the Finns, Estonians and Hungarians was once spoken in a compact region between the Baltic and the Ural mountains, until these people were scattered by Indo-European pressure.
Latin and German: from the 5th century
Over the course of history languages continually infiltrate each other, as words are spread by conquest, empire, trade, religion, technology or – in modern times – global entertainment.
A good surviving example of this process is the line in western Europe dividing the Romance languages (those deriving from a ‘Roman’ example) from the Germanic tongues. The Romance family includes Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian (the result of a successful Roman campaign in the 2nd century AD). The Germanic group is English, Dutch, Flemish, German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic.
This linguistic division exactly reflects the influence of the Roman empire. Italy, France and the peninsula of Spain were sufficiently stable regions in the Roman world to retain the influence of Latin after the collapse of the empire. The Germanic areas east and north of the Rhine were never fully brought under Roman control (the exact linguistic dividing line survives in modern Belgium, with its population speaking French in the south and Flemish in the north).
England was safely within the empire for three centuries. But the Romanised Celts were not strong enough to resist the invading German tribes, the Angles and the Saxons. Their languages prevailed in the form of Anglo-Saxon.
Modern English occupies a middle position within the western European family of languages, with its vocabulary approximately half Germanic and half Romance in origin.
The reason is not Britannia’s relatively fragile position within the Roman empire. The cause is more recent, in the Norman conquest. After seizing northwest France and adopting the local language, the Normans arrive in England with French as an essential part of their cultural baggage. Several centuries of rule by Norman aristocrats and bureaucrats bring Latin words back into the language of England through the medium of medieval French.
The ongoing struggle between languages is a process very similar to evolution. A word, like a gene, will travel and prevail according to its usefulness. A word’s fitness to survive may derive from being attached to a desirable new invention or substance, or simply from being an amusing or useful concept.
‘Aspirin’, coined in 1899 by its German inventor from the opening letters of Acetylirte Spirsäure (acetylated spiraeic acid), immediately became an international word. In a less serious context ‘snob’, first given its present meaning in English in the mid-19th century, is now naturalized in a great many languages.
As with evolution, the development of language is an irresistible force – though traditionalists invariably attempt to build barriers against change. The useful word ‘hopefully’ (long available to Germans as hoffentlich, and meaning ‘it is to be hoped that’) has in recent years been steamrollered into the English language by the public against howls of protest from the purists.
On a grander scale, the French government from time to time legislates ineffectually against English words straying into French. These are the hybrids described as franglais. A good example of their impertinence is the enticing notice on a tweed jacket seen in a Parisian shop window: Très snob, presque cad (very snob, almost cad).
The French neurosis about being tainted by English (though the intrusion is trivial compared to the overwhelming effect of Norman French on English in the past) is linked to a wider aspect of the evolutionary struggle between languages.
A major advance for any language is to become a Lingua franca. Almost invariably the result of power and prestige, this status is achieved by French after the heyday of France’s international influence under Louis XIV. In more recent times English – first through the British empire, but more significantly through American world dominance in the 20th century – has replaced French in this role.
English in the late 20th century is in the fortunate position of being the lingua franca at an unusual moment. For the first time in history a global language is needed for practical purposes (by scientists, by airline pilots). Meanwhile a communication system is in place to spread some knowledge of the English language to a mass international audience through radio, television and the internet.
The imperial power underpinning American English as a lingua franca is for the first time cultural and economic rather than military.
The pattern of history insists that English is not likely to be the world’s final lingua franca. Others will come and go. It is also true to say that the predominance of English depends on its spread rather than the total number speaking it.
Chinese is spoken by more people than English (albeit in only one region of the world), and Chinese economic power lies in the future. But the complexity of Chinese perhaps makes it an unlikely rival candidate. One of the great advantages of English is that it is easy to speak at a simple level, though immensely complex in its idiom.
New languages from old
Meanwhile the evolutionary processes go on. Already there are many varieties of English in use. The pidgin English flourishing in New Guinea is baffling to an outsider; originally devised as a practical business language, reduced to its simplest elements, it has evolved its own rich character. In the same way English-speaking communities in the West Indies or in India (not to mention America) have developed local words, phrases and constructions which give their own version of the language a special colour.
The astonishing proliferation of Indo-European languages from one tongue, just 5000 years ago, will not be repeated in our more interconnected world. But the tendency of language to evolve continues unchecked.