Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Word On Human Language


Indo-European Family: English is one of the 200 languages on this family tree, but this family does not hold the most languages, since human language shows a wide variation, Stephen R. Anderson writes: “Considering how widely the Indo-European languages are distributed geographically, and their influence in world affairs, one might assume that a good proportion of the world’s languages belong to this family. That is not the case, however: there are about 200 Indo-European languages, but even ignoring the many cases in which a language’s genetic affiliation cannot be clearly determined, there are undoubtedly more families of languages (about 250) than there are members of the Indo-European family.”
Image Credit: Minna Sundberg
Source: Linguistic Society of America 

An article, by Stephen R. Anderson, posted on the site of the Linguistic Society of America states that 6,909 languages have been catalogued, and about 200 languages have more than a million native speakers, with Chinese, Spanish and English in the top three. One-quarter of these languages have less than a thousand speakers who have not passed on the knowledge of their language to their children. This, language scholars say, puts these languages in a perilous position, thus marking them for extinction. That is, unless there is a revival.

In “How many languages are there in the world? Anderson writes:
Much pioneering work in documenting the languages of the world has been done by missionary organizations (such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, now known as SIL International) with an interest in translating the Christian Bible. As of 2009, at least a portion of the bible had been translated into 2,508 different languages, still a long way short of full coverage. The most extensive catalog of the world’s languages, generally taken to be as authoritative as any, is that of Ethnologue (published by SIL International), whose detailed classified list as of 2009 included 6,909 distinct languages. 
All of these languages bring to mind the biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9), which takes place after another significant event, The Great Flood. In the story, it says that God did not want humanity to act together, which speaking a common language would invite. Having multiple language thus became a means to divide (or confuse) rather than to unite (Tower of Babel, in Hebrew, מִגְדַּל בָּבֶל‎, Migddal Bāḇēl). Such is one view of language origins and its quick and immediate departure from a universal common language.

Another is the scientific view of slow and progressive evolution common to language scholars or linguists, who look for patterns and origins. The origins of human language is one of those hard problems not easily determined for reasons that everything to do with distance in time from the original source or sources. There are many theories, but no widely acceptable answer as to how human language become possible or originated. So, I will leave that debate to those interested in such questions. My interest is directed at what happened after human language developed and human speech in some form was evident and used as a means of communication.

One of the questions is what is/was the first known human spoken language? And when did this event take place? One theory of human language is that all language emanated from a single source during the long period of the Stone Age, the “Out of Africa” theory. anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. [see here, here & here.]

As for what early utterances of human pre-language are, we can get some examples from human babies. When we raise children we at first hear sounds that seem like incomprehensible babble, but even from this “babble” parents can soon decipher what the infant requires, either in the way of nourishment or nurture. There is communication, even though this might not be communication via language as we know and understand it. Yet, it is universal across all cultures; all cultures have some form of spoken words, giving meaning to utterances.

Yet, human egos common to academia can muddle things up. Whether languages are primitive or complex, prescriptive or descriptive, follow the principles of linguistic relativity, or are part of our biological imperative are less important issues for most people than is the ability of the language they use to communicate—that is, whether it meets the purpose of the native speakers using a particular language. Language might have many purposes for scholars who study it, and these might be interesting to locate the primacy of things or to further our knowledge, but for non-scholars like myself, it is to communicate a thought, an expression, an emotion, etc. Or in the most simplest human sense, to be understood. We can all agree on this, I think.

Moreover, there is agreement that spoken language preceded the written word, which was initially a communication of symbols. In short, written language is a more recent phenomena. Language scholars have uncovered, for example, records of written language, with the known oldest languages dating to the Third Millennium BCE, around 5,000 years ago with the use of Sumerian, Egyptian and Akkadian (i.e., Sumerian & Akkadian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic).

More written records of other languages have been found and given a certain date somewhat later than 2,500 BCE. One notes that there is a wide gap between spoken language and written language, which might be that the written word requires more complex systems of thought. Or it might reflect that no earlier records have yet been found in the rubble or layers of human history. Who can really say with utmost certainty?

I offer my view as a non-linguist—a simple writer interested in words—in a non-technical way. Humans initially and with great intent divided themselves into small groups, and that such groups formed around a common language. Later, the group expanded in a number of ways, including but not limited to: by conquest, by large families and by commercial trade. It might also be true that when religious belief became codified in written form, certain languages became more preferable than others in a desire for uniformity in practice. Such languages have a greater chance of survival.

For more, go to [LSA]

Ed Note: I have given the blog-site a bit of a makeover, updating it for 2016. Happy New Year one and all. I hope for a year of better things, including less rancor and ill will in the world, and more peace and good will. Not only among nations that have a long history of being adversaries, but also among individuals, including those associating on social media networks. Words and how they are presented do matter.

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