The Origin of Language

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Linguists have long been interested in the origin of language. How did languages evolve? And what did the very first languages spoken on earth sound like? Linguist Gretchen McCulloch is hoping to give you some answers!

On, Gretchen McCulloch dives a little deeper into the origins of spoken language.

McCulloch states that according to a TEDx video, languages belong to language families that have the same ancestor, or proto-language, but as these languages have evolved in different directions, for example, because of migration, people today can no longer understand each other.

It is also stated that language families are determined based on grammar, syntax, and words such as pronouns and numbers.

The relationships between languages are what interests her most in the video, McCulloch says. The video tells the viewer that by comparing the abovementioned language features, linguists cannot only determine what languages are related but also how they have evolved and what language preceded them.

However, she states that similarities aren’t always that easy to spot. She gives the example of English and Ancient Greek: the Ancient Greek words for father, foot, far and five are pater, podos, per and pente. In English, all words start with an F, while all words in Ancient Greek start with a P; linguist are able to construct a proto-language based on if similar parallels in several languages.

The proto-language to many European and Indian languages, such as Latin, Gaelic and Hindi, is Proto-Indo-European. A more recent ancestor of English, McCulloch says, is Proto-Germanic, which encompasses Germanic languages such as Norwegian and Dutch.

The main difference between Proto-Germanic and the other Indo-European languages lies in sound. The sound changes that have taken place when language evolved from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic have been discovered by the Brothers Grimm (more commonly known for their fairy tales). An explanation of their discoveries can be found in the video below.

According to McCulloch, linguists have done a fairly good job in devising proto-languages –  they have already recreated 50 different proto-languages! However, she says the further researchers go back in time, the more difficult their work becomes. As all human societies in the world today use language, McCulloch believes the first genetically modern humans probably already had some form of language to communicate in. However, as writing was only invented 50,000 to 300,000 years later, there is no evidence on which research can be based.

The fact that language investigation is based on what McCulloch calls “pretty darn flimsy evidence” has long been known. In 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris already banned papers on the topic. Of course, people can now write freely about languages, but views on the origin of language or features of the first languages still vary. McCulloch does state that recently, interesting evidence has been brought to the table: new research has shown that new languages, like Nicaraguan Sign Language, are created by children that are given inconsistent linguistic input which they then try to organise. It is impossible to find out how languages were formed centuries ago, but McCulloch suggests that the ways of creating a new language might not have changed since then.

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