History of languages: from Argh to Zillions of languages

Many thousands of years ago, on a bright Wednesday afternoon, we, little humans, have started uttering mumbles, grunts and groans. Meaningful ones, I mean. It was so long ago though that no oral tradition nor, even less, any written record of our speaking debut can be retrieved. As a matter of fact, if you ask some eminent historical linguistics specialists about when exactly, how and why we started having meaningful conversations, they will be able and even eager to tell you what most probably happened; but not even the best archeologist of our present times will be able to come up with material evidence to support any of what we unfortunately have thus to call speculations.

Time has passed – a lot of time in fact based on our lifetime span scale – and not a single witness remains to give us a detailed account of the history of languages. All we can be about one hundred percent certain of is that the very elaborate communication systems we now rely on to go about our modern days rely on the language foundations laid down by other little humans before us.

Of course, we all still like to mumble a few incoherent sounds now and then. We do that when we encounter a small annoyance like tripping over the curled-up corner of a rug or when we are for some obscure reason unable to start our car’s engines in the morning. (I don’t know you, but I can be quite eloquent with very little means of expression in this kind of situations …) We also use grunts to express our surprise, acceptance, refusal, joy, etc. Still, so as to exchange amateur weather observations or to discuss abstract, brilliant philosophical ideas, we now usually complement our basic, guttural sounds with much more sophisticated language tools.

History of languages at its peak

We’ve in fact built upon the invention of meaningful grunting as much as we’ve built upon the invention of wooden squared wheels. After thousands and thousands of years, mastering the physical and intellectual skills needed to speak to each other has allowed us to transform the world around us into a much more complex one and therefore a much more interesting one to live in. As incredible as it may seem, we are for example in the process of trying to chit-chat with aliens. In 1977, the NASA launched two satellites, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. On board of each of these big bottles thrown into space is to be found a golden record of, among other important messages, our greetings to our alien neighbours in fifty-five different languages …

You may think that fifty-five languages is a big number, but it is small in comparison to the 7,106 living languages listed by ethnologue.com as of May 2014. Some are still arguing that this diversity has sprung from only one language at the beginning. One sure thing is sure at least: we’ve created a lot of different communication systems, both oral and written, all around the globe and it is a fascinating realm to explore.

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