June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The History of Language

6 min read
speech bubble

Historians agree that humans (in whatever form) have been communicating with one another since the beginning of time. Communication, of course, includes everything from a waving arm (body language) to a shout (spoken language) to a social media post (written language).

Body language has existed since humans had limbs. But since when have our spoken and written languages existed? The history of the written language is clearer, for obvious reasons. The history of the spoken language is still a matter of debate.

The History of Language: Speech

Could our ancestors speak? Yes, they could. We know because the oldest human fossils show they had the “instrument” for speech: a vocal tract. The vocal tract is made up of the mouth, tongue, and throat.

sound waves

However, animals have vocal tracts as well. Until now, we can tell how animals feel and what they want to do because of the sounds they make. What, then, makes humans different?

Over the last few thousand years, human beings have turned distinct sounds into patterns with meaning. Not only does a sound become a letter or character, a string of sounds becomes a word. A group of those distinct sound-strings becomes a sentence. These sentences have their own order and logic. They can even be put together to form paragraphs.

These distinct sounds are called phonemes. There are around 100 phonemes existing, if we put all the languages of the world together. For some time, linguistic scientists and historians have tried to discover how different phonemes grouped themselves together into language families. Each one of today’s 6,000 distinct languages combine an average of 50 different phonemes to create the sounds we associate with them.

different languages

A recent study by a New Zealander, Quentin D. Atkinson, sheds some light on the matter. This biologist grouped all the phonemes in the world together, all 100 or so of them, and looked for the languages that had the most share of phonemes.

Atkinson discovered that there were, in fact, languages that still had over 100 phonemes. They were from the Khoisan language families spoken in Africa. These languages use even clicks of the tongue as part of their phonemes.

From this starting point, Atkinson traced the spread of languages by how many phonemes each one had. He found out that the further a language was from Africa, the less phonemes it had. The count was so precise that the languages of Oceania, the farthest region from Africa in terms of migration patterns, had only 13 phonemes, the least in the world.

Atkinson suggests, through his findings, that there was only one original language group, and that it came from Africa. As people moved and spread out from Africa between 60,000 to 10,000 years ago, they lost phonemes as their language adapted to their new needs and experiences.

African continent, African languages

This is only the latest of theories about our spoken language. Until now, the history of language when it comes to speech is still a thread that scientists and historians are trying to unravel.

Fun Facts

There are two facts historians agree on: over a third of all the distinct languages in the world are spoken in Africa, and the largest language group right now is the Indo-European family. Africa has preserved the most languages because of the relatively large size of the continent and the least need to speak other languages (not as much international trade and tourism). On the other hand, the Indo-European family of languages has spread to the most regions because of conquest.

The History of Language: Writing

If the history of language through speech is about sounds given meaning, the history of language through writing is about symbols given meaning. There are three systems of writing that spread independently of each other: one in the Mesopotamian region, one in Mesoamerica (Mexico downwards), and one in China.

Earth and Clay: Mesopotamian Cuneiform

Mesopotamian cuneiform was invented and in popular use by 3200 B.C.E, in Sumer (modern-day Iraq). It is the oldest known written language. Even more impressively, its history is so complete that we can even see how items became symbols, and symbols became script.

Mesopotamian cuneiform script

The first symbols for words were literally clay tokens, used in 8000 B.C.E. Those tokens, molded into distinct shapes, were used as an accounting tool for traders. One disc would mean one unit of measurement; one cone would mean another unit of measurement. Even the goods themselves were represented by small clay tokens.

Molded clay tokens were just a step away from drawing the token symbols in the clay itself, although it took them 5,000 years to find out. You could use a single flat piece of clay to draw two discs (circles) and three cones (triangles). Better yet, you could smoothen out the clay and use it again for another kind of communication. These traced signs were called pictographs, and they were in use from 3500 to 3000 B.C.E.

Pictographs were generally a written language based on what was seen. However, maybe to simplify the hundreds of thousands of distinct objects into a smaller collection of symbols, the phonetic written language was created. Symbols were made to represent sounds, and those symbols were put together to create words, sentences, and literary systems. Mesopotamia was the only place in the world to have such a system by 3200 B.C.E.

The Oracle Bones: Chinese Etchings

The oldest known artifacts with early Chinese symbols on them are oracle bones dating between 1800 to 1200 B.C.E. However, because the symbols were already highly developed, in wide use, and had multiple distinct patterns, historians believe writing in China started even before 2000 B.C.E.

Chinese script, oracle bones

The 2,500 to 3,000 distinct characters were etched on bone, giving them the unique squarish, line-based construction we know today. In fact, those ancient characters were so widely used that they can still be recognized today, despite the simplification of the Chinese script.

Unlike the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, the Chinese script was primarily visual. It used one character to depict one simple word. For more complex thoughts, the simple characters would simply be grouped together. For example, the English word “sibling” is one word, one concept. The Chinese depiction of “sibling” is four distinct words that encompass all possible brother-sister relationships.

Also unlike the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, the Chinese script never really became auditory. It was practically a system of drawings. It was designed so simply that any and all of the Chinese people, from distinct ethnicities and dialects, could read the same characters as if they were reading it in their own language. This was a technique of governance rather than literacy.

The majority language today, Mandarin, has allowed the Chinese characters to take on a more phonetic evolution. However, the origin of the language still clearly shows in how the characters are put together to express complex thoughts.

Stone Carvings: Mayan Glyphs

Mesoamerica, which stretches from central Mexico downwards, was home to some of the largest and most developed civilizations in history. One of the most well-known is the Mayan civilization, which was at its height from 300 to 900 C.E.

For the nearly 7 centuries of their existence, the Mayan civilization carved their history into stone. The fact that they began their civilization with a writing system, however, suggests to historians that they are using a system older than themselves. There is not enough evidence of this system, although they think the older Olmec civilization might be a possible source of this system.

Of the first three writing systems, the Mayan glyphs are the most complex. Single glyphs can be words or ideas. Glyphs can be used one by one, or in combination, to create different meanings. They can even be used phonetically or not, based on the context.

Unlike the Mesopotamian cuneiform and Chinese scripts, only 85% of the Mayan glyphs are known today, in whatever form. Part of the reason is that the Mayan elite guarded writing from the “commoners,” so it was never in widespread use. Another reason is that European conquest of South America led to the destruction of many scripts and pieces of literature that could have provided the key to the language.

Until today, Mayan glyphs are the only elements of the three oldest writing systems that have never been fully deciphered.

The History of Language: Ever-Changing

We adapt different words into our own lingua franca based on what we read, watch, and listen to. The widely-spoken languages we take for granted today might not be the ones our children’s children speak or learn. While the alphabet is not likely to fully change, different symbols or letter combinations might enter our dictionaries. And, of course, the meaning of language is never static.

All we saw was a snapshot of how spoken languages may have come to be, and how three writing systems grew and developed independently of one another. But the history of language itself is ever-changing.

What do you think? Join the conversation below!