History and Information on Languages and Linguistics Part 1

About information and history of the languages of the world, linguistics info such as oldest, newest, most number of speakers, and a list of Indo-European languages.


In the Tower of Babel: Human Languages

Language is one of the most distinctive differences between human beings and other animals. The origin of human speech, thought to have developed somewhere between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man, still remains a mystery. Anthropologists tell us that Neanderthal man had a pharynx too short to produce the sounds of human speech, but by 40,000 B.C. Homo sapiens had evolved a vocal tract with this amazing capability. Writing may be equally old. A Cro-Magnon bone, which scientists date from 30,000 B.C., has been found bearing intentional markings indicating an effort of some sort to communicate through writing.

There are now more than 3,000 languages in the world. An exact figure, however, is impossible to determine, partly because linguists tend to disagree on exactly what constitutes a language. Generally, when dialects are no longer mutually intelligible, they are considered to be separate languages. A dialect may also be considered a language if it is used in books and newspapers.

More people speak Chinese (800 million) than any other language--more than double the number speaking English (300 million), the world's 2nd most prevalent language. Hindustani, the 3rd, is spoken by 200 million people. This number includes those who speak Hindu in India and Urdu in Pakistan; the latter is derived from Hindustani but uses the Arabic alphabet.

Russian is spoken by 190 million people; Spanish by 160 million; German, Japanese, and Indochinese have 100 million speakers each; French, Arabic, Bengali, and Portuguese 75 million; and Italian approximately 55 million. More than 100 languages are spoken by over a million people each.

Chinese is not only the most widely used, but the oldest living language, dating back more than 4,000 years. Chinese writing is ideographic: that is, each character represents the object that is being described as opposed to the sounds made when the word for it is spoken. Recently the Chinese Government introduced a system to replace the 4,000 basic characters with the letters of the Roman alphabet.

The oldest known written language is Sumerian, which originated in Mesopotamia around 3,500 B.C. It was written in cuneiform script, whose symbols stand for the sounds made by syllables.

The North American Indian languages were unwritten until 1821, when a Cherokee named Sequoyah developed an alphabet of 86 phonetic symbols for his language. (See: Footnote People in U.S. History)

About half the world's population speaks a language originally derived from Indo-European, which was spoken as early as 4,000 B.C. Scholars assume it originated in the central part of the Euro-Asian continent and in a temperate climate, because the languages descending from it all have words for cold, snow, and winter, but none for tropical plants and animals such as rice, tiger, or palm. The Indo-European family includes: the Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian tongues); the Romance languages descended from Latin (Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese); the Celtic group (Gaelic, Scottish, Welsh, and Breton); Greek; and the Balto-Slavic languages. There are 19 other language families including Hamito-Semitic (Aramaic, Hebrew, Berber, Coptic), Ainu (Japanese), Mongolian, Manchurian, African, and Amerindian.

Among the newest languages is New Guinea Pidgin English, which has developed into a language in less than 100 years. The term "Pidgin English" comes from a corruption of the words "business English." Found in newspapers and books in New Guinea, this language--which combines English and Portuguese with bits of German, Bengali, French, and Malaysian--has a picturesque relationship to standard English. The phrase for butter is "cow oil." Hair translates as "grass belongs head." And envelope is "pants belong letter." For the future tense the word "bimeby" is used, and the past is indicated by adding the word "finish."

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