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On the Origin of Language

by Tom Thompson

The legend of the Old Testament that the people of Babylon tried to build a tower reaching up to heaven is a powerful one. Their ambition, as the legend goes, so offended God that he shattered the unity of their language, creating a confusion of incomprehensible tongues.

Whether or not there’s any truth to the Babel story, the possibility of a mother tongue has long fascinated linguists who search for the seeming similarities of words in otherwise seemingly unrelated languages. If the assumption of a “Proto- Human:” language is accepted, its date might be less than 200,000 years ago.

In more detail, the task is to look at the current state of language, and then tracing back through time, to try to find languages that are related. The questions are: What were the earlier stages of the language like? What did words mean, how did words used to be pronounced, and how were words put together in sentences.

It’s far from a crazy exercise. After all, analysis of mitochondrial DNA from the cells of various ethnic groups strongly supports the notion that all humans come from the same genetic stock. Using these methods, linguists have been able to establish the connections among languages which stretch from Iceland to India.

An easy illustrative example of the search for cognates between languages includes words like the Italian “luce” (light) and “pace” (“peace”), which appears in Spanish as “luz” and “paz.” Linguists derive rules for how sounds mutate over time and try to reconstruct ancient roots.

More complex is an example drawn by Don Ringle Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “You might take an English word like ‘tooth’ and see that in Hindi, it’s ‘dant,’ and by itself that doesn’t mean very much, but you take a look at English ‘ten’ and it shows up in Hindi as ‘das,’ and you see the same pattern emerging. You’ve got an initial ‘t’ in English and an initial ‘d’ in Hindi. When you find that the word ‘two,’ the numeral in English, shows up in Hindi as ‘doe,’ and you’ve got, once again, an initial ‘t’ in English, and an initial ‘d’ in Hindi, you begin to think that perhaps this not an accident.” One challenge in this process is in knowing which languages to compare since not all aspects of a language are relevant. The comparisons, for example, need to be eliminate chance resemblances and separate borrowings from native elements.

Barring time-travel the ultimate origins of human language will probably never be known. Still linguists have plowed ahead in arguing that the Indo-European languages – English, French, German, Spanish, and Greek, for example-- are related to Turkish and to Finnish and to Hebrew, along with many other languages as well, and that all of these languages probably have a common origin.

About the writier

Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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