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From thought to language
Communicating in Words

Help Link : Language and Evolution Link : Origin of language Link : À la découverte de l'origine du langage
Link : L'ORIGINE DU LANGAGE: une approche pluridisciplinaire Link : The Day We Learned To Think - program transcript Link : L'origine des langues
Original modules
History : The Anatomical Traces of the Emergence of Language During Hominization The Anatomical Traces of the Emergence of Language During Hominization

There are two main ways of classifying languages. Typological classifications are based on the resemblances between the languages to be classified, without regard to their origins. According to this principle, three types of languages can be distinguished. In inflected languages, such as French, the words in a sentence change form according to their grammatical relationship to one another. In agglutinative languages, such as Japanese, words are formed by the addition of affixes to a root. In analytic or isolating languages, such as Chinese, the words tend to be invariable.

In contrast with typological classifications, which do not address relationships among languages, genetic classifications attempt to group languages into families all of whose members derive from a common ancestor. These classifications are established by historical linguists, who analyze the evolution of languages through the methods of comparative grammar. These linguists compare words in different languages for similarities in sound (phonetics), meaning (semantics), form and grammar (morphology), and vocabulary (lexicology), then use various criteria to group the languages into families that have a common origin. This is the approach used by linguists who believe in monogenism.

About 6000 languages are spoken in the world today, of which about 1000 are spoken only by very small populations. It is estimated that nearly half of these 6000 languages are threatened because they are spoken only by adults who no longer teach them to their children.

The death of languages is not a new phenomenon. Linguists estimate that over the past 5000 years, at least 30 000 languages have been born and died, generally without leaving a trace. But today, the number of languages spoken in the world is declining at an unprecedented rate, so that over the coming century, 90% of the languages that exist now will likely disappear. There would then be only about 600 languages left that would have proven relatively durable. One of these, of course, will be English, which is spreading more and more widely and on its way to becoming the common language of the world.

Link : Lingua franca Link : La disparition des langues indigènes est une menace pour l'environnement, selon une étude onusienne Link : MASSE CRITIQUE, SEUILS ET MÉCANISMES D'AUTORENFORCEMENT DANS LA PROPAGATION DES LANGUES Link : ATLAS OF THE WORLD'S LANGUAGES IN DANGER OF DISAPPEARING
Link : The Tower of Babel Is Tumbling Down--Slowly Link : Où vivent les langues mortes? Link : L'aménagement linguistique dans le monde Link : Relationship Between Language and Thought from a Cross-Cultural Perspective


There are so many theories about the mechanism by which human language may have emerged that it's tempting to say that every researcher who has looked at this question has a theory of his or her own. But regardless of how language emerged, another question arises immediately: did it do so once, or many times? In other words, do all languages have a common origin, a proto-language that gave rise to all the rest, or did several different dialects emerge, at various places in the world?

This question opens another great debate about the origins of language and of the various languages. Those who argue for the multiple origins, or polygenism, of language, say that the first modern humans did not share the potential for the faculty of speech, and that only after they dispersed through migration did actual languages develop independently among various groups of Homo sapiens.

Map of human migrations based on populations’ mitochondrial DNA
(numbers represent thousands of years before today)

The proponents of polygenism base their arguments on events and behaviours that would have had little chance of occurring without spoken language, such as great migrations that would have required major planning and organizing efforts. From this premise, the polygenists have deduced, for example, that the peoples who left Africa and arrived in Australia about 60 000 years ago must have spoken a complex language before those who migrated to the Middle East.

The theory opposing polygenism is called monogenism. Its adherents believe that there was once one proto-language from which all current human languages subsequently derived. The monogenists include researchers such as the American linguist Meritt Ruhlen who have attempted to trace the etymological roots of today’s languages back to their one common ancestor.

The record of written languages does make it possible to use this method to trace the evolution of today’s languages back a few thousand years with a fair degree of certainty. In this way, scholars have constructed an actual family tree that shows how these languages are related to one another: Latin was the mother of French; Polish is a sister language of Western Slavic; Scottish and Irish are sister languages whose common mother is Celtic; the Indian languages are cousins of the Iranian languages; and so on.

Scholars have now reached a consensus on the existence of about 300 families of languages that date back some 2000 years. Opinions are more divided about the existence of some 50 “macrofamilies”of languages dating back approximately 5000 years.

But to go back beyond the beginnings of written language, which are really quite recent in the overall evolution of language, scholars must try to reconstruct proto-languages from today’s languages, which is far more difficult. That is why the thesis that there were 10 or 20 “super-families” of languages that began to diverge around 10 000 years ago is the subject of so much controversy.

You can imagine, then, the intellectual battles that broke out after the 1994 publication of Meritt Ruhlen’s On the Origin of Languages, which posited the existence of a single proto-language over 50 000 years ago! Ruhlen’s work was based, among other things, on analyses of population genetics that showed a high correlation between the genetic diversification of human populations and the diversification of the languages that they spoke.

But other studies have shown the the correspondences between genetic classifications of populations and genealogical classifications of languages are more uncertain than was once believed. The fact remains that even though Ruhlen’s work has been questioned on linguistic grounds, many people still endorse the key idea in his book: that all languages had a common origin. Among these proponents of monogenism, there are two major schools of thought.

The first changes in the neurons of the left hemisphere that accompanied the development of language faculties during hominization may have occurred about 100 000 years ago, or even earlier. But the truly explosive growth in these faculties most likely began with the evolution of the angular gyrus, about 50 000 years ago.

Scientists believe that articulate language as we now know it must have already appeared 50 000 or 60 000 years ago, because it was then that the various human ethnic groups became differentiated. But all these groups still retain the ability to learn any language spoken anywhere in the world. Thus a Polish or Chinese immigrant to New York City ends up speaking with a New York accent, and vice versa, which just goes to show that all of us have inherited the same linguistic potential.

History : Hominization, or The History of the Human Lineage Link : Le cerveau humain et les origines du langage

Languages evolve and change imperceptibly. In Old French, for example, the word “hospital”meant just what it does in modern English. But in modern French the “s” has been dropped, and the word is written “hôpital”, with the circumflex accent over the “o” to mark where the “s” used to be. Another way that French has evolved is by adopting English words, such as “cowboy” and “leadership”. Thus exchanges with other cultures can also influence the evolution of a language.

A language can evolve significantly in the space of a few centuries. Just slightly more than 600 years separate today’s English from the Middle English in which Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, and modern French from a language called Old French that is now intelligible only to scholars. If you go back still further in time, you find that French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian all evolved from Latin. When languages have left written records, we can thus sometimes trace them back a few millennia, as in the case of Indo-European, one of the first known families of languages.

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