Here are answers to the top five questions asked about human languages, of which there are estimated to be over 7,100 spoken today, omitting blended languages (pidgins and creoles).
1. When Did Humans Evolve Language?
The assured results of modern science are that… no one really knows. There are, of course, many theories, including one offered by University of California Irvine prof Richard Futrell, covered at Discover Magazine:
As we got smarter and found more things we wanted to communicate, we ran into what Futrell calls a “simplicity bottleneck.” We couldn’t just keep adding more words. We didn’t need a lot of linguistic structure when all we needed to communicate was a few distinct calls to warn of predators or to attract a mate or threaten a rival,
“Our brains aren’t big enough; our lives aren’t long enough to learn them all,” he says.
At that point, if the computer models are correct, linguistic structure was inevitable. This may also, Futrell says, have led to a runaway evolutionary dynamic where an increase in the complexity of culture meant that people who had better communication had more evolutionary success; meanwhile, better communication led to even greater cultural complexity. Before you know it, you have 7,000 languages and mind-twisting conversations about quantum physics.AVERY HURT, “WHEN DID HUMANS EVOLVE LANGUAGE?” DISCOVER MAGAZINE, OCT 27, 2023
But just because we need something is no guarantee that we will have it. There is something missing from this computer-based theory, as there is from all materialist theories about the origin of anything.
2. What Is the World’s Oldest Language?
As for the oldest language that is still spoken, several contenders emerge. Hebrew and Arabic stand out among such languages for having timelines that linguists can reasonably trace, according to [linguist Danny] Hieber. Although the earliest written evidence of these languages dates back only around 3,000 years, Hieber says that both belong to the Afroasiatic language family, whose roots trace back to 18,000 to 8,000 B.C.E., or about 20,000 to 10,000 years ago. Even with this broad time frame, contemporary linguists widely accept Afroasiatic as the oldest language family. But the exact point at which Hebrew and Arabic diverged from other Afroasiatic languages is heavily disputed.LUCY TU, “WHAT’S THE WORLD’S OLDEST LANGUAGE?”SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, AUGUST 24, 2023
Some, she says, would add Chinese, which probably arose from Proto-Sino-Tibetan about 4,500 years ago or Tamil, to which some ascribe an origin 7,000 years ago. As she says, “bragging rights” and political considerations complicate the disputes.
3. Does Learning a Third Language Interfere with the Other Two Languages You Know?
It can interfere with the second foreign language (FL) to some extent. A recent open access study found that “ … learning a new language indeed comes at the cost of subsequent retrieval ability in other FLs. Such interference effects set in immediately after learning and do not need time to emerge, even when the other FL has been known for a long time.”
4. Are New Languages Still Getting Started?
New or greatly changed languages can get started when groups of people who speak different languages must learn to interact. That’s how the world’s many pidgins originated. Sociolinguist Phillip M. Carter thinks that the beginnings of something like that may be happening in Miami as English and Spanish speakers interact:
According to FIU research published in English World Wide, some expressions unique to the 305 are evidence a distinct dialect is emerging in South Florida. It’s the result of a common phenomenon that happens in other regions of the world when two languages come into close contact. In this case, Spanish sayings are being “borrowed” and directly translated into English — then passed down and used by generations who are bilingual.ANGELA NICOLETTI, “‘GET DOWN FROM THE CAR’ IS AN EXPRESSION YOU’LL PROBABLY ONLY HEAR IN MIAMI. NEW RESEARCH EXPLAINS WHY” FIU NEWS, MAY 11, 2023
However, the advent of worldwide communication has tended to favor the 25 dominant world languages at the expense of those spoken by only as few thousand people in one area.
5. Will AI Take Over and Introduce Some Sort of Uniquack?
Not so fast, says Optilingua Europe, a translation firm offering 100 languages:
Despite its many advantages, AI is far from infallible and still has many limitations in the field of translation. Indeed, this technology is not able to adapt the translation to the target readership. Nor can it consider local cultural norms and customs, the clients’ expectations, the style, the translation’s intention… These are essential elements in translation, to obtain texts that are respectful of the local culture, adapted to the target audience and faithful to the source text. Furthermore, while AI translation can be effective for the most common languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian, Arabic, etc.), it is much less effective for rare languages or dialects for which little data exists. In such cases, the AI will very often have to use English translation as an intermediate step, which may generate significant errors and misunderstandings.FRÉDÉRIC IBANEZ, “THE IMPACT OF AI ON THE FUTURE OF TRANSLATION,” OPTILINGUA EUROPE, 21.03.2023
As writer and editor Anthony Esolen observes, “Human language is by far the most sophisticated invention in the universe, and a book the most sophisticated “software”… beaming the thoughts of men long gone into your own mind, but not in a dead way, not in a deterministic way, but alive, suggestive, unpredictable.” It’s not realistic to hope either that we can easily explain its origin or simply reduce it to software.
Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.