HistoryLanguages change very slowly so studying historical linguistics forces us to examine our history using a condensed time scale, thinking ‘long-term’ and ‘large-scale’ with the global perspective that is so valuable for sustainability studies. Historical linguistics examines the paths of human migration, the relationship between languages, and the changes in language resulting from conquest and changing socio-political, economic, and environmental fortunes of different human groups.
Language radiation & diversification
Languages evolve in an organic way, diversifying from simple origins (proto-languages) in a tree-like way that demonstrates descent with modification, much like evolving organisms.
The number of languages spoken today numbers 6000-7000, which is possibly quite close to the number of languages spoken during the Palaeolithic period at the time when the earth was peopled by about 15 million hunter-gatherers.
When people live in small communities separated by large distances or geographical barriers then the resulting isolation and lack of contact results in unique languages. We see this in the hundreds of Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia where peoples are mostly separated by long distances, and in New Guinea where they are separated by mountains and impenetrable forest. More familiar examples of language ‘isolates’ would be Japanese in the east and, in the west the Basque language that is spoken in northern Spain and south-west France. The history of isolates is often difficult to trace but then even closely related languages may be difficult to track back in history. So, for example, semitic languages date back to at least 4000 BP and around 2000 BP they were spoken across a region extending from today’s southern Turkey to Ethiopia in Africa possibly as an ancient subgroup of the broader Afro-Asiatic family of languages.
Related languages may be widely geographically separated as is the case with the Austronesian group which occurs from Madagascar through Indonesia to New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island, a consequence of the extensive sea migrations of the seafaring Austronesian people. Another well-known example is the dispersed northern European Uralic languages like Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian: surrounded by Indo-European languages the historical reasons for their current locations, presumably ancient migrations, remains a mystery.
Rate of change
About 10,000 years is sufficient time for all words in a language to be replaced or changed beyond recognition and this makes the interpretation of pre-history extremely difficult and it is clear that although widely-spoken languages often diverged to form new languages (as with the Germanic languages dispersed by agriculture) the reverse may also be true as languages like some of those in the Indo-European family, have coalesced.
Most language groups are however geographically and historically coherent there being about 20 language groups that are widely spoken. Among the best known and most prominent of these are the Indo-European group along with the Sino-Tibetan across eastern Asia, and the Dravidian in southern India.
In line with, or slightly later than, the development of evolutionary psychology, evolutionary linguistics was really only launched in the 1990s with a paper by Steven Pinker an Paul Bloom. Piecing together to evolutiuon of language is such a difficult and, until recently, controversial topic that it has only moved forward since the 1990s. Its evidence comes from brain damage, the way that children speak, chimpanzee behaviour and the genes of mice. Early debate has centred rund two assumptions. First, that language is uniquely human, separate from other cognitive abilities, probably with a dedicated region of the brain, and genes that encode grammar. It may have therefore arrived suddenly with a critical mutation. Second, Language is integrated with a nd dependent on other abilities and cognitive faculties. There is a connection to the skills and syntax used by chimps, even monkeys and parrots. It is a higher cognitive function arising from multiple sites and operations in the brain: it is not something we have but something we do and it is coordinated with many genetic settings. From the 1990s it has been the second view that has held sway.
Why does language evolution matter and what is it doing here among plants and sustainability? ‘Because the story of language evolution underlies every other story that has ever existed and every story that ever will‘.
Genetic clues about the past are transmitted by human reproduction, linguistic clues by cultural diffusion. Modern genetic anthropology (see Migration) is now revealing the ancient pehistoric paths of human migration, this evidence being combined with that of that of archaeology and comparative linguistics to recreate the past and trace linguistic lineages.
Today, of the approximately 230 languages in Europe only about 100 are widely-spoken, about half of these occurring in Western Europe. In contrast about 2,200 are spoken in Asia. One area of particularly high linguistic diversity is Papua-New Guinea, where there are an estimated 832 languages spoken by a population of around 3.9 million.
Once we go beyond the major languages of economic and political power, such as English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and a few more with millions of speakers each, everywhere we look in the world we find a vast number of others, belonging to many genetically distinct families.
Europe & the Indo-European language
European languages fall into three family groups: in the south and west are the Romance languages which developed from the Latin of the Roman Empire (essentially French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese); in the north, west and centre are the Germanic languages derived from Proto-Germanic (English, German, Swedish, and Dutch – Swedish is closely related to the other Nordic languages Icelandic, Danish and Norwegian); then in the east and south-east are the Slavic languages derived from Proto-Slavic (they include Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Belarus, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, and Bulgarian).
Similarities between these three and other groups suggest an earlier Indo-European language that gave rise to an extended group of languages including Germanic, Slavic, Italic (Latin, Romance and others) Celtic, Albanian, Iranian, Greek, Baltic, Sanskrit and Hindi (there are notable exceptions such as the isolates Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and Basque). This common origin and relationship is evident in the similarity of the words denoting numerals in the various languages:
The various Indo-European languages are now thought to be derived, in turn, from the common ancestral language Proto-Indo-European spoken by a particular people, the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
So, linguists suggest that, with the certain exceptions, the peoples of Europe, including those of Mesopotamia and northern India, speak languages of the Indo-European linguistic group which had a common origin in Proto-Indo-European. Current linguistic analysis suggests that the Proto-Indo-European language arose in about 7,000 BCE, probably spreading across Europe with the Neolithic farmers (or possibly the horsemen trading across the European steppes) and undergoing a rapid development about 3,000-4,500 BCE in the Pontic steppes above the Black Sea in southern Russia. This is supported by similarities observed in Greek and Hindu culture – not only the languages themselves, but their law, religious beliefs, mythology, music, and caste system.
Written language permits the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom as well as commercial transactions, laws and cultural tradition. Through most of history mastery of the written text has been a specialised skill held by few members of a society and requiring special training. It is the source of continuity and conservatism. The oldest preserved written literature in any Indo-European language are the sacred Vedas, the 2,500-year-old Rig-Veda and Atharvaveda of India written in Vedic Sanskrit.
It is likely that writing arose independently in Mesopotamia in about 3300 BCE (as cuneiform used successively by Sumerians, Akkadians, and Assyrians), in China c. 1500 BCE, and in Mesoamerica c. 400 BCE. Egyptian hieroglyphics first appear about 3000 BP persisting with the Egyptian state for a remarkable 2700 years, used mostly for commercial transactions and matters of state, before being replaced by the Greek after the conquest of Alexander in 332 BCE. This is probably the first a greatest example of the way a state and its language are mutually interdependent. Egyptologists believe that though the hieroglyphics underwent little change through this period the spoken language would have changed greatly. Writing and speech do not change with equal speed.
The Chinese written language, though not so old ancient as hieroglyphics, has lasted as long. Dating originally to the king and court of the Shang period it was fully developed and might date back much earlier than this. Like the Egyptian and Sumerian scripts it arose in a strongly centralised agrarian society, which is also true of the powerful kings of the Mayan culture that cultivated maize. No doubt writing assisted the recording of commercial transactions, taxation, legislation and other important social contracts. Chinese characters, like hieroglyphics, started out as pictures or pictograms representing physical objects on the path to more stylised representations of concepts and ideas as ideograms. Ancient Chinese writing, more than the Egyptian script, contains history, poetry and political commentary.
A cultural peak, as in the West, was reached a few hundred years BCE with Confucius, his follower Mencius, and Laozi, possible founder of Taoism. The successful Qin (pronounced ‘chin’, hence China) dynasty produced China’s first emperor in 221 BCE who employed a single written language and monetary system over an area covering the north-eastern part of today’s China. Like many other rulers from at least the time of the Egyptian Pharoahs, he was preoccupied with monumental buildings dedicated to the afterlife, constructing the now famous thousands of life-size terracotta warriors to guard his tomb. The Qin were followed for 400 years by the learned emperors and civil servants of the Han dynasty records being maintained on paper that was invented in the first century CE to replace the former bamboo and silk. Chinese administrators progressed through examinations based on classical texts, mostly the teachings and wisdom of former philosophers like Confucius.
Much of European history over the last 2000 years has entailed three major languages – Greek, Latin, and Arabic.
Greek culture was based more on written text than any language that preceded it. The categories of knowledge used in Greek culture and passed on in language have played a lasting role in the ordering of the Western world and its institutions. That does not mean, however, that language has control of our thought processes, we can always think what might be difficult to say.
Ancient Greek poet Homer, through his Iliad and Odyssey, written in about 700 BCE (and probably influenced in turn on the great written sagas produced by the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations) has had a lasting influence on the literature of subsequent generations. These two epic poems were written in a Greek alphabet derived from Semitic scripts and its modification would in turn give rise to Latin. The poems of Homer helped create a powerful shared culture, language, and national identity to the Greeks who called themselves Hellenes.
The great significance of an alphabet which, like Arabic, was derived from the Phoenician alphabet, is that, in addition to conveying meaning (like hieroglyphics) it also conveyed an impression of pronunciation. However, where an alphabet follows pronunciation then dialects (Attic was the dialect of the region around Athens while an Aeolic dialect was spoken on the island of Lesbos) will be written differently unless there are accepted conventions on writing and spelling.
Around 330 BCE Greece was overrun by Macedonians from the north who created an empire that extended from Egypt, across the Near East to the borders of India. Although this bloc would later fragment into three administrative blocs Greek, as koine (the common language) remained the official language of administration.
Disagreements had been festering for some time between the eastern and western churches but the matter was brought to a head in 1054 when the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius closed all Latin churches in the city as a response to the closure by Pope Leo of Greek churches in southern Italy refusing the Latin liturgy. Pope and Patriarch effectively excommunicated one-another confirming a deep division of the church based on differences in theology, language, and geography.
When the Roman empire was subsequently established across Europe Latin was spoken in the west but Greek retained in the east. With the decline of the Roman empire and rise of Christianity we are inclined to think of the retention of Latin in the Roman Catholic church but many of the early texts were written in Greek and when in 395 CE the empire divided into two it was Greek that was used as the written language in the eastern Byzantine empire administered from Constantinople, as equal to Rome, by the Greek orthodox church. This Greek portion of the empire would remain until taken by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Greek had been the major language of the eastern Mediterranean for over 1000 years.
An epic account of the past provides people with a common identity, culture, even a code of behaviour, and this is reinforced by the shared language of the narrative. The most powerful accounts of this kind are religious, that of Christianity expressed in both Greek and Latin, Judaism in Hebrew (also important to Christian and Muslims), Hinduism in Sanskrit, Buddhism in Sanskrit and Pali. But there is not always this religious connection. Among the many secular examples, apart from Homer’s works are the Viking sagas and English tales of King Arthur. For the ancient Romans it was probably the Latin Aeneid of Virgil.
The Latin language and alphabet of the Romans first appears in inscriptions dating to about 600 BCE probably derived from the Etruscans who dominated much of Italy until about 500 BCE and who had, themselves, modified the Greek alphabet. Unlike the Greek, written Roman Latin did not have local dialectical variations; Rome was a more hierarchical and administratively centred, and learning and influence was the privilege of a marked upper class. By 100 CE the various Italian languages had been subsumed by Latin and as the Roman Empire spread so Latin took the place of indigenous languages as occurred in France, Spain and Portugal. Few escaped although we know of the Basque language on the border of today’s Spain and France while Breton of Brittany probably arrived from Celtic Britain. The word ‘Latin’ is derived from the Roman word ‘Latium’ which was a district south of the Tiber River in Italy where ancient Rome was situated and Latin was spoken.
About 60% of the English words we use today are derived from the Latin used by ancient Romans. How did that happen? When the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, overran England conquered England their language of Norman-French, based on Latin, became the official language of politics, economics, religion, and the law usurping the Anglo-Saxon of the general population. Its Roman origin is revealed in the names ‘Romance language’ and ‘Romanian’. Many have been introduced by early scholars who used Latin as their first language or via the various Romance languages. A rough estimate is that of the 20,000 English words in relatively common usage about 10,400 are Latin, 5,400 Anglo-Saxon, and 2,200 from Greek. Latin is embedded in English in three forms: in their original form (e.g. per capita, vice versa, terra firma), absorbed into the language and taking English plurals (actor, impetus, error), or derived from Latin but with their own form and meaning (accommodation, efficient, available). Latin-derived words then spread across the world through the English-speaking colonies of the British Empire.
Rome derived much of its power from the administrative genius that controlled armies, surveyors, engineers, tax collectors, lawyers and all the other means of acquiring social power. Schooling was all in Latin and in order to advance socially Latin had to be learned. When a great fire broke out in Rome in 64 CE Nero had blamed and punished the Christians but within a few centuries Latin was the universal language of the Catholic church across western Europe.
The Roman advance across western Europe had been largely confined to a region to the south of the Rhine and in the fifth century CE the northern Germanic peoples (mostly Ostragoths, Visigoths, Sueves, Vandals, Burgundians and Franks) launched successful attacks, the last Western emperor being deposed in 476 BCE.
Romance languages of Western Europe
For a more in-depth discussion of Latin see the article Why Latin?
Latin had, however, left its mark. The Latin spoken in the south, especially in France, Spain and Portugal took on separate forms as the Romance languages. With Latin established as an international language of learning we see major scientific and literary works all in Latin including the works of Newton and Descartes, the terminology of medicine and biology, perhaps most obvious in the Latin of plant names. Much of the impetus for this had come from the Latin of the church and its schools that had persisted through the Middle Ages when English was of little consequence.
After the collapse of Rome, Latin remained the written language of scholars and clerics in Western Europe (in the eastern Byzantine Empire it was Greek) especially those educated in the monastery schools. The first major change occurred after Charlemagne (c.742-814) when in the early 11th century a language called Franҫois appears as the rudimentary French language we know today. Economic conditions in Europe improved and by the 11th century there were scholars outside the church, living as wealthy noblemen in castles and manors. Around this time then the first two Romance languages appeared: French in northern France and Provenҫal in the south. The 13th century saw the birth of Italian – at first in the poetry of the Sicilian court of Frederick II but later made popular through the famous poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), author of The Divine Comedy and a masterful wordsmith in both Italian and Latin. The Romance languages arose, it seems, because of the inspired work of educated men of the royal courts who were seeking new forms of written expression, so it was not necessarily due to changes in the spoken language. This was also a way of expressing local pride and avoiding the linguistic domination of the church. Over time these linguistic changes became a rallying point for political regionalism since languages only seemed to achieve acceptance when associated with a particular region, political faction, and literary tradition. Italiano was probably not fully entrenched until the mid 14th century.
As many as 25 (Roman)ce languages have been recognised in all, but only six are generally familiar: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, (Roman)ian, and Catalan.
Arabic is a semitic language of the Afro-asiatic group and closely related to Aramaic, Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Phoenician, the latter being the source of the written alphabet. Spoken today in Western Asia, Northern and southern Africa it can be traced to nomads and herders on the Arabian peninsula of the seventh century CE before the formation of Islam.
The Islamic faith of Muslims follows the teachings of the prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632 CE). The official or literary form of the language, based on that of the Qur’an, is called Modern Standard Arabic or Literary Arabic which is for any formal communication.
In 711 Muslim rulers conquered much of the land formerly held by Greece and Rome extending from Spain trough northern Africa and the Near East as far as Pakistan all united for several centuries under a single caliph but without strong central control. Though the political regions and the Arabic language have waxed and waned the religious belief has remained and spread in more recent times to Bangladesh, Indonesia, and southern Africa. During the Middle Ages much of the written classical learning once centred in the Mediterranean became focused in the Muslim world in Iraq’s Baghdad, Spain’s Cordoba and Toledo, Byzantium being a centre for the former ancient Greek philosophy. There was a lively intellectual exchange in the Muslim world between educated Jews, Persians, and Indian scholars.
As a consequence of the Crusades large areas of the Middle East were captured by Christians but in the thirteenth century Turkish Muslims regained much of this land together with that of the Mongols and former Arab lands, giving rise to the Turkish-speaking Muslim Ottoman Empire. What remained of the Byzantine Empire was also taken and the lands occupied until after WWI.
The written Chinese script changed little over 2000 years, its effectiveness as a tool of communication being reduced by the difficult characters, old-fashioned literary words, and many different modes of pronunciation. All of these problems were addressed in the twentieth century. In 1919 it was decided to replace the ancient and difficult literary language of Wenyan with the more accessible Baihua which was easier to learn, so it is the classical texts that now require special learning. To overcome the problem of diverse pronunciations the mode of speech used in Beijing and Taiwan called Putongua ‘The CommonTongue’ was adopted. Then the system of traditional characters was simplified (in China but not Taiwan) again making learning more straightforward.
The common spoken language of Putonghua is now taught in all schools and it is closely related in vocabulary and style to the simplified script of the written language.(p.236) There remain a few languages still spoken by minorities such as Tibetan, Mongolian and the Turkic language Uigur. The culture and language of minorities is generally supported provided the national language is also learned.
There is now a nationwide entrance examination, Gaokao, for universities and institutions of higher learning consistingof Chinese, mathematics, and a foreign language, usually English. In general China has been influenced far more by the West than vice-versa.
The future of language
In 1800 all countries of the world had a majority of illiterate citizens. The possession of reading and writing skills, a good education, and the accent of a ‘gentlemen’ was sufficient to establish a place of respect in society. Languages rise and fall with political fortune. In the period from 1945 to 1990 in a world dominated by the superpowers America and Russia, Russian was widely spoken being the language of choice in many countries that were under the Russian umbrella. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 Russian international standing quickly declined, no longer taught so widely and associated with a parallel decline in science, technology, and even athletics as demonstrated by its proportion of Olympic medals in recent times.
Today the CIA Factbook rates of world literacy at about 84%. Written languages are learned in school and used on a day-to-day basis with the choice of language being made almost invariably by government. We can expect this figure to rise towards about 95% and remain there. In language as in other spheres of life the world is becoming more democratic and the use of a global language, like a global currency, would undoubtedly facilitate communication by easing the stress of travel, facilitating commerce, aiding scientific communication and scholarship generally, helping to overcome misunderstandings and prejudices. Such advantages have not been sufficient to bring about rapid change. Between 1880 and 1907 fifty-three universal languages were proposed and in th 1890s one of these was the well-known Esperanto but it seems unlikely that an artificial language will assume dominance.
About 100 languages are used by countries for both education and administration(in 2015 there were 196 countries in the world). The five languages spoken by the greatest number of people are Mandarin (14.4%), Spanish (6.2%), English (5.4%), Hindi (4.7%), and Arabic (4.4%) and these are the ones most widely taught in schools.
Urban living encourages common forms of communication. In 1950 29% of the world population lived in cities, in 2015 it was 50%, and in 2050 UN Population Division estimates that this number will have risen to 70%. As the world becomes more interdependent and interconnected it will be those languages taught in schools and which play a global role in commerce that will prevail while isolated languages and rural dialects will lose their number of speakers and influence, thus facing extinction. At present there seems a general trend towards global administration in many areas including law and this parallels the old idea of a universal language or lingua franca and the old ideal of Esperanto as well as the idea of a universal humanity and morality that does not serve a particular group or universally unacceptable ideology. It is likely that over the next 200 years the number of cosmopolitan languages will reduce in number with most people being bi-lingual.
At present the most likely international language(s) of the future appear to be Mandarin and English but such matters rest on future political and economic power distribution. Western culture has dominated in science and this is indicated, for example, by recent moves to allow the description of new biological species to be in English rather than the traditional Latin, a near-cosmopolitan Anglo-American culture, and the favoured use of English in universities and by multinational companies across the world. In any case after about 200 years today’s 6,000 different languages may number closer to 1,000.
On the other hand there is strong support for the preservation of local languages and cultures. Interest groups of many kinds strive to establish their individual identity by devising their own communication systems. Even so societies that do not have a deep motivation to conserve their language seem doomed to extinction and that would appear to be the case for many of the native Australian languages.
If society were to be fractured by some kind of financial or environmental catastrophe that reduced electronic and other communication and organised schooling then more languages would probably appear – not unlike the way the mutually unintelligible Romance languages arose from Latin in Europe after the isolation of countries following the disintegration of the Roman Empire.
At present we have two general theses about language in the future. Firstly, though the languages we speak may be very different, the way we structure these languages lie in innate mechanisms that are likely to hold into the future. Secondly, we know that there is steady change in any language such that in 2000 years no language would look like those we speak today. The kind of change we will see probably relate to a decreased concern with grammar and formal structure and an increased attention to rapid and efficient communication of ideas.
40,000-8000 – Linguistic and pictorial representation well-established
3000 – First writing: Sumerian cuneiform, passing to Akkadia and the Assyrians
2900 – Egyptian hieroglyphics
1350 – Chinese pictograms
1000 – Celtic Goedelic (Gaelic) languages spread to Western Britain from Spain and Portugal
800-700 – Origin of the Greek alphabet; Homer writes the Greek epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey which become a national narrative
600 – Latin alphabet
449 – Germanic Angles and Saxons arrive in eastern Britain diplacing native Goedelic with Germanic Brythonic
323 – Greek koine used as language of administration in E Mediterranean
300 – Latin spreads from Italy to SW Europe
220 – Standardisation of written Chinese
100 – Standardisation of Latin
29 to 19 – Poet Virgil writes the Latin Aeneid which becomes a Roman national narrative
550 – Arabic alphabet
597 – Roman prelate Augustine arrives in Britain bringing from Pope Gregory the Christian faith and Latin (ignored after the departure of Roman soldiers) becomes first Archbishop of Canterbury
603-616 – Law of Ethelbert, the first Engish text written in the Latin alphabet
700 – Latin the administrative language in western Europe; Greek in the east
800 – Charlemagne (c.742-814) forms western empire uniting most of France, Germany and neighbouring countries and introduces education for the clergy based on classical Latin. He was king of the Franks and first Holy Roman Emperor uniting much of Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire
871 – King Alfred the Great begins the process of translating important Latin texts into English
879 – Standard written English based on West Saxon dialect
1000 – Japanese with Chinese kanji characters & syllabic scripts katakana and hiragana
1066 – Norman invasion of Britain with replacement of English for legal an administrative purposes by French and Latin
1350 – Italian written language. Nôm script in Vietnam
1390 – Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales launches an English literary tradition
1417 – Henry V changes from French to English in his correspondence
1450 – Korean hangul syllabic script
1476 – William Caxton’s printing office opens in London facilitating the transition from written dialect to standard English
1500-1700 – Gradual replacement of Latin as the official written language of international political relations. Rise of the nation-state, national languages and cultural traditions, periods of regional linguistic dominance in economics and politics as with French in the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715)
1604 – Publication of the first English dictionary
1652 – Arrival of Dutch in Cape Town and initiation of Afrikaans
1815-1945 – British Empire establishes English in colonies across the world
1990 -> – English the leading international language following British Empire at its height in the early 20th century, and American political, economic, and cultural influence
Though old words disappear from language as new ones appear, language is nevertheless cumulative. New interests and academic disciplines bring with them their own technical terminology. The number of plant words available to a physician of the 17th century would be far fewer than today. We now have a vast shared technical terminology related to individual plant structures – from anatomy, to pollen structure, all aspects of the plant reproductive process, not to mention the proliferation of words describing plant chemistry, biochemistry, evolution, physiology, development and much more. This is one major reason why it is no longer possible to be a complete polymath – someone who is fully conversant with all academic disciplines: teh range and depth of knowledge is simply much greater than ever before.