A Beautifully Told, Short History About Languages

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lang 1Languages are as diverse as the people who speak them. Well this is a figure of speech since we know for a fact that there aren’t 7 billion different languages, but nevertheless there are a lot. And from these many languages, linguists can trace another 8000 different dialects.

The Bible offers us a story about the Tower of Babel where everybody on Earth was speaking the same language. This was until they suddenly split into many groups and they weren’t able to understand each other, leading to the tower’s destruction. Now, scientists can’t be sure if this has any truth behind it or if humans spoke at some point only one language, but what’s for sure is that the many languages existing today can trace their roots to a much smaller number.

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Where do these differences come from? Why are there so many different ways to call the same object and why did this happen in the first place? Well, first of all, there weren’t so many people on Earth and those that existed, mostly lived in isolated tribes. These tribes often times split apart, in search for good hunting grounds or fertile land.

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Even if originally from the same tribe and basically, the same family, tribes became isolated due to large distances and various geographical obstacles like mountains and rivers, and in generations people started to evolve differently in terms of culture and language. Different living conditions, different climate, different food, different predators, different neighbors, all turn similar dialects into totally different languages over the span of many generations.

Linguists are trying to link up all of these languages and dialects, forming a tree of human speech. They have to take care of several traps in their research like borrowed words of false-cognates which could lead them on a false path. Grammar and syntax are a far safer course. By following these steps they can even reconstruct languages that have no written record and have been gone for thousands of years. These dead languages, as well as the ones existing today, can even tell us what the people who were speaking them valued in their lives.

This short video made by Alex Gendler in collaboration with TED-Ed can shed some light on the matter!