Return to Translate Me Home Page

Language Begginings

The origins of language are far from clear and there are a variety of views and theories held. But language origins offer fascinating stories.

Alphabet - the word itself comes from the first the two Greek letters; alpha and beta.

The First Speakers
Using plaster casts of the remains of ancient man, anthropologists have tried to estimate when human skull's and vocal tracts became suitable for speech. Even Neanderthal Man, who lived between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, may not have been able to produce the range of sounds found in known languages. Homo sapiens sapiens, first appeared about 35,000 years ago; and this has led some anthropologists to conclude that speech developed some time between then and about 20,000 years ago. Unfortunately, these conclusions tell us nothing about origins of language. Between the dawn of modern man and the earliest reconstructed spoken languages is a gap of at least 20000 years.

Most European languages, as well as many of those of southwest Asia and India, belong to a single linguistic family: Indo-European. Together they form the largest group of spoken languages; more than 80 in all. No written evidence of parent language has been found, but scholars have reconstructed parts of it by comparing the of the group as a whole and have called the parent tongue Proto-Indo-European. Opinions differ on where the Proto-Indo-European was first spoken. Some scholars believe that it was the language of farming peoples in an area of north-western Europe around 4000 BC. Others assert that it was spoken by nomadic tribes who ranged across south-eastern Europe and southern parts of Russia.

Where Writing Began
The earliest known examples of writing are forms of picture writing, found on clay tablets in parts of the Middle East and south-eastern Europe. The pictures—such as a foot, which represented the idea of walking—were drawn on the clay when it was soft. The tablets were then baked in the sun, and many of them have now been found in what are now, Iraq and Iran. The tablets—the earliest of which date from around 3500 BC—mostly record land sales, business deals and tax accounts. Symbols from this period have also been found on clay tablets in Romania.

In addition, archaeologists have found even more ancient tokens at sites in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. The tokens are marked with symbols which appear to represent numbers and specific objects such as animals and garments. The tokens date from about 8500 BC—some 5000 years before the accepted date for the invention of writing. But scholars are divided on whether the symbols are a form of artistic decoration, or whether they qualify as the beginnings of a written language.

How Writing Developed
Pictures form the basis of all the earliest known examples of writing. The symbols used as simplified pictures of the objects or people referred to, such as 'sun' or 'king'. But other symbols were also needed to express more abstract ideas such as 'love' or 'happy', and since these could not be drawn directly, early writers borrowed or adapted symbols from those already in use, usually with additional marks to help to distinguish between them. The early deciphered scripts—among them the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia, and early Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphics—all developed symbols for abstract concepts in this way. The word cuneiform is from the Latin cuneus, meaning 'wedge', and cuneiform script is so called because of its wedge-shaped outlines, made by scribing on wet clay with reeds. ' Hieroglyphics' from Greek words meaning 'sacred writings (or carvings)'.

These pictorial scripts later gave way to writing in which the symbols themselves came to stand for the words themselves, rather than the things the words represented. And the pictorial element disappeared or became marginal. Symbols of this kind called logograms, and include the modern English symbols &, =, + and % as well as all the numerals.

Next, symbols were used to stand for the sound of a word, or the various syllables in it. Such systems are called syllabaries and came into use alongside or as an alternative to logograms in many cultures. The first syllabaries were developed in the Middle East in about 2000 BC. Chinese characters—descended from a form of picture writing first devised in about 1500 BC—still combine symbols for words and symbols for syllables, and are often called logo-syllabic for this reason. Japanese script, however, which developed from Chinese in about AD 800, is wholly syllabic. The Japanese script, known as kana, is still in use.

The last major step in the development of writing was form the syllabary to the alphabet. Syllabaries were an advance over picture writing and logograms in that they broke down a language into simpler units and vastly reduced the number of symbols in use. Alphabets took this process of simplification further—breaking down the language into individual sounds. Alphabets seem to have been invented only in the West, beginning with the early consonantal alphabets of the eastern Mediterranean in about 1700 BC, followed by Greek—which added separate symbols for vowels as well as consonants.

All the alphabets in use around the world today can be traced back to the North Semitic alphabet which emerged around 1700 BC at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. From this alphabet developed Hebrew, Arabic and Phoenician. The Phoenician alphabet was adopted and adapted by the Greeks, who introduced it into Europe in modified form around 1000 BC. The Greeks standardised the direction of the written lines to read from left to right and added some symbols for vowels. The Greek alphabet in turn gave rise to both the Roman alphabet now used in all modem Western European languages (including English) and the Cyrillic alphabet. Cyrillic—devised by two Greek missionaries, St Cyril, and St Methodius, the 9th century AD, and named after St Cyril—is now used in Eastern Europe. The North Semitic alphabet also gave rise to the Aramaic alphabet, which spread eastwards to develop into Asian alphabets such as Hindi.

The word alphabet itself comes from the first two Greek letters; alpha and beta.

The first known use of using regular lines along which to write date from about 2000 BC. Two Minoan scripts from Crete appear to have been arranged like furrows in a ploughed field, so that words ran alternately from left to right and right to left—known as Linear A and Linear B for this reason.
The Western habit of writing consistently from left to right down the page became establish in only about 1000 BC. Elsewhere, other patterns dominated. The Mayas of Central America, for example, wrote numbers in columns read from bottom to top. Arabs still write from right to left, and Arabic newspapers have their front page where the back page would be in Europe or North America. In traditional Chinese, words are arranged in columns rather than lines. The columns are read from top to bottom, and from right to left.


Children Who Invented A Language
In 1880, thousands of immigrants from Europe and Asia were brought to Hawaii to work in the island's new sugar industry. The result was linguistic chaos, because the immigrants—mostly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Portuguese—could understand neither the largely English-speaking owners not the native Hawaiians.

At first a crude pidgin English emerged as each group struggled to make sense to the others. But by about 1910—in other words within a single generation—a remarkably sophisticated language had developed. Known as Hawaiian Creole, the language included ready-made words from all the original languages in the islands' mix, but its rules of grammar bore very little resemblance to any of them.

Hawaiian Creole's astonishingly rapid evolution was studied in detail by Derek Bickerton, a professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii. And he came to the conclusion in his book, Roots of Language, that Hawaiian Creole had been invented entirely by children at play. Only the children could have done it, Professor Bickerton argued, because there was no time for the the parents to have learnt the new language and passed it on. Indeed he pointed out, their parents did not understand Hawaiian Creole when it first appeared They had to learn it from their offspring.

The Mystery of Runes
The runic alphabet is one of the oldest in northern Europe, with most early examples dating from around the 3rd century AD. Long associated with magic and witchcraft, runes have been found in about 4000 inscriptions and a few manuscripts, mainly in Britain, Scandinavia and Iceland. Nobody knows for certain where the alphabet came from, but some scholars believe that it was derived from the Etruscan alphabet, used in southern Europe after about 800 BC, and that it was brought by the Goths during their invasion of the Roman empire.

Wolf Children
Children left in the wild or otherwise deprived of human contact do not learn to speak spontaneously, linguistic experts believe. There are now more than 50 recorded cases of 'wolf children'—mostly in India—who have been found living among animals. All were mentally retarded and unable to speak.

A report on a similar case in the United States was published in 1977. It concerned a young girl known as "Genie", who had been locked up in her home for 14 years—and who had since made some very limited progress in speaking.

Babies That Suffered For Science
More than 2500 years ago, two babies were kept in isolation for at least two years in a cruel experiment aimed at tracking down the world's first language. The experiment was carried out by an Egyptian pharaoh, Psamtik I, who ruled from about 663 BC to 609 BC. He believed that, without anyone to copy, children would instinctively talk the worlds 'original language'. So he put two new-born babies of poor parents into solitary confinement.

A shepherd was given the job of looking after the babies, but Psamtik insisted that nobody should speak in their presence. When, after two years, the shepherd reported that the children had begun to repeat a sound like bekos—the Phrygian word for 'bread'—Psamtik concluded that Phrygian was the oldest language. He overlooked the fact that bekos sounds very much like the bleating of a sheep—something the children had often heard. So the experiment proved nothing.

Request Quote from Translate Me