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.
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.
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 picturessuch as a foot, which represented the idea of walkingwere
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 tabletsthe
earliest of which date from around 3500 BCmostly 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 BCsome 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 scriptsamong
them the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia, and early Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphicsall
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)'.
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 charactersdescended
from a form of picture writing first devised in about 1500 BCstill 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.
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 furtherbreaking 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 Greekwhich added separate symbols for vowels
as well as consonants.
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. Cyrillicdevised
by two Greek missionaries, St Cyril, and St Methodius, the 9th century AD, and
named after St Cyrilis 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 leftknown 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 immigrantsmostly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Portuguesecould
understand neither the largely English-speaking owners not the native Hawaiians.
first a crude pidgin English emerged as each group struggled to make sense to
the others. But by about 1910in other words within a single generationa
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.
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
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.
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 Indiawho
have been found living among animals. All were mentally retarded and unable to
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 yearsand who had since made some very limited progress
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 bekosthe 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 sheepsomething the children had
often heard. So the experiment proved nothing.