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Tracing the History of Languages

With over five thousand languages spoken on this planet, how could they ever be traced back to a common root language? Where did it all begin? Was there ever just one universal language? According to the Old Testament’s tale of Babel, there was but one method of speech. Biblical legend has it that the people of Babylon decided to build a tower to heaven but their ambitious nature so greatly offended God that He destroyed the harmony of language. This created a monumental confusion of unintelligible tongues. Verbal communication became impossible. Henceforth, the tower was known as Babel, derived from the Hebrew infinitive balbail —to confuse (לבלבל). Like many legends, perchance, there is a smidgen of truth in the story of Babel. Another theory based the name Babel on the words babili – gate of god in Akkadien (a Semitic language that was spoken in Babylon).

Evidence can be uncovered through the analysis of the global language families such as Indo-European, which includes the English language. One begins by locating systematic parallels between these languages in grammar, sounds, inflection, and language syntax. The similarities must be exact and precise. Further, they must be interconnecting to claim—and deemed credible—that the languages are a part of one specific family.

By implementing a comparative method, linguists are able to confirm the networks of languages reaching from India to Iceland. This cluster of one hundred or so, languages are known as the Indo-European Language Family. Each can be linked to one of ten distinct branches, although some languages are now extinct. The main subgroups still in existence include Balto-Slavic, Celtic Germanic, and Italic. By scrutinizing the Germanic language family, we observe its evolution over time and eventually recognize modern languages of the present day such as Swedish, Dutch, Danish and English. By studying every language in this extensive group, linguists have reconstructed a theoretical familial language called Proto-Indo-European; likely spoken five or six thousand years ago.

The goal of historical linguists is to study the existing structure of a language, and then determine which languages might be related to it.  The criteria are that they descend from a common ancestor, and through comparison, the linguists trace it through time and attempt to discern the earlier stages of the language. They try to determine the definitions of the words, their pronunciation, and how sentences were formed. To a linguist, this is an enthralling endeavor since languages can shift unpredictably and in a variety of ways.  Linguists like nothing better than to scratch beneath the surface and discover the definitive proto-unity of languages prior to their divergence.

During the past twelve hundred years, the English language has changed so radically that Old English seems like a foreign language to us. However, due to its lengthy written history, English is an easy study for linguists. This is true for several Indo-European languages; making it, the most researched and well-studied language family in the world. There are one hundred languages making up the Indo-European family. Half the population of the world speaks one or more of them.

Clues to the past constantly surface as we compare and trace the world’s languages back in time. Language is the echo of the human race; only by learning its many variations can we truly know ourselves.


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