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Where does language come from?

Deden | Antonio | Deden again | Antonio again | Vance

Deden raises an interesting question
November 24, 2000

Hello Webheads,

My name's Deden. I just wanna ask, where does language come from? How come humans can make language? Does it come from God?

I want your opinion. I think that if there was just one language in this world it would be great.

Antonio responds
November 25, 2000

Language is a valuable thing, and nobody knows exactly where it comes from, though people have found interesting things and made up interesting theories on where language comes from.

Some people say there was one mother tongue, which is called Indoeuropean, and all languages we know come from that language, yet I have never heard any theory on where Indoeuropean came from or how it was "invented".

I think languages exist because people exist, and people need to communicate, and languages were invented in order to satisfy this communication need.

Some languages are born and some others die. This is because languages are alive, just as are human beings, and they are alive because they are used by living creatures.

For example, Spanish comes from a mixture of Greek and Latin basically. This mixture was taken to different parts of the world and was used by different kinds of people. With time this mixture continued changing, because people who used it changed too, and it has been enriched with other languages as well.

Hope this helps!

Antonio Muñoz G.
México, DF

Deden responds to Antonio
November 27 2000

Thank you for your opinion...

I agree with you about language being valuable ...

I'm also interested in Indoeuropean. Does 'Indo' mean Indonesia or does it mean Asia?

Antonio responds
November 25, 2000

Indo comes, I think, from "India".

Vance responds
December 16, 2000

I'm working slowly through the very interesting topics raised on this list, and I'm surprised no one besides Antonio has picked up on "Where do languages come from?" And Antonio had some interesting things to say about the topic too.

I've been teaching and studying languages since I was 11 years old, and I know that this question has been not only asked but written about extensively. There are whole sections of libraries devoted to the two topics Deden raised: where does language come from? and are there any real language universals? (that is, concepts so 'human' that they are common to all languages).

There have been attempts by American linguists to show that American Indians thought of their world in ways very different to the way we do in English. It's complicated to explain (and perhaps not even correct) but it might be interesting to discuss on this list how different Webheads view their world through their native languages as opposed to how you can view, in the way you express concepts, in English.

I once visited the Esperanto museum in Venice. Esperanto was an attempt to create a language on mostly Latin roots that would be understood throughout Europe. Its creators succeeded in creating a language that almost no one understands, but as the museum shows, there has been an impressive amount of literature produced in the language. That was probably the strongest attempt to create a single language that Euoropeans could understand. Does anyone know of any other efforts to invent a language common to more than two groups? (It is common for 'pidgins' to form when two languages come together, but these are 'invented' by speakers as they attempt to communicate with each other.)

As for where language comes from, linguists, more recently psycholinguists, have been studying the topic for centuries. The famous American linguist Naom Chomsky showed how creative language is (how we are able to express unique ideas in ways not explained by behaviorist theory) but he concluded at one point that we all had 'black boxes' in our heads to generate language, and was criticised for that. We all know that children have the ability to learn languages easily, and that this ability is lost to us as we grow out of childhood. Accent is an interesting aspect of this; we can all develop accents perfectly as children, but as an adult you can never perfectly mimic another accent, or lose your accent when speaking a foreign language.

I know that this is a fascinating topic to many on this list. Do any of you have experiences where you found it easy to learn a language as a child, but lost the ability as you grew to adulthood? For example, my wife Bobbi lived in Mexico as a small child and spoke Spanish fluently, but can't speak it today any better than I can (I studied it later in life).

Can you think of any language concepts we all hold in common, or any that are completely different from one language to another? For example, I am taking an Arabic course now at the Alliance Francais and was surprised to learn that what we call a street in English is either a tariq in Arabic or le route in French, which is the road itself, or the shari' or la rue, meaning the street and its surrounding buildings. I was suprised not only because we don't make this distinction in English, but also that the distinction was common to both French and Arabic.

Thanks, Deden, for raising such an interesting topic, and Antonio for responding. For myself, I've just been very busy lately, but I hope my writing on this topic will inspire other Webheads to write as well, because we have so many languages among us.

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Last updated: May 24, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0