NTI is pleased to present this first installment in our Guest Poster series.
Our first guest poster, Zubin Doshi, is a friend who works in the internet content industry. His website can be found at ZubinDoshi.com. The following post, authored by Zubin, concerns the origin and formation of languages, and what we can expect in the future. It can be found on his website here.
A Brief History of Languages & Their Future
~ by ZUBIN DOSHI
How New Languages Form
New languages typically evolve when speakers of one language encounter speakers of another language. They start exchanging words and this medley eventually evolves into a whole new language. English is a great example of this. The Angles and the Saxons were tribes that each had their own language. Their encounter led to the birth of a new language: Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon speakers later encountered the French-speaking Normans. The linguistic fusion of French and Anglo-Saxon created an early form of English, which evolved into modern-day English.
Another example is Dutch and Afrikaans. Dutch-speaking settlers moved to southern Africa. Settlers who spoke German and French later joined them. These European settlers encountered native Africans who spoke languages such as Xhosa and Zulu. Indian and Malay laborers who spoke a variety of Asian languages were later added to the mix. Afrikaans is still very similar to Dutch but borrows heavily from the other languages spoken in South Africa. A third example is Spanish and Portuguese. They have the same Iberian Latin roots. They split as Spanish became much more influenced by Basque and Arabic due to geography and history.
A group of people that live close to speakers of other languages will see their language change quickly. Icelandic and Norwegian both started out as one language: Old Norse. A group of Old Norse speakers moved to the island that is present-day Iceland. They remained fairly isolated for centuries. Their dialect of Old Norse is what we now call Icelandic. Other languages only significantly influenced Icelandic when modern transportation and communications developed. As a result, Icelandic is still very close to Old Norse. Norwegian is less closer to Old Norse because it was influenced by many more outside languages, due to geography.
Language Versus Dialect
“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”
~ Max Weinreich
Languages and dialects are very fluid terms. The first common assumption is that speakers of different languages cannot understand each other. The second common assumption is that speakers of different dialects can understand each other. In reality, classifying languages and dialects is a much more complicated process. Much of this is due to religion and politics.
Where Both Assumptions Hold True
English and French are considered different languages because speakers of one cannot understand the other. American English and British English are considered different dialects of English because speakers of one can understand the other.
4 Cases Where The Assumptions Do Not Hold True:
Hindi and Urdu were originally considered two dialects of Hindustani. Speakers of one could understand the other. But they are now classified as different languages, mostly due to religion and politics. When British India split, most Urdu speakers ended up in Pakistan while most Hindi speakers ended up in India. Urdu speakers are predominantly Muslim while Hindi speakers are mostly Hindu. Urdu is written in the Arabic alphabet (due to Islamic influence) while Hindi is written in the Devanagari script. As the divide between India and Pakistan grows it is reflected in the two languages. Urdu continues to adopt more Persian and Arabic loan words (due to Pakistan’s ties with the rest of the Muslim world). Hindi has purged many of Arabic and Persian loan words, while adopting words from other languages, especially English.
Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian were originally considered three dialects of Serbo-Croatian because speakers of one could understand the other two. But they are now classified as different languages, once again due to religion and politics. Serbs are Eastern Orthodox Christians, Croats are Catholics, and Bosnians are Muslims. These groups lived side-by-side when Yugoslavia was one country. The collapse of Yugoslavia exacerbated religious tensions and each group formed its own country with its own language. As for alphabets, Serbian and Bosnian use both Cyrillic and Latin scripts. Croatian only uses the Latin script.
Moroccan Arabic and Iraqi Arabic are classified as different dialects of Arabic and both are written in the Arabic script. But speakers of one cannot understand the other. Moroccans and Iraqis both consider themselves to be ethnically Arab. Both groups are predominantly Muslim. The two dialects have their roots in the early Arabic that originated in present-day Saudi Arabia. But because of geography and contact with other ethnic groups, they have split significantly. Various Berber languages, as well as French and Spanish, have heavily influenced Moroccan Arabic. On the other hand, Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish have heavily influenced Iraqi Arabic.
Cantonese and Mandarin are both classified as different dialects of Chinese and are written with the same alphabet. But speakers of one cannot understand the other. Mandarin is spoken in the northern China while Cantonese is spoken southern China. As with Moroccan Arabic and Iraqi Arabic, both originate from a single language. But they greatly diverged due to geography and influences from neighboring languages. Speaker of Cantonese and Mandarin both consider themselves to be part of the Han Chinese ethnic group.
Yiddish is very similar to German, but is influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic. Yiddish speakers can understand German and vice versa. In the past, Jews in German-speaking countries forcibly isolated from the rest of society and thus developed their own unique culture. This is why Yiddish is classified as a separate language. Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet while German is written in the Latin alphabet. Imagine a German (who only knows German) and Israeli (who only knows Hebrew but not Yiddish) looking at a book written in Yiddish. The Israeli could read the text out loud but would not understand the meaning. The German could not read the text but would understand what it meant when read out loud by the Israeli.
Why Languages Die
Groups of people who spoke the same language start forming a common identity called ethnicity. They also began forming nation states with physical borders, based on this common language. Almost all nation states had smaller groups of people speaking different dialects and languages. The dominant group usually imposed their language on these minorities to enforce a common national identity. In the past, this was mostly done by violent means. In the modern era, this is mostly done by government policy.
As a result, many minority languages are severely endangered and only have a small number of elderly speakers. Examples of endangered languages include Welsh in the United Kingdom, Gaelic in Ireland, Breton in France, and most Native American languages in the United States. There have been attempts to revitalize some endangered languages but they have met with little success.
The only successfully revitalized language is Hebrew. For centuries, Jews all around the world only spoke Hebrew as a liturgical (but never as a primary) language. When Israel because a country, there was need for a common language to unite the various Jewish immigrant groups. Hebrew was the most logical choice and a modern version of it declared Israel’s national language.
Many other languages have completely died off completely. Some, like Latin and Sanskrit, are still understood by scholars but most other dead languages are lost to history. Most studies have determined that there are between 6000 and 7000 languages currently spoken in the world. 50-90% of them will be extinct by 2100. The 20 largest languages in the world are each spoken by more than 50 million speakers and are spoken by 50% of the world’s population. The remaining languages are spoken by small communities, most of them with less than 10,000 speakers.
In the past, people were isolated and never exposed to other languages. But with modern communications and the increased global migrations, this has completely changed. Countries need to be globally competitive and this requires knowing a global language, most often English. English dominates global commerce and the Internet, with no other language being remotely competitive.
As for a world language, English is currently the leading contender. 1.8 billion people currently speak it, both as a native and secondary language. But it is still too early to predict what will happen. The future might put the tide in favor of another (or an entirely new language) as a universal tongue. Or there might never be a global language. But what current trends do show is that an increasingly interconnected world will need some type of common medium to communicate effectively.
To save dying languages, it’s comes down to a battle of sentimentality or practicality. Languages often give people an identity and a connection to their heritage. But when it comes to learning and using them, it’s all about practicality. If a certain language has no tangible benefits, especially in education and business, younger generations will cease using it. Immigrant communities are a good example. My parents, aunts, and uncles speak Gujarati. But my cousins, sister, and I only can understand it. Most of us will not teach our children Gujarati. Though we might feel proud to be of our Indian ancestry, it is pointless to teach the future generations a language (that we don’t even speak well) only out of sentimentality. This can be seen with every ethnic group that becomes assimilated in the United States. I live in a part of Connecticut where many of the residents are of Italian heritage. Italian is almost never spoken in public. There is no Italian TV channels or newspapers, either.
I’m sure many linguists will disagree with my stand on about endangered and extinct languages, and the need for them to preserved or revitalized. But languages change so rapidly that what we discuss today may have not have any bearing on a language discussion a century from now. But the general rule will always hold true: people will speak the language that allows them to get access to the most good and services. Also, this language enables them to easily communicate with the largest amount of people. Language choice is ALWAYS about practicality.
DISCLAIMER: The content appearing in this post is the property of the original author, Mr. Doshi, and appears here with permission. Mr. Doshi reserves all rights.