Mind your Language!

Emergence of languages was one of the most defining moments of human evolution. As we can imagine today our forefathers would have combined simple sounds into a string to form words to communicate. Such a tool would have enabled man to communicate much better than other animals around and helped in cooperating in larger numbers to form societies that are more efficient than other animals. Thus languages have become the major form of communication for a very long time. From an early beginning of communicating essential life skills like information on gathering food or escaping dangers languages have evolved efficiently to communicate much more complex thoughts and imaginations of man. Thus our ability to form an unlimited number of thoughts and ideas into words is one of the things that separates us from our less evolved cousins. Even though animals can use sounds and movements to communicate with each other, even primates stop short of what man has been able to achieve – spoken language. It is estimated that languages were present among us somewhere along the last 50,000 and 2 million years.


Language is often described as a string of words and systems in a more or less uniform manner common to a group of people to communicate thoughts and ideas among themselves. Human beings are different from other animals in the sense that we can communicate on an unlimited array of topics from the weather to science and stories. It can also be used not just for conveying information but also has expressive and directive functions. The most remarkable part is that even children can learn these languages with their complex usage of words along with prefixes and suffixes just by listening to others. Compared to this, animals communicate by using a contrasting system. They typically have a few dozen distinct calls that are only used for immediate matters such as food, danger, and reconciliation. Some animals like songbirds and some whales do use various combinations of sounds but they are not as versatile  as human languages. There are some theories on how languages evolved to be. One of the theories is that it is an evolutionary adaptation that the population underwent a change over time for their survival. The idea of natural selection comes into play wherein some specific traits of the whole population is changed since it can help them survive better. The idea here is that language made us more capable. This is mainly since humans needed to communicate with each other constantly when hunting, farming as well as while defending themselves from the environment which was harsh often. The ability to communicate using language gave them a distinct survival advantage. It was also needed for social interactions.

Researchers Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom in their paper “ Natural Language and Natural Selection” theorized that over time, series of sounds or gestures evolved into various combinations which resulted in a complex language for communication. This was especially important since humans needed a more complex system to convey messages as things became more complex. In nutshell, the adaptation theory said that as humans evolved and learned more about the best methods of survival, they developed a need to communicate these methods to their population. 

Another competing theory that was posed by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and linguist Noam Chomsky is that language evolved not as a specific adaptation but as the result of evolutionary processes which essentially made it a byproduct of evolution. They said that languages may have evolved simply due to the evolution of the physical structure of the brain or since the parts of the brain that were used for making tools were also good for complex communications. These theories do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. Science now shows us that it is very likely that there are certain structures in place that helped in the evolution of languages but that doesn’t necessarily explain how languages have evolved with all of its complexities. The way we started to string words and adding prefixes and suffixes to make complex sentences and the notion of grammar in a language may have a lot to do with the natural selection that is perhaps languages were created through exaptation but were later refined through Darwinian selection. A Homo sapiens with advanced communication skills would have some sort of evolutionary advantage over his single-word muttering cousin. However, that more refined Homo sapiens wouldn’t have the occasion to talk his first sentence if his brain hadn’t developed to permit him to make a crude hammer.

We estimate that there are approximately 7000+ languages that are spoken in the world today. The languages are classified according to three categories according to ancestry, structure, geography. The major family groups include the Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, Afroasiatic, Austronesian, Altaic, Japonic, Austroasiatic, and Tai-Kadai. To classify them scientifically, we use certain criteria like language, historical, geographical, and socio-politics. These classifications help us to show connections between languages and study how they evolved.

Language has always played an important role in the expression of culture. It can be used as a means of communicating values, customs, and beliefs as well as the important social function of imparting feelings of togetherness through group identity and solidarity. It is a method by which culture and its traditions and shared values may be conveyed and preserved. Language is foundational to cultural identity. This is true for almost every language around the world. 

Cultural and linguistic diversity is an element of most countries today as individuals from various gatherings live respectively as a result of historical events and human relocations. Inside multilingual societies, the maintenance of the dialects of the different ethnic and social groups is basic for the conservation of culture and identity. The loss of language implies the loss of culture and identity. In numerous societies throughout history, the suppression of the dialects of minority groups has been utilized as a conscious strategy to smother those minority cultures. Thus a large number of the world’s dialects have been lost with the cycles of colonization and relocation.

Have the languages stopped evolving and reached stagnation? The evidence indicates that we are living through an extraordinary moment of linguistic history. Human languages are now rapidly restructuring at a more rapid pace though disorienting change then ever in history.

This is expected to culminate in a new linguistic world order, where with technology that can do real-time translations, the dominance of a language like English or mandarin will cease and a common human language that will amass the advantages of all the major world languages will emerge. A future language could be shorter, more fragmentary, and multimodal (using pictures, color, sound, kinetics as well as words) if the present pointers are to be believed.  So remember that every time you send that emoji across to your friends, you are helping the language to evolve- so mind it ☺

~Anagha Santosh

S.Y B.Sc. Economics

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