Interesting facts

Some interesting facts about world languages

Taken from:

The Tower of Babel Story

People who survived the Great Flood spoke a single language. After settling in the land of Shinar, they decided to build a city and a tower with a sky-scrapping top to make a name for themselves so that they not be scattered over the world.

Then the Lord came down from heaven to see the city and tower the children of Adam were building. And he said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

And the Lord did so, and he made people speak different languages and they withdrew from building the city which was later nicknamed “Babel” (“Babel” is the Ancient Hebrew for jumble). Thence, the Lord scattered the people all over the Earth.

The Biblical city of Babel may be associated with Ancient Babylon, first mentioned about 4,500 years ago. In the 18th century BC it was turned into the capital of the ancient kingdom of Babylonia. It is currently a part of Iraq. A hundred kilometres south from Baghdad is the sight of ancient Babylon. The beginning of this century saw massive excavation works in the area which helped recreate the vision of the city as it had been in the 6th century BC. Under the decree of UNESCO and the Iraqi government, the city of Babylon has been undergoing reconstruction. The temple of Ninmah, the goddess of the underworld, has already been rebuilt, and the Ishtar Gate is nearly completed. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Hanging Gardens, will also be reconstructed. Modern building methods and materials, such as concrete, and steelworks will be used for the reconstruction of the tower.

Even though the Tower of Babel is not related to the origin of language, it has become the symbol of linguistic variety and the problems of communication arising from it.

Origin of Language

Some ancient Greek philosophers believed that man learned how to speak by imitating the sounds of nature: the chatter of the streams, birdsongs, and noise of all kinds… Eventually, man created the first words which turned more and more complicated. Proponents of this theory claim that imitation of natural sounds requires one to have well-developed articulators, something that early humans lacked. Therefore, there are many more such imitative words in developed languages than in the primitive ones.

Another theory suggests that language could develop before the full development of modern humans because the Cro-Magnon larynx was 1.5 times larger than that of the Neanderthal, which was sufficient for articulation to develop. The studies done by Noam Chomsky indicate that humans have innate linguistic abilities and some grammar rules are obviously innate, but it is hard to tell if they are a natural part of cognition (and indeed if they are separable from the process of cognition).

Nevertheless, it is believed that language was developing with mind, as it is not only the result, but also a means of thought. Physical labour affected the human-beings’ appearance and constitution, along with unarticulated wild cries turning into more sophisticated sound combinations. Gradually, as the number of the members of the tribe was on the increase, it was becoming harder to find food, which made some early humans leave for uninhabited territories. With such human expansion, there started to appear dialectal (territorial) differences: inherited words were changing, and new words and notions were emerging. These differences were further intensified by natural obstacles, such as mountains and rivers, which disturbed communication between humans. Eventually, these dialects led to the formation of separate languages.

Variety of Languages and Their Classification

Different estimates put the number of languages currently spoken around the world between 3,000 and 6,000. The speakers using these languages come in different numbers, from more than one billion speakers of Chinese to a few speakers of endangered languages.

Most natural languages (there are also constructed languages) can be classified under the categories of family and group. Languages are classified into families in accordance to their ancestry which means that a language family consists of languages originating from one proto-language. The said proto-language can rarely be immediately recognised as many languages have only been shortly attested in historical written sources. However, applying comparative reconstruction methods can help recreate the features of that proto-language through modern languages by using the reconstruction method made by August Schleicher back in the 19th century. One example of proto- languages reconstructed using this method is the Proto Indo-European (it was spoken before the invention of writing). Languages that may not be attributed to any family are referred to as languages isolate.

Language families are classified into groups and sub-groups according to their degree of relatedness (e.g., Lithuanian is an Eastern Baltic language of the Baltic group of the Indo-European family of languages).

Different authors propose different language classifications, so it is hard to tell an exact number of language families and languages themselves.

Distribution of Languages

Europe, North, East and South Asia:

  • Indo-European languages;
  • Dravidian languages;
  • Caucasian languages (traditionally, they are believed to be two separate language families, North Caucasian, and Kartvelian);
  • Altaic languages (some linguists deny the relationship between the Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungus-Manju langauages);
  • Uralic languages;
  • Hurrian-Urrartu languages (extinct; sometimes attributed to the Asian languages along with the other Mesopotamian languages);
  • Yukaghir languages (sometimes classified under the Uralic languages, and sometimes seen as a single Yukaghir language);
  • Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages;
  • Yeniseian languages;
  • Andamanese languages (two families)

Africa and South-West Asia:

  • Semitic-Hamitic languages;
  • Niger-Congo languages (previously called Congo-Kordofanian);
  • Nilo-Saharan languages;
  • Khoizan languages (also known as Bushmen-Huttentots languages).

East-and-South-East Asia and the Pacific:

  • Australian Aboriginal languages (many families);
  • Austroasiatic languages;
  • Austronesian languages (also called Malayan-Polynesian);
  • Miao-Yao languages (also known as Hmong-Mien languages);
  • Japonic languages (frequently, they are all considered dialects of Japanese);
  • Papuan languages (many families);
  • Sino-Tibetan languages;
  • Tai-Kadai languages

North America:

  • Eskimo- Aleut languages;
  • Na-Dene language group;
  • Amerind languages

Constructed languages:

  • Ido;
  • Interlingua;
  • Lojban;
  • Quenya;
  • Sindarin;
  • Tokipona;
  • Sign languages.