Feb 13, 2013

Languages of the World

Human beings are unique in their use of language. Only humans have the innate, hardwired ability to employ a large vocabulary of words with a complex grammar to create language itself. Linguistic abilities are surprisingly uniform across the entire human species, and all normal human beings learn to speak the language of their native community.

Many theories exist concerning when and how language began, and because there are no fossil records related to the earliest linguistic development, the true beginnings of spoken language are lost in time. Early cultures believed that language was a gift from the gods, and the origins of language are an integral part of creation myths throughout world mythology. Ironically, the diversity of language is usually seen as a curse -- a punishment for human arrogance or disobedience -- a belief best exemplified by the "Tower of Babel" passage in Genesis, in the Hebrew Bible.

Although some scholars assume there was a primitive language system dating as far back as two million years, fully developed language is thought to have been an evolutionary innovation of Homo sapiens, which facilitated the spread of the species around the globe. Many scientists believe that at some point in their evolutionary development, humans developed larger and more sophisticated brains that allowed for the development of language, although there is no agreement on when this occurred. Richard Leakey, the noted paleoanthropologist, suggests that Homo sapiens did not originally possess the necessary anatomy to produce language until 300,000 years ago, while Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist, argues that because all modern humans have identical language abilities, language must have emerged with the first appearance of modern humans about 200,000 years ago.

Language is a living thing -- highly changeable in vocabulary, pronunciation, and (more slowly) grammar. Words fall into disuse; others are coined or borrowed; pronunciations change both over time and geographically, as populations disperse, or come into contact.

In 2010, Unesco identified 6,000 living languages in the world, most of which are spoken only by a small number of people. More than 3,000 languages are considered endangered, based on the number of native speakers currently living, the age of those speakers, and the percentage of children in the community who are acquiring the language. Africa currently has the highest number of languages in danger of extinction, with 250 of the continent's 1,400 languages threatened with imminent disappearance. Once a language is identified as endangered, it can be stabilized or rescued through language documentation, in which the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary are recorded and preserved; language revitalization occurs when a community takes political and educational action to increase the number of active speakers. In North America, endangered languages are primarily Native American, such as Oneida, Onandaga, Seneca, and Chinook. (The New York Times Presents  Smarter by Sunday – 52 Weekends of Essential Knowledge for the Curious Mind)