The Origin of Languages

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Have you ever wondered about where languages came from? How is it that the world is filled with so many different languages, something like 6500 of them?

Many of us are familiar with the Biblical account of the tower of Babel found in Genesis 11. Up to that point in time, all people spoke one language. As punishment for challenging the authority of God, he punished them by confusing the languages.

What other creation of language myths/stories are out there? Please comment.


What is a proto-language? A very simplified answer would describe this as the common ancestor shared by specific language families. For example, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are part of the Romance languages, Latin being the ancestor or proto-language.

Romance Languages Water
Spanish Agua
Italian Aqua
Portuguese Agua
Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family
English Water
German Wasser
Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family
Danish vand
Russian voda
Polish woda
Czech voda

According to the Ethnologue (16th Edition), there are 147 language families.

Interestingly, some languages are seen as mystery languages. Albanian, spoken in Albania, which also has the Indo-European language as an ancestor, does not have any “relatives” and is in effect its own family.

The Basque language of the Basque people is perhaps the Stonehenge of languages. These people live in southwestern France and northeastern Spain, in the middle, if you like, of Europe. Like Spanish, French also belongs to the Romance Language family.

The logical assumption one would make is that the Basque language would also be a Romance language, or at least related to the Indo-European language family. Yet it does not. Nor does it belong to any other language family. It seems to have just dropped out of the sky!

Nobody knows for sure how it is that approximately 720,000 people speak this language. One theory is that it is the only pre-Indo-European language that survived the arrival of the Indo-European ones.

The Development, Growth and Deviation of a Language

Language and culture are inseparably linked. Culture is shaped, amongst many other factors, by the physical environment. What do I mean by this?

Have you heard the claim that the Eskimos have fifty words for snow? This dates back to the 1880’s when anthropologist Franz Boas spent some time with the Inuit people in in northern Canada.

For a long time this has been debated, denied and described as a hoax, but according to the Washington Post it seems that Mr Boaz was not a liar or hoaxster after all! They really have so many words for snow.

Two examples: They use “aqilokoq” to describe “softly falling snow.” The word “piegnartoq” in turn, describes “the snow [that is] good for driving sled.”

Official Malagasy, one of the languages spoken in Madagascar does not have a Malagasy word for snow, not even one. Why? Neither the modern Malagasy or their ancestors were ever exposed to it. To cope with this, they have appropriated the French la neige.

Another example of how culture and physical environment influences language would be the Malagasy vocabulary around rice agriculture. Manetsa is a very rich and loaded term that has to do with the process of transplanting rice seedlings. What they can describe with one word (and its derivatives) needs sentences in languages that do not have rice agriculture.

Another factor that influences the development of a language would be isolation. In his book, Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck talks about how it was possible to pin point where a person came from by their accent, vocabulary and use of language much before the coming of radio (and television and Internet, by implication).

This phenomenon is still found the world over. In the south of Madagascar, speakers of Tandroy, the language of the Antandroy people, can “hear” he is from village “A” 10 km to the north and she from “B” 15 km to the south.

Travel and emigration also play a role. There is absolutely no way that English would have been the majority language in the USA if it was not for the vast movement of people. Colonization is another contributor. Again, India would not have English as one of its spoken languages was it not for colonization by the British. And so forth….


Where did the Indo-European language come from? Apparently 3 billion people, close to half of everybody, are native speakers of some sort of Indo-European descendant. Dr Andrew Meade from the University of Reading in the UK has published a treatise which argues that “[l]anguages spoken across Europe and Asia are descended from a proto-language that was used 15,000 to 10,000 years ago.”

At InstaScribe we love language. We are also a mixed bunch from different countries and cultures. These are some of the factors that motivated us to start a Languages of the World Series.

We will try to show where different languages come from in an interesting way.


InstaScribe prophecy of the week: The next theory will “prove” that every language in the world, including that of the Basques, have one ancestor.


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  1. Pingback: Visual Fridays: Revived Languages | InstaScribe

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