The History of Language

Chatty Cathy

Author/Editor: Jennifer J. Lacelle
August 25, 2021

Everything in the world communicates in some form or another. Animals make their sounds, like a cat who meows, purrs or hisses; dogs bark, growl, snarl and whimper; and whales click, whistle and make pulsed calls. Communication is something that’s universal, it’s the barriers of understanding said language that become a problem. Of course, humans are more sophisticated than a bark, meow or click.

In the realm of people, there are over 5,000 languages across the globe. Of course, some are generally outdated, like Latin, and have a sort of mystical aura surrounding them because of this lack of use. It should be noted it hasn’t entirely disappeared as it’s still used in the Vatican City and studied around the word as a classic language.

The English language has adapted dramatically over the last several centuries; as a common example you can take a look at Shakespeare’s writing (1590-1613):

“That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold;

What hath quench’d them hath given me fire.

Hark! Peace!

It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman.

Which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it:

The doors are open; and the surfeited grooms

Do mock their charge with snores: I have drugg’d their possets,

That death and nature do content about them,

Whether they live or die.” — Macbeth, Lady Macbeth


According to the Bible, in The Tower of Babel, everyone on the planet shared one common language. That is, until they declared they were just as incredible as God (if not more so) and decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens. As punishment, God made them all speak different languages. Subsequently, they grouped off with those whom they understood and spread across the world.

But where did languages actually come from? It’s not like spoken word was tracked on stone, papyrus or paper originally.

Some of the earliest records of language, still in use, stem back to 300 BC. The eldest is called Tamil, which may be traced back to 2,500 BC. Over 78-million people still use this language around the world.

Scholars group the 5,000 languages into about 20 families, based on phonetics, grammar, and shared words. Some theorize that each of these family groups actually descend from one language because as time carries forward, it makes sense that languages would change.

Linguists look for common threads, some of which aren’t obvious either, when grouping languages into families and tracing ancestry. There have been about 50 proto-languages — the parent language that actual/current languages derive from, it’s hypothetical and undocumented — established by linguists. For example, there’s proto-Indo-European which include English, Latin, Gaelic, Hindi, Russian and Greek.

It’s impossible to know with 100 per cent accuracy the origin of language though. There’s not enough documentation to provide that sort of insight, however, we can follow how languages and speech patterns have changed over time.

How Do We Speak

Apparently, the earliest humans didn’t have developed enough vocal tracks to actually formulate sophisticated sounds. Some historians theorize that types of sign language were used to communicate until people were evolved enough to use a broad range of sounds.

The human body is pretty amazing, and people have to use their brain, lungs, vocal cords, voice box, tongue, diaphragm, nose, teeth, stomach muscles, and lips in order to formulate speech.

It all begins with the brain coordinating the phonetics and patterns needed to form the words. After that it comes down to the body cooperating; the stomach’s muscles will help push the air needed to the voice box. From there, the vocal cords will vibrate to produce the sound required as the teeth, tongue and lips move to articulate. All the while, the brain is conducting this orchestra.

It’s recently been discovered (2002) that people possess a gene called FOXP2 that creates a protein referred to as forkhead box P2. This protein can actually control other genes (300-400), but often targets the brain cells before and after birth.

FOXP2 is essential to brain development and neural plasticity, which is important for memory and learning. Furthermore, it’s been shown to have a great effect on learning speech and language.

If there is a mutation in this gene, people may be diagnosed with SPCH1 (Speech-Language Disorder-1), which can be characterized by orofacial dyspraxia; abnormalities in the brain that affect the ability to create sounds, words and syllables. It isn’t just speech that can be the problem though. Those with this condition could also have trouble understanding words in written or verbal forms because the facial muscles won’t move as they should.

While the study that found this gene and mutation wasn’t very broad in participants, it opened the doors to further studies.

Let’s Talk

English is the widest spoken language in the world, coming in at 1.35 billion speakers (either first or second language). However, Mandarin Chinese is coming in with a close second — and will perhaps overtake English in the next few decades — at 1.12 billion speakers. In third and fourth place sit Hindi and Spanish.

Approximately half of the world’s population speaks two or more languages.

Why? Because many countries house more than one language. This especially comes into play when you consider immigration and business. Some countries also have policies in effect that foster multiple languages.

It’s not always easy to learn various languages, especially if you weren’t raised in a multi-lingual household, school or community. Babbel, a popular language app, lists Mandarin Chinese as the most difficult to learn for those who only speak English.

Unlike Latin-based languages, Mandarin Chinese doesn’t use the same symbols. Rather, they have thousands of unique characters in the writing. When it comes to speaking the language, there are four distinct sounds. One word can be said in four different tones giving it four different meanings.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, native English speakers will likely find Norwegian the easiest (according to Babbel). This is due to the fact that it stems from the same family of Germanic languages as English, meaning words, grammar and phonetics are similar.

In Canada, English-French bilingualism is approximately 17.9 per cent. The country also has over 50 Indigenous languages between the 630 communities and 50 Nations. There are actually four government ministries working collaboratively to preserve, promote and revitalize the Indigenous cultures and languages.


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