Linguistics

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How and where does the rich diversity of languages in the world come from?

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There are over 6500 spoken languages in the world. And even this figure could well be an underestimation of reality, as there are some languages that are not recorded at all and some that have died (languages die when there are no more speakers speaking that language). Also, one language can have many dialects, some of which can become mutually unintelligible over time.

Languages that look similar in morphology, phonology and syntax seem to belong to the same language family. Some theories claim that all the languages that you see in the world have actually originated from one single language (the protolanguage). There is a mention of such a “pure language” in religious texts like Bible also.

Once humans had this first language, it is easier to explain how the rich diversity of languages that we see around came to existence. For instance, new languages (pidgins and creoles) are formed through language contact situations. Even existing languages change rapidly with time (synchronically and diachronically), giving rise to different dialects. If and when speakers of these dialects are separated due to geographical or other constrains, these dialects become distinct languages over time.

But it is nearly impossible to explain when and how did this first language originate? A more important question is why were only humans gifted with language faculty?

Language is species specific to humans. Other animals also have some modes of communication (bee dancing, bird songs, etc.), but none of the communication channels recorded so far are even close to human language. Charles Hockett gave a list of 16 design features that make human language unique. Amongst other things, our language gives us the power to talk about...

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