Why are there so many Languages?

Why are there so many Languages? post image
Why are there so many languages?

The first version of Google Translate (the Rosetta Stone).

Why would the world ever need 1000s of languages? If you believe we all evolved together as a species, why did we start speaking so many strange tongues? I mean, it’s certainly easier for us to just all speak one language, so why did things evolve differently than they did?

Especially since there is no shortage of variety when it comes to languages. From languages that don’ have words for right and left (they use north, south, east and west instead) to the 800 or so languages spoken in Papua New Guinea. There are relatively simple languages like Indonesian and overly complex languages like Japanese and Arabic.

Even experts can’t really answer this question quite clearly. Noam Chomsky, famous linguist/activist, doesn’t really give us a clear answer. Mostly because we don’t really have any good evidence. The only language fossils we can study are written works, and not many of those have survived from ancient times. We only have about the last 5000 years or so to work with.

Language Evolution

It makes common sense that languages evolved along geographical lines. Different groups of people living apart from one another slowly started to speak differently until the two groups could no longer speak with each other. You can actually see a little bit of this in recent times with American and British English.

It seems like a lot of languages have slightly evolved to meet the needs of people living in a particular area. These changes are quite nuanced and are still heavily debated if they even exist, but obviously if a particular language needs a new function or word, it will evolve to accommodate that problem. Words seem to come out of nowhere to solve the linguistic problems we have.

In this way, you can think of a language as a way of looking at how a particular culture thinks. For example, Japanese really doesn’t have a clear future tense. Why is that? Maybe the difference between now and the future doesn’t need to be made clear for the Japanese culture. Over time as the culture changed so did the language.

I should add that this theory that a language’s structure affects the way people look at the world is called linguistic relativity and is still being heavily debated.

Resisting Standardization

We have a standard worldwide system for time. We also have a standard measuring system for length and temperature. So, why don’t we use a standard language? It would definitely save a lot of time and money.

Before modern times communication was generally pretty slow and not done very often between different groups. But, now we have the Internet, where people from several countries, thousands of miles apart can communicate with each other for little to no cost, instantaneously. With this lack of any borders, why are we still speaking different languages?

Of course there are some things to considered about any standardization of language. Obviously, whatever country natively speaks the standard would have the economic advantage over other countries that don’t natively speak the standard language. That is a pretty big concern for those developing countries that are already at a bit of a disadvantage.

But, I also feel that we have a deeply rooted need for diversity. In some ways, it is easier to think about certain concepts in certain languages, they’ve kind of evolved for that. That’s why reaching a higher level of fluency in a language is such a one-of-a-kind experience. Yes, you can read or listen to a translation and get the main idea of something. But, to grasp the way of thinking and the deeper connotations of something, you’ll still need to understand it in the source language.

Am I crazy?

What do you think of the diversity of languages? Do you think they evolved to match the culture? Let me know in the comments below.

 Photo by vintagedept

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Russell April 20, 2013, 2:26 am

    Very thought provoking! I guess maybe you could say English is seen as sort of a standard language in modern times. That’s cool you got to see the Rosetta Stone up close like that.

    • Clayton MacKnight April 21, 2013, 2:26 pm

      It is a little underwhelming in person to be honest, but if you are ever in London, the British Museum is home to the Rosetta Stone and some other stuff they stole err borrowed from Egypt 🙂 Cool place.

  • Charlene April 24, 2013, 9:31 pm

    I don’t think we could have just one standardized language. Like you mentioned, we use words to express ideas, so there are some notions/nuances you can’t really translate from one language to another. Japanese is the fourth language I’m studying, and I can see how the Japanese way of thinking/communicating is so different just by studying the language. We would lose a lot if there was only one language… that’s one of the reason why I like learning languages, it opens your mind to another way of viewing things and understanding them. It helps you to understand another culture, but also your own culture (that’s my point of view at least)

    • Clayton MacKnight April 24, 2013, 11:25 pm

      Yeah, I agree. Like I said above, there is a definite need for diversity. Learning a different language helps us almost literally see the world through a different set of eyes. So, I hope the diversity of languages stays.

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