Traveller’s tales: origins of language

The way that language, the greatest of all our social tools, has developed throughout the centuries is the subject of an ongoing story. Vision delves into the next chapter

He speared his fish and cooked it over an open fire, clothed himself in animal skins sewn together with bone needles and slept in sturdy shelters built from mammoth bones. Ice age man’s lifestyle might seem worlds away from ours but his conversation is strikingly similar. New research from the University of Reading, UK, shows that Ice Age people living in Europe and Asia 15,000 years ago might have used words that could still be recognised today.

Words including I, you, we, man and bark, are descended from an ancient language spoken in Europe and Asia at this time. "The way in which we use a certain set of words in everyday speech is something common to all human languages,” explains Mark Pagel, professor of Evolutionary Biology. Pagel has predicted that certain words would have changed so slowly over long periods of time as to retain traces of their ancestry for up to ten thousand or more years.

Professor Pagel’s new findings tally with established linguistic thinking that says the world’s 7,000 languages share a common ancestor and are subdivided into 12 linguistic super-families. For example, approximately half of the globe, including Europe, much of Asia, North America, South America and Oceania, speaks languages derived from Proto-Indo-European, a reconstructed pre-historic language of Eurasia.

A recent study into the origins of language, by evolutionary biologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, suggests that the far-reaching Indo-European family of languages originated in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey. Hundreds of spoken and extinct languages, including Hindi, English, Greek, Armenian and Danish, are rooted in a group of chariot-drivers living on the steppes above the Black Sea 9,000 years ago, says Atkinson.

Arabic language history dates back thousands of years to approximately 8CE with the spread of Islam, is now spoken by more than 200 million people worldwide and is the sixth biggest language in the world. There are now 12 different Arabic dialects spoken in 28 countries around the world, as each variety adopted traces of the language it replaced.

However, the foundations of some of the world’s languages remain a mystery to this day. The origin of the Basque language, spoken by the Basque people of north-west Spain has long-been contested with theories ranging from the idea that Basque was spoken by Palaeolithic settlers of the region before the progress of Indo-European to the idea that Basque was part of the linguistic fragmentation that God punished man with after he dared to construct the heavens-reaching Tower of Babel.

Wherever it came from and is going to, language is a vigorous component of the Internet age. From humblebrag to lifecasting, crowdsourcing to microblogging, modern citizens are speaking to the whole world.