Language, Communication and Writing

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Language - The Basis of Communication

Tracing the Origins of Language

Printing revolutionized the written word, but language is the basis of all written and spoken communication. Where do languages come from, and how do they evolve?

Languages can be grouped into families according to their degree of similarity. Spanish and Italian are obviously closely related, so much so that speakers of one can understand a good deal of the other. Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are also obviously closely related, and somewhat mutually intelligible. Anyone who knows Latin can see that Spanish and Italian descended from Latin, along with French, Portuguese, and Romanian. All these languages have a lot of obviously Latin-derived vocabulary, as well as many of the grammatical rules of Latin. Collectively, these languages are called the Romance languages, not because they are romantic, but because they are of Roman origin. Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian have many similarities with German and Dutch, and all these languages (called Germanic) must share a common origin as well. Likewise, the Slavic languages - Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, have volcabulary and grammatical similarities.

Can we trace the origins of languages back even further? Did the Romance, Slavic and Germanic languages spring from a common source? In 17xx, xxxxxxx xxxxxxx, a British administrator in India and a student of languages, discovered that Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, shared remarkable similarities with Latin and Greek: for example, the words for "mother" and "father" are almost identical in all three. Certain words, like small numerals, the word for ten, and close personal relations, like father and mother, tend to be borrowed very rarely. These are good tracers of linguistic kinship. Thus, English "mother", German "Mutter", Russian "mat'", and Latin, Greek and Sanskrit "mater" clearly show a relationship.

Another tracer of linguistic kinship is consistent patterns of sound changes. :
EnglishGermanLatin EnglishGreek
English t often becomes ts (spelled z) in German and d in Latin twozweiduo Greek h is often s in other languages: sixhexa
tenzehndecem sevenhepta
toothZahndens super-hyper-
The German linguists Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, better known for their work in preserving folk tales, are largely responsible for discovering these patterns.

Structural features and historical documentation are the best ways of showing linguistic affinities. A modern reader might be hard-pressed to tell that English is related to German, but their structures are very similar. For example, they form verb tenses pretty much the same way (I had seen - ich hatte gesehen), and we have written records from centuries past that show that early English was a lot closer to German than present-day English. English "bird" doesn't seem very similar to the German "Vogel", but if you realize the German word is pronounced "fogel", it's easy to see kinship with the English "fowl." The story of why English is so different from other members of its family compared to Polish and Russian or Spanish and Italian is very complex and is told below.

Language Families

Most of the major languages of Europe, Iran and most of India belong to a single language family called Indo-European. About six thousand years ago, the ancestors of present Indo-European speakers came from southern Russia or Anatolia (the exact place is controversial) and spread east and west through Europe, Iran and India. About a thousand words of their vocabulary have been reconstructed; words for trees and animals give us some clues to their place of origin, words for implements give us clues to their technology. For example, they knew of the plow. Europe at that time was a mosaic of now-lost languages, only remnants of which survive. The Basques of Spain and France, and the Caucasian languages of Georgia (former Soviet Union) are the last remaining remnants. In Roman times there were others: the Etruscans of northern Italy and the Picts of far northern Scotland.

In addition to Indo-European, there are other great language families. Afro-Asiatic includes Hebrew, Arabic, and the language of ancient Egypt. (Hebrew and Arabic are sometimes called Semitic languages, and a term for related languages of Egypt and Africa was Hamitic. The names come from the sons of Noah, Sem, Ham and Japheth, whose descendants purportedly gave rise to the nations of the earth after the Deluge. There was even an attempt, fortunately unsuccessful, to refer to Indo-European as Japhetitic. The Biblical account actually tallies pretty well, though not perfectly, with modern linguistics. One need not postulate divine revelation for this; ancient traders would certainly know where they could communicate with what languages.) Uralic languages include Finnish and Hungarian; Altaic languages include Turkish and Mongolian, Sino-Tibetan includes most of the languages of China, and so on.

Do these great language families have a common origin? The Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages have some distinctive features in common, notably the concept of noun gender. Many linguists are convinced they have evidence for joining these languages into a super-family called Nostratic. There have been tentative attempts at constructing family trees for all the world's language families. Interestingly enough, these correlate fairly well with family trees based on DNA studies. It makes sense - when the language groups separated enough for languages to evolve independently, so did their gene pools. It is fortunate we have the technology to do these studies now. In a few centuries, the human race may be so linguistically and genetically connected thanks to easy travel that ancestry studies will be impossible.

One of the hottest controversies in linguistics today is whether it might be possible to reconstruct a proto-language from which all human languages evolved. Some linguists think they can trace key roots back 40 or 50 thousand years. Others argue that random noise, borrowing, and changes in pronunciation and style limit our ability to trace languages back beyond about 10,000 years.

About 5,000 languages are spoken on Earth today, and at least half are endangered. Just about every month, linguistic journals carry a note that "----------, last known speaker of --------, died." Languages with less than 100,000 speakers are under severe pressure. The most linguistically diverse regions tend to be places where small groups live in isolation for long times. Fully a quarter of the world's languages are spoken in New Guinea, where a couple of hundred people in one valley might speak a language quite different from the next valley. Dozens of languages are still spoken in the Caucasus, in many cases by groups not much larger. One of the most diverse places on earth is surprising: 200 to 300 languages were spoken in pre-European California, and there are still speakers, often only a handful, for many of them. When a language dies, a unique way of interpreting the universe disappears. For example, the youngest fluent speaker of Blackfoot is about 50. Even if attempts to perpetuate the language are successful, that will not be the same as growing up with that way of viewing the world. Probably most of the languages that ever existed in the world have already become extinct as the present-day language families spread out across the globe.

English, the Language of Science and Technology

Given the dominance of English as the language of science and technology, it is worth examining where it originated. Two or three thousand years ago, most of Western Europe was dominated by a language group called Celtic. Celtic speakers extended from Britain to Spain and deep into eastern Europe. Interspersed among them were islands of non-Indo-Europeans like the Basques, Etruscans and Picts. Latin evolved from the Celtic languages beginning perhaps 1500 B.C. The Romans conquered most of the Celtic lands and superimposed Latin as the language of commerce and government.

Invasions of Germanic peoples were partly responsible for the collapse of the Roman Empire. About 500-600 A.D., Britain was invaded by the Angles and Saxons from the North Sea coast of Germany and Holland. At about the same time, invaders from Ireland crossed over into Scotland and did what the Romans had never been able to do - conquered the Picts. Their language vanished. Despite this success, Celtic speakers were pushed into the periphery of Britain. In a final insult, the Anglo-Saxons termed the Celts Welas, outsiders, from which we get the name Wales. The Celts became outsiders on their own island. Between the Roman occupation and the Germanic invasions, the once vast Celtic language area shrank to enclaves: Ireland, Wales, Scotland. Celtic languages still survive, but almost all speakers in Britain and Ireland also speak English. Breton, a Celtic language, is also spoken in far western France, brought there by invaders from Wales. Virtually all Breton speakers know French, as well. Until recently, the far southwestern peninsula of Britain, called Cornwall, was home to a Celtic language called Cornish. It became extinct as an everyday language in the 19th century, although a handful of speakers perpetuate it. (Interestingly enough, one of the last enclaves of Cornish was at Mineral Point, Wisconsin, which was settled by Cornish miners in the 19th century and where numerous gravestones are inscribed in Cornish.) The Celtic languages, once spoken over half of Europe, are now endangered.

So thoroughly did the Anglo-Saxons supplant the Latin-Celtic language base of Britain that very few pre-Anglo-Saxon words survive in English. Crag, for a steep hill, is one. The Roman term for a military camp, castra, is another. It survives in place names like Lancaster, Worcester and Manchester.

The Angles and Saxons originated along what is now the coast of Holland and Germany. The language most similar to English is Frisian, spoken in that region by about a quarter of a million speakers. The national language most similar to English is Dutch. (That's in terms of structure and fundamental vocabulary. If I had to pick the foreign language easiest for English speakers to learn, I'd pick Italian.)

The Vikings

The Angles and Saxons had scarcely consolidated their hold on Britain when they were challenged by the Vikings. Viking invaders from Scandinavia ravaged the northeast coast of England and eventually settled there. A truce with the invaders was eventually worked out, a boundary established, and the Viking area came to be called the Danelaw. And something very significant seems to have happened to English because of it.

English differs from German in one very significant respect: word endings. "The dog bites the man" is "Der Hund beisst den Mann" in German. The words are similar enough to need no explanation; "Hund" is clearly related to "hound". But "Den Mann beisst der Hund" means exactly the same thing in German, whereas "the man bites the dog" is not at all the same in English. The difference is in the word endings. Der means the subject of the sentence (the dog), den means the object (the man) who is on the receiving end of the action (a bite). Most languages make extensive use of word endings to modify meanings, so much so that when the U.S. Government wants to identify candidates for language training (say in the State Department or military), it uses a test that emphasizes them. The test consists of simple rules of grammar, plus word endings tacked on to ordinary English words. The object is to identify the meanings of short sentences made up using these simple rules. The test measures, first, how quickly can somebody internalize and apply language rules, and second, how quickly can the person learn to listen for word endings?

Anglo-Saxon made extensive use of word endings; modern English doesn't. Why not? English may have lost its word endings as a result of the Viking settlement. There weren't enough Vikings to simply supplant Anglo-Saxon. Households would have had Viking and Anglo-Saxon spouses. Viking and Anglo-Saxon villages and farms would have existed side by side. The vocabularies of the two languages were closely related, but a lot of the grammatical details differed. Children might grow up hearing Norse from one parent and Anglo-Saxon from the other. The result seems to have been that a hybrid language emerged that simply did away with a lot of the word endings.

The Norman Conquest

In 1066, William of Normandy defeated King Harold in the last successful invasion of Britain, in fact, the last serious hostile landing in Britain. Harold had just finished beating off a Viking attack in the north and had to run his exhausted army the length of Britain to deal with this new threat. The Normans themselves were only a few generations removed from their own Viking past ("Norman" is a corruption of "Northman") but they spoke French and French became the official language of the court.

But not of Britain. Norman nobles married Anglo-Saxon wives. Their serfs spoke Anglo-Saxon. Their children were raised by Anglo-Saxon nursemaids. Within a couple of generations, transplanted Normans were learning French as a foreign language. But the locals were also learning French, only they were simply grafting French words into their daily speech. (Languages of this sort are called creole languages. Once rather airily dismissed as either clumsy failures at learning another language or shameful legacies of colonialism, they are now recognized as significant mechanisms of language formation.) The result was that the vocabulary of English effectively doubled. In some cases the French terms reflected the more sophisticated urban society of France while Anglo-Saxon terms reflect a more rural and agrarian outlook.
A comparison of terms for government shows this pattern clearly: Anglo-SaxonFrench
Occupation names reflect the more urban and technological society of France compared to the rural and agrarian lifestyle of England: Anglo-SaxonFrench
In other cases, English developed an unusual parallel vocabulary in which the French synonym connotes a higher (more - "high-falutin'") or more abstract quality than the Anglo-Saxon term. Anglo-SaxonFrench
What would the French be without cooking? The names for meals reflect their more sophisticated eating habits. breakfastdinner
They contributed many names for cooking operations. boil
And in the names for food, the Anglo-Saxons grew it and the French cooked it: cowbeef

The dual vocabulary of English explains why it differs so much from the other Germanic languages. Some French writers have suggested, only half in jest, that English should really be considered a dialect of French. But in grammatical structure it is clearly Germanic, and most of our common everyday words (like, for example, "and", "most", "day" and "word") are of Germanic origin.

Much More Than Just Words

The importance of the Viking and Norman invasions, and their effects on English, goes far beyond merely explaining the features of present-day English. The English language was hybridized twice and successfully adapted to the changes. Why stop there? Why not borrow and adapt any outside influence that looks useful? One of the hallmarks of Western culture, and particularly Americans, is a tendency to borrow and adapt from other cultures. A black man (whose ancestors came from Africa on a slave ship) might have a pizza for dinner (you can't get American pizza in Italy - it may have originated there, but we adapted it to our culture), then go to a country- western club (where the musical rhythms and themes are derived from Scotland and Ireland, and thoroughly Americanized), and do karaoke (from Japan) - and nobody thinks there is anything unusual about it. But it is remarkable, when you consider it. We borrow from everywhere, every language, every culture. And our experience with linguistic hybridization may have had a lot to do with it.


Writing originated in the Middle East, was adapted by the Greeks and diffused into Western Europe from there. Interestingly, it seems to have taken several centuries for anyone in Greece to think of arranging otherwise-unrelated items in alphabetical order. The Etruscans, the non-Indo-Europeans who were eventually absorbed by the Romans, adapted the Greek alphabet to their language, and in turn it was adapted by the Romans.

Consider the following word list:
This is the phonetic alphabet, used by American and European military forces. Although of American origin, the list is intended to be intelligible everywhere. Everyone knows who Romeo and Juliet are, there are place names and terms like "kilo" that are common to most European languages, and every soldier on the planet understands "uniform" and "whiskey!" The one exception is "Charlie" - languages vary too much in their usage of the letter C for there to be any easy common choice. This looks like a very 20th-Century idea. It is actually the oldest linguistic trick in the book. Consider the Hebrew alphabet, from 1000 B.C. or before:

Aleph (ox), Beth (house), Gimel (camel), Daleth (door) .....

The similarity to the Greek alpha, beta, gamma, delta is inescapable. Or consider the first Slavic alphabet from about 1000 A.D.:

Az (I), Buki (beech tree), Vedi (know), Glagol (word), Dobro (good), Est (is)...

In a society where literacy is rare or just emerging, how do you remember the alphabet? As a collection of nonsense syllables with no other meaning (ay, bee, see, dee ...)? It makes much more sense to remember the letters as a list of common words that begin with the letters.

Evolution of Our Alphabet

The Greek alphabet is given in terms of the equivalent sounds in English. Note that some letters are in different order.
Greek (from middle Eastern sources)Early Latin (via Etruscan)Later LatinMedievalModern
E EpsilonEEEE
Long I EtaGGGG
Short I IotaIII/J (interchangeable)I
K KappaJ
L LambdaKKK
Short O OmicronOOOO
U/Y UpsilonTTTT
PH PhiUUU/V (interchangeable)U
Long O OmegaXXXX
The Greeks evolved their alphabet by modifying Middle Eastern sources, and the Etruscans developed an alphabet modified from Greek. The Etruscans omitted letters in Greek that did not suit their language but tended to keep the Greek order otherwise, so A-E and I-U match the Greek alphabet fairly closely. The Etruscans also redefined Greek letters like F (an obsolete letter called digamma) and X (the Greek chi) to suit their own needs. The later Romans reintroduced a number of Greek letters (K, Y, Z) so they could write borrowed Greek terms. During the Renaissance we differentiated the letters I and J, U and V, and introduced W, which was literally "double - u".

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Created 16 October 1996, Last Update 25 September 1998

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