When language was first spoken, how many languages were spoken?

You might think it would be obvious- one.  Many theorists would agree with you, and you may all be right.  But you may not be.  Click here to see why.


  1. cymast

     /  October 14, 2008

    What an arbitrary question!

    What is the threshold for “language”? Would that include grunts, sighs, and gestures?

    I would venture to say by definition, an indeterminate number of languages were spoken at first. Then they each gradually coalesced, or became independant of each other, or became obsolete.

  2. acilius

     /  October 14, 2008

    Rosenfelder (in the linked article) does spend a fair bit of time on the threshold question, showing that the advocates of monogenesis (the idea that there was one original language from which all languages spoken today are descended) have dodged it. He reaches a conclusion very similar to yours.

  3. lefalcon

     /  October 21, 2008

    Yeah it sounds, at first blush, like an arbitrary question. But the more I think about this issue, the more baffling it becomes. Obviously there was a time when humans (or proto-humans) did not possess language…Then they subsequently acquired it. But there must’ve been intermediate stages. If we woke up tomorrow and all chimpanzees were suddenly conversing in articulate Cambridge English…that would be bizarre! “Well,” explains a chimpanzee, “you see, our species had been just at the cusp of acquiring fully-developed language for quite some time; but it was only today (October 21, 2008) that we were at last able to break through to the next evolutionary stage and start conversing with one another.”

  4. cymast

     /  October 21, 2008

    I find it arbitrary because there seems to be differing definitions of language. Yes, the are stages of language going from rudimentary to sophisticated, but I would argue that chimpanzees do possess language. So do dolphins, bees, cats, dogs, birds, elephants, and perhaps all of the more complex life forms. Perhaps even the simpler life forms.

    Of course, if one argues that language must mimic human language, that would probably disclude all species except humans.

  5. acilius

     /  October 23, 2008

    Nice avatar, cymast!

    Clearly “language” must be a more specific term than “system of communication.” All animals, perhaps all living things, have systems of communication. Humans, too, have many systems of communication, of which language is just one.

  6. cymast

     /  October 23, 2008

    Thank you!

    Agreed. But my point is I don’t think words- as we know them- are necessary for language. I know I’m in the minority here.

  7. lefalcon

     /  November 10, 2008

    I agree those cats are cute. One of my central beefs with WordPress blogs is that it’s impossible to view larger images of people’s flippin “avatars.”

    Monogenesis could mean that all langs that ever existed were descended from one absolute ultimate proto human language, the very mother tongue of the species. But it could also mean that all *existing* langs in the world today are descendants of a single lang that existed long, long ago. Now there could’ve been a bunch of other langs in existence at the time of that “mother tongue,” but all those other lines died out. This is the schtick of the linguist Ruhlen. He’s less concerned about the process of how we, as a biological species, became endowed with lang…but rather with the possibility that all historically known langs go back to a common ancestor.

    I thought I’d inject that as “a most enlightening sidebar!!” into the conversation.

  8. cymast

     /  November 10, 2008

    Lefalcon wins a prize.

  9. acilius

     /  November 10, 2008

    That’s right about Ruhlen & Greenberg.

    I was thinking about this topic just today. I was wondering how many people in the world speak just one language. That seems to be rather rare, if not in total numbers (lots of monolingual English speakers, lots of monolingual Chinese speakers) then in the number of languages that have lots of monolingual speakers. So most Africans speak some huge number of languages, for example.

    Anyway, if there were never a time when only one language existed, then you’d have an interesting question on your hands. Is the human brain well adapted to monolingualism? Or do we need to use multiple languages in order to develop our cognitive functions properly?

  10. lefalcon

     /  November 10, 2008

    I dont know if a person *needs* to know more than one lang for their mind to develop PROPPA-ly … but having some familiarity with other langs, beyond your native tongue, does seem to furnish a person with some possible insights into the mechanics of language in general. I mean just simple stuff, like how some languages have no definite article at all, but other langs have several different version of the definite article. Or how some langs like the Slavic langs have these horrendous systems of case-indicating suffixes on all their nouns…whilst other langs sail along quite effortlessly without any of that horrendous stuff. But I think it’s a-OK to know only one language. And if you wish to acquire a new language, why not just make up a fake one, like a new dialect of Klingon?

  11. cymast

     /  November 10, 2008

    Or a fake one like Esperanto?

    I’m sure there were many pockets of isolated human gene pools throughout pre-history. I don’t see the connection between learning more than 1 language and proper brain development.

    After I inadvertently took an Esperanto class in college I realized my cognitive functions were (temporarily) becoming improper. And no, it wasn’t just a correlation- I literally felt my cognitive functions become improper during class. I recovered the next semester. And that hasn’t happened with beginning ASL or French.

  12. acilius

     /  November 11, 2008

    Well, much of the human brain is devoted to language. If monolingualism has been very unusual throughout the history of our species, then it would seem reasonable to ask whether our brains have a physical need for a second language. I wonder if neurologists are conducting research into this question now, and if so, whether they have come to any conclusions.

  13. cymast

     /  November 11, 2008

    A quick Google search suggests bilingual children often have an educational advantage over monolingual children.

    My first language was Japanese, in Japan. When I was 2 my family and I left Japan for Korea. After about a year we settled in British Columbia. By the time I was 4 I was speaking English only. I don’t know how my brain was shaped by this succession of languages, but I’m sure it did something.

  14. acilius

     /  November 11, 2008

    I remember your stories about running naked through the streets of Tokyo when you were one year old. Vthunderlad lived in Tokyo for several years when he was around 30, I don’t know if he also ran naked through the streets.

  15. cymast

     /  November 11, 2008

    In my defense I was covered in blue paint. It was my first performance art.

  16. lefalcon

     /  November 11, 2008

    I’m extremely interested in creoles and pidgins. So interested, in fact, I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to stave off learning the very most basic, rudimentary facts about what they even are. But I’m absolutely and utterly fascinated by them. Actually I do know a tiny bit about them. A pidgin is a sort of artificial “lingua franca” that tends to get generated when speakers of different languages are engaged in trade and require a common tongue to communicate in. In essence, pidgins are informally-created Esperanto-esque things. When a pidgin starts getting adopted by people as a native language, they call this a “creole.” The only reason I’m mentioning any of this, is because I think people have almost some sort of instinct about how to simplify language, even their own native language. I’ve certainly had bizarre lapses where I realize I’m speaking a weird, substandard, simplified version of English, because at that time, I was talking to non-native speakers who seemed to be able to comprehend this freaky pidgin-talk better than normal English. (I suppose in the long run, it’s doing them a disservice, if their goal is to learn standard or “proppa” English.) Take for example in German where they say [something like] “Ich habe eine neues Buch.” I know that that must be wrong, but I’m trying to point out how they put a completely useless suffix on adjectives when they precede a noun. That suffix serves no goddam function, except to be damn difficult for non-native speakers to master. It does not clarify anything or enhance facility of communication in any way, whatsoever. It’s just historical garbage – an annoying vestige of the Old Germanic full-blown declensional system. I’m in favor of streamlining languages, i.e. throwing out all that old historical crap in the name of simplification across the board. The only problem is that the so-called “historical crap” in many ways constitutes the very glue holding the language together, so that to eliminate it, is also to do brtual violence to the language itself, as well as to cause native speakers to go shit-listic. Especially the French. They would go totally shit-listic, what with their attitudes to their own language. And ironically, theirs is one of the ones in most desperate need of reform! Anyhow, to get back to the original point that I wanted to make in this comment: I just find it absolutely fascinating that human beings *seem* to have some incredible instinct for simplifying languages, almost as if we secretly know exactly which elements of a language are bullshit and which need to be there. Equally interesting is how these creoles seem to spontaneously “complexify” themselves, like there’s a constant cycle of complexification that ultimately culminates in the language having a total nervous breakdown. Look at poor Latin. The entire edifice just collapsed and crumbled into Vulgar Latin, which is a rude offense against the genteel niceties of Virgil etc.

  17. acilius

     /  November 12, 2008

    This post originally went up on October 10, I’ve moved it up because the discussion is getting lively.

    What is complexity in language, what is simplicity in language?

    Sometimes I talk in my word origins class about the idea of simplifying a language. The point I always try to bring out is that it can be tricky to tell whether a change is making a language simpler, making it more complex, or just exchanging one form of complexity for another.

    This comes up because we cover the shift English made sometime after the year 900 from being a language in which word endings did most of the work in showing how words fit together syntactically (which word is the subject, which is the verb, which adjective goes with which noun) to being a language in which word order does most of that work. Apparently this change (from “synthetic” to “analytic”) started as a process of creolization- English speakers and Norse speakers in the north of England had many of the same basic words, since Old English and Old Norse are both West Germanic languages, but they had different grammatical endings. The Norse were unwilling to adopt the English endings, the English were unwilling to adopt Norse endings. So, a new language developed as a compromise. The vocabulary of this new language was part English, part Norse, the grammatical structure contained some elements that were common to English and Norse and many elements that were alien to both English and Norse.

    The materials I use in that class present the shift from synthetic (word-endings based) Old English to analytic (word-order based) later Englishes as a “great simplifying compromise.” So I have to demonstrate that it is in no way simpler to use word order to indicate syntactical relationships than it is to use word endings to indicate the same relationships. It was a useful change for English speakers and Norse speakers trying to rub along together in the Danelaw 1000 years ago, but that was just because they put different endings on the same words. If they’d put the same endings on different words we might have found a very different kind of change.

    For an example of languages putting the same grammatical endings on different basic words, you need look no further than Greek and Latin. Those two languages have very similar systems of noun and adjective endings, the verb endings also have some overlap. Latin and Greek don’t have a great many words in common, not compared to Old English and Old Norse. So to study how creoles form in a situation opposite to the situation that prevailed in the Danelaw, one place to start would be the Greek that is still spoken in southern Italy today. I met a guy when I was in Greece who came from a Greek-speaking community in southern Italy, his Greek was unintelligible to all the Greeks we met.

    Back to the question “what is complex, what is simple.” This seems to be another area where brain science might be able to shed light on linguistics. Functional MRI scans of people using various kinds of languages could help us formulate that question in terms that would admit of a quantitative test. I don’t know of any theory that would allow us to formulate it as set of a testable hypotheses.

  18. cymast

     /  November 12, 2008

    Fo’ shizzle.

    My Esperanto professor, besides promoting Esperanto disguised as a “World Languages” class, also promoted 2 other things- that non-humans cannot have language and that Ebonics is a righteous dialect. His no-language-for-nonhumans argument basically consisted of him getting red in the face and insisting that monkeys mimic their trainers. Native monkey language was simply gibberish, of course. As for Esperanto- it consistently follows grammatical rules, so it must be taken seriously. End of class.

    “What is complex, what is simple.” Wow, that’s confounding question. I suppose one would have to gather a team of researchers from around the world representing native speakers of all the major languages- heck, how about going for all the known languages (excluding Esperanto and the like, of course). Using simple-to-complex logic, compare differences and similarities of phonemes, morphemes, and rudimentary sentences structures of babies just learning to speak their native tongues.

    For an interesting pidgin experience, go to Chinatown, Honolulu. Ask about all the “Missing Person” posters on every street corner.

  19. acilius

     /  November 12, 2008

    We’ve turned up a lot of interesting questions in this thread. Some:

    1. When language was first spoken, how many languages were spoken?
    2. What separates “language” from other communication systems?
    3. Through what stages did the early evolution of language progress?
    4. Is it possible to define language otherwise than as a subcategory of human behavior?
    5. How do humans combine language with non-linguistic systems of communication?
    6. Are words necessary for language?
    7. What meanings does the word “monogenesis” have, and in which of these senses does crackpot linguist Merritt Ruhlen endorse it?
    8. Is the human brain well adapted to monolingualism?
    9. Does the brain integrate artificial languages in the same way as it does natural languages?
    10. What if any neurological research is being conducted into questions 8 and 9?
    11. If such research is underway, has it reached any conclusions?
    12. If so, what are these conclusions?
    13. What educational advantages do bilingual children have over monolingual children?
    14. Did Vthunderlad run naked through the streets of Tokyo while working for the Union Bank of Switzerland?
    15. Did cymast inadvertently found the Blue Man Group? If so, can she tell us whether the Blue Man Group still exists?
    16. What is creolization? Why do speakers of particular language sometimes resist the process of creolization? Why do they sometimes embrace it?
    17. In what sense can one language or form of a language be said to be “simpler” or “more complex” than another?
    18. Is language a process available to non-human beings?

    So that’s quite a bit to think about. As for using babies to test the question of simple/ complex, that might not work- Noam Chomsky and the legions of darkness, er, his followers, argue that the whole structure of every possible language is already built into our brains at birth. So baby talk might be simple, but it might also be very complex.

  20. lefalcon

     /  November 12, 2008

    I certainly agree that there is a tendency for human beings to assume themselves to be extremely special. For example, I was reading something lately where the writer indicated that all animal behavior, across the board, was nothing but a function of the animals’ inborn instincts and whatever conditioning they received during their life. Clearly a dude that never had any pets. Animals have distinctive personalities that go beyond being reducible to the general tendencies of their entire species. Nor can this be laid at the doorstep of mere conditioning, because members of the same brood or litter may be seen to have markedly different personalities. There’s surely more going on with animals than we seem disposed to give them credit for.

    At the same time, I don’t think anybody can authoritatively say that monkeys have language, if that’s being implied. Sure, maybe they do. And maybe there’s a controversy about that, between advocates and nay-sayers. But I highly doubt whether this is established, by any means. And a system of communication, to use A’s terminology, even if it’s on relative par with the elaborateness and sophistication of human language, still isn’t necessarily “language,” in the books, I would venture to say, of many people.

    On the simple/complex thing, I’m sure that linguists would make that move pretty quickly: Define simple! Define complex! I may not be able to define it in some commanding, authoritative, theoretical way…but from my point of view as a haggard Odysseus of foreign language classes, I *know* when an aspect of one language’s grammar is simpler than it’s analogue in another language. Not by means of tremendous mental analysis…but by gauging the amount of pain which learning that aspect causes me to experience. Verb conjugation in Arabic: There is much pain. In French: Moderate pain. In Indonesian: Relatively smooth sailing. (Although in fairness to Indonesian, there may have been some painful stuff I never got to.) While I agree that overall simplicity/complexity of a given language may be almost if not entirely impossible to quantify, as an individual whose svirtual tock-in-trade (aside from FLUSHIN OUT CLOWNS) consists of attaining lower intermediate proficiency in one language after another and then subsequently forgetting everything, I really do believe you can isolate an aspect and say, in a pretty cut-and-dried way, “This is more complex in Lang X than it is in Lang Y.”

    Finally, I round out this comment with my blood-curdling credo/battle-cry:

    OR WHATEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  21. acilius

     /  November 12, 2008

    “I *know* when an aspect of one language’s grammar is simpler than it’s analogue in another language. Not by means of tremendous mental analysis…but by gauging the amount of pain which learning that aspect causes me to experience.” So how do you know that Arabic isn’t just the one that’s least like English, while Indonesian is the one you started with the most language experience behind you?

  22. cymast

     /  November 12, 2008

    I can answer with authority #15: NO, cymast did NOT, inadvertantly or otherwise, found the EVIL Blue Man Group.

    Chomsky and his followers remind me of Freud and his followers in that they all espouse bizarre theories and then make up equally bizarre suppositions to support these theories.

    I *know* baby talk is simpler than adult talk.

  23. acilius

     /  November 13, 2008

    Chomsky and Freud strike me as similar, too. Each one starts with a few ideas that may well be true and which, if true, might have great explanatory power. Then, he develops those ideas way beyond what the evidence available to him would support. When more evidence becomes available, he and his followers dig their heels in and refuse to look at it. Keeping their critics busy with their belligerent attitude toward new research tools and methods, they quietly reformulate their theories so that when they are finally forced to admit that their earlier statements cannot possibly have been true, they can say, “Oh, we haven’t said THAT for years- you really must keep up to date with work in our field if you hope to engage with us.”

  24. lefalcon

     /  November 13, 2008

    What’s really going on in a lot of these academic debates is taking something, like a proposition, and piling up brick after brick on top of it, to see how much weight it can handle. People have backlashed against Edward Said’s _Orientalism_, but all that backlashing is just an indication that his ideas won’t “snap” beneath the crippling weight of so many objections. Every theorist has their weak points of vulnerability. I used to be more naive and to a certain extent just accepted things because they were published in a book and appeared authoritative. So it was a great revelation when I discovered that there really is going to be a fluidity, relativity, or even tenuousness is involved in the arguments of even eminent thinkers. And of course the kind of material we’re talking about here is agonizing to grapple with, and certainly sends me screaming from the room. It’s like taking a car out on the highway and exclaiming, “Let’s see what this baby can do!” Ruhlen’s work is great: He’s pushing things further and further back, and nobody can prove him definitively wrong. There’s definitely an ethic of honest and integrity in academic research, but there’s also an opportunism not unlike that of courtroom lawyers. One tends to foreground what supports one’s argument, and dismiss or ignore what undermines it. A scholar can go too far and deliberately falsify data or intentionally set up a Straw Man misunderstanding of the opposition and rail against it. That’s dishonest and not good. But the scholar is there to make an argument, and it needs some punch behind it. I’m sure you’re not alone in calling Ruhlen a nasty name like “crackpot.” His work is a direct assault upon the relentlessly irrational establishment of historical linguistics who are steeped in antiquated attitudes of counter-productive conservatism and who need to be reminded that, well, “denial aint just a river in Egypt.”

    I do agree that language learners bring a blob of predispositions to the study of the “target language.” And that these predispositions flow directly from how their native language has conditioned them. Example: Spanish is, for the most part, pretty easy for us, but it would probably be a total bitch for a Chinese person, especially a Chinese person with absolutely no prior exposure to European languages. So I totally agree that this business about “easy” languages and “hard” languages has to be taken with a grain of salt, because the easiness or hardness of Language X isn’t just dependent on its inherent features, but it also depends on the predispositions of the particular learner approaching Language X. But having said that, I would like to suggest that something like the system of verb conjugation can be demonstrably easy or hard. In Indonesian, there is basically no conjugation; there’s just the verb itself which is not modified for differences of gender, number, or person, i.e. you use exactly the same form every time. And to indicate past or future, you place a time-indicating work prior to the verb itself. It’s smooth sailing, and I think even Neptunians would agree. Maybe even McCain supporters would agree.

  25. acilius

     /  November 14, 2008

    I wondered when you would get to Spanish, and whether you would mention your roommate from your freshman year of college who declared it to be “a child’s language.”

    You make Indonesian sound easy to speak and write, but hard to understand. How can you identify the syntactical relationships among words in complex sentences?

    Ruhlen’s book-length table of proposed language families is fun, but you don’t have to be nasty to call him a crackpot. The main contention underlying all his work is that all languages should be considered cognate unless they can be proven not to be. In other words, he does not admit that he needs to provide any evidence whatever for his various claims.

    Indeed, while Ruhlen has proposed countless relationships among languages, he has yet to lay out a single systematic sound correspondence in any one of his supposed families. When Ruhlen deigns to present evidence, it is always at the level of individual words, phrases, grammatical endings, etc. In other words, miscellaneous resemblances which might mean anything or nothing, and nothing which can generate a falsifiable prediction.

  26. lefalcon

     /  November 14, 2008

    I believe I speak on behalf of dumb damn John Stossel and all loyal Libertarians everywhere, when I say that Ruhlen deserves a chance, which you are not giving him. This is ludicrous to suggest that he doesn’t present evidence! He presents shit loads and shit loads of evidence. So that’s just a red herring and nothing more.

    No, the real issue is that he doesn’t provide the kind of evidence demanded by those who are sadly stuck in a time warp. It’s not that he fails to present evidence, or that the evidence is not legitimate. Rather, the 19th-century relics that are bent on the enforcement of orthodoxy at all costs–even if that cost is deliberate obfuscation–have haughtily ordained that no genetic relationships among languages may be postulated unless and until someone has re-constructed a proto-language and all the processes by which the modern members of that family diverged from the proto-form. In essence, they are absolutely and psychotically allergic to speculation about language classifications/relationships, unless speculations have the documentation of decades of research behind them. It’s like saying you can’t drill for oil unless you have proof positive that there’s a huge reserve of oil in precisely this spot. But if you cannot possess that information until after you’ve drilled and explored, then what this amounts to, in the end, is nothing but a sad and narrowminded little game whose only purpose is to block any new discoveries and to enforce a strangehold of knowledge.

  27. acilius

     /  November 16, 2008

    No doubt Ruhlen and his fellows provide lots of information, but that’s not the same as lots of evidence. Information is evidence only if it provides logical support to a claim.

    Ruhlen and the others of that school don’t even pretend to offer falsifiable claims. The advantage of a table of sound correspondences is not the length of time ot takes to produce, but the possibility that data might turn up to disprove the many precise, discrete, and interlocking claims it encodes. If you want to avoid a rigid orthodoxy, you can’t very well embrace writers who do not expose their claims to empirical testing.

    Moreover, Ruhlen, Greenberg, and company tend to pick up dictionaries, copy the forms of the words used as headings for the entries, and pick and choose among the definitions and syonyms until they find something that reminds them of a similarly spelled word in a language they have decided is related to the language to which that dictionary is supposed to be a guide. Why do the words take the forms listed? They don’t care. If the part of the word that reminds them of its alleged cognate is in fact a grammatical ending that has no connection to the alleged root meaning, they’ll never know. How does each meaning come to be associated with each word? Again, they don’t care- they don’t go beyond the dictionaries to examine how the speakers of the language actually use the words. So a meaning that one word picked up only in recent times is equated with a meaning that another word had only in the distant past, and these two are postulated as manifestations of some meaning in the imagined proto-language.

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