Languages fascinate me because they are our main way of communication and more. Mainly spoken but also written they allow people to share and connect with each other. On top of that, language is ingrained in culture and is therefore socially and culturally important.
How language came about is debated: some argue that, due to its complexity, it must have slowly evolved from nonhuman prelinguistic systems and is therefore functional, others believe that it’s so unique to humans that it just appeared. The latter relates to Chomsky’s view that some random mutation took place that led to language being innate.
There are about 7.000 different living languages, that is, languages that have at least one native speaker. The number is vague, mainly because it can be tricky to separate language and dialect. The distinction is frequently made on the basis of different writing systems, cultures and politics, as well as mutual intelligibility. For example, German has various dialects, some of which are intelligible to speakers of standard German and some which are not. Moroccans and Syrians may share Arabic literature but would not normally understand each other despite both speaking “dialects of Arabic”.
Languages have been classified into language families according to similarities and therefore have common ancestors. There are also language isolates, which are languages that don’t seem to relate to any other languages, for example Basque, spoken in Spain and France.
I’ve always enjoyed linguistic reconstruction, which tries to reconstruct an ancestor language of one or more languages.
For one language, internal reconstruction is used, mainly to look at sound changes. You look at irregularities of the language to make out earlier stages.
To find a common ancestor, a so called proto language, between several languages, comparative reconstruction is used. In this case, words with the same meaning in different languages are placed next to each other to determine a previous stage. For example, English two, German zwei, Afrikaans twee, Swedish twå. This showcases how German must have changed t to z as it stands out, so the original in Germanic was a t.
This brings me to writing. In many languages, no matter which writing system, not every sound is recorded. For example, in alphabetic writing, phonemes are written down but even then pronunciation often differs: think of the word “jeopardy” in English or “Hors d’oeuvres” in French. In Arabic, vowels are usually not written at all. Only Korean hangul is a featural writing system where phones are written down.
When you listen to your language you take it for granted. When you listen to or learn a new language you open your eyes to their complexity. You can see how languages are very similar and yet so different. Take German, which is often described as having harsh ‘staccato’ sounds, French which is so melodic, nasal and kind of one string of words, or mandarin where different tones have different meanings.
Amazingly, children acquire languages almost effortlessly. That is, they don’t have to consciously think “verb second”, or ” add s for third person verbs” when they talk. Their brain is also open to new sounds and patterns, so their speech will be accent free. When adults learn another language on the other hand, knowing rules is quite important in speaking correctly. However, a second language speaker is unlikely to ever sound native like. The difference is that children have the cognitive ability to acquire languages they’re exposed to. This ability disappears as we age, and people have to actually “learn” languages.
There are still many whys and hows that linguists are trying to answer, concerning language acquisition, language change, language evolution, and so on. I hope I could give you some insight into the fascinating world of languages.