Why Are There So Many Languages?

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Why Are There So Many Languages?

The entire Earth has civilizations and countries that speak in not just a small number of languages but in around 7,000 languages / Photo by Anna Bizoń via 123RF

 

Language is one of mankind’s most powerful tools and weapons. It is one of the things that separate us from other creatures of the animal kingdom and give us the ability to express some of our most intricate thoughts and opinions.

Along with the diversity of thoughts is also the diversity of language. But how did it come to be that several countries in the world speak vastly different languages?

 

Differences and Patterns

There are many instances where two neighboring villages or countries that only border each other on their outskirts or by imaginary lines would have two completely different languages. There are even islands only 100 kilometers long that are host to tens of different languages. The entire Earth has civilizations and countries that speak in not just a small number of languages but in around 7,000 languages.

Scientists have found that the distribution of languages is not as random as they appear. There are certain patterns that can be gleaned, such as that there are a great deal more languages in tropical regions compared to the temperate zones. For example, New Guinea has about 900 indigenous languages while Russia, which is about 20 times larger, has only over 100 languages. The 80 islands of Vanuatu have about 250 thousand people living within them and speak over 110 languages, which is impressive compared to Bangladesh, which has about 41 languages spoken among its population, which is 600 times larger than Vanuatu’s.

Despite having these fundamental distinctions and questions about humanity’s mode of communication, there hasn’t been any clear answer.

Theories to Language’s Beginnings

One glaring question often posed in this discussion is whether humankind ever had a single common language, to begin with. Stories, such as the Tower of Babel, often play with this idea and even end with everyone being unable to communicate. Some schools of thought hold the idea of monogenesis, in which all languages evolved from a single language that branched out and evolved when humans first traveled out of Africa and spread around the world, according to K-International.com.

Another theory is that there were a number of ancestral languages created by the progenitors of modern humans. Just as animal domestication and agriculture were discovered by different groups without interaction, so did the creation of different languages. Unfortunately, there is no way that modern scientists will be able to confirm one or the other unless there were records to confirm it.

 

Difficulty in Finding Answers

There is definitely an abundance of different ideas and theories. Many hypothesize that diversity has to do with the history or cultural differences between people, or that obstacles such as large landmasses and bodies of water, or even the rivalry of two tribes, have caused rifts between our ways of speaking, as explained by the Scientific American. However, none of these have been proven to truly contribute to the diversity of language.

Even in the face of other branches of study that would find this information essential, such as geography, linguistics, and anthropology, only a small number of studies have been conducted to find an answer. No clear patterns were found among different studies that tried to map out different variables, such as geography and societal constructs. Even as they found different facts that correlated to language diversity, they realized that these did not necessarily cause language to be spread out so widely and unevenly throughout the world.

 

A Model for Language Diversity

When scientists attempted to create a model that simulated the spread and diversity of language, specifically in Australia, they used a number of different basic assumptions to guide it. The model was programmed to fill in free areas with populations if no one lived there. They also made it so that more people lived in places where rainfall was denser, and that when a population reached its maximum capacity in a certain area, the population would split into two different parts speaking different languages.

When checking to compare the results of the computer model and the actual language map of Australia, they were astonished to find that the model produced a number of languages that was only one off from reality. Not only that, but the density of languages in different parts of the map was also highly similar. This was in spite of the fact that they didn’t include other potential factors, such as intergroup contact, the possibility of borrowing cultural ideas of language, or the change in sources of food.

There are instances where two neighboring villages or countries that border each other by imaginary lines would have two completely different languages / Photo by Ivaylo Sarayski via 123RF

 

Of course, it would be difficult to apply the same model to other parts of the world. For starters, some areas have more even rainfall than others. Other locations will likely have different factors that were more essential, such as climate changes, the spread of natural resources, history of warfare and conquest, and even the spread of agricultural techniques.

Even when it comes to one of humanity’s defining features, scholars still find themselves at a loss. Perhaps with more studies, we may finally know what has caused such great diversity among people in terms of personal expression.

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