Language has been defined as “the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words” by English phonetician and language- scholar Henry Sweet.
Further, he says, “Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts.” Another definition by US linguists Bernard Bloch and George L. Trager says: “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates.”
Ancient traditions all over the world ascribe a divine origin or a supernatural origin to language— its earliest trace and use. Almost all ancient communities have accounts that talk of divine participation in the creation of language.
In Jewish belief, Adam named the creatures of the Earth under God’s guidance; Norse mythology has a similar story which says that God Odin was responsible for the invention of the runic alphabet and, according to Hindu mythology, Lord Indra is said to have invented articulate speech.
The mythological figure, Cadmus of Phoenicia, is said to have founded Thebes and introduced writing into Greece. This is because the Greeks adapted Phoenician consonantal script to represent the distinctive consonant and vowel sounds of Greek. So we see that language, as it originated, did not spring from a certain place or in a certain community uninfluenced by outside factors.
While it is true that outside influences affected the origin and evolution of language in an area or in a community, it is also true that there is rich linguistic diversity—adjacent communities even speak different and mutually unintelligible languages.
There have been attempts to cite a specific language as the oldest lang. age of the world. Some ancient Greeks like historian Herodotus were of the view that Phrygian was the oldest language of mankind. In Christian Europe, Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, was believed to be the oldest till the nineteenth century. But, the impracticability of speculations on the oldest language of the world is now too apparent.
Language and Culture:
Language is a part of culture, where culture refers to all aspects of human life insofar as they are determined by the fact of being members of a society. The faculty of language acquisition and use is innate and inherited by humans but the language of a person is acquired by that person as a member of the society.
Language and culture are mutually indispensable; language can have developed only in a social setting in a specific area or geographic location and human society in any form can be maintained only among people of that area using a language that all of them can understand.
Link between Languages, Migration and Geographical Areas:
When we trace the origin and nature of language families, studying their present-day classification into Indo-European languages, Semitic language family and so on, it becomes clear that there is a strong link between the movement of peoples in the very earliest times, development of several individual languages and locations where the languages are spoken.
The Indo-European family today includes Sanskrit, English, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish (Germanic languages). These are languages traced back in the past to Eurasia. Likewise, the origin and evolution of the Semitic languages are linked to a specific region—the Middle East— though later movements of people allow a diffusion of languages, as in the case of the Indo-European family.
There are clearly continuous historical connections linking French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian (the Romance sub-family of languages) with the spoken Latin of the Western Roman Empire of olden times. It goes to show how a group of distinct yet historically linked languages emerges as the result of linguistic change over a wide area.
Most of the languages of Europe belong to the Indo-European family including Romance sub-family, Germanic sub-family as well as Sanskrit, the classical Indian language, and others. It is assumed that the sub-families are derived from a unitary language (the Proto-Indo- European) spoken somewhere in Eastern Europe or western Asia some five thousand years ago. Similarly constituted language families have been traced back to common sources in other parts of the world.
Changes in Language through Geographical Movement:
The basic cause of linguistic change and diversification is deviations in speech transmission over generations. But population movements matter: for instance, movements of people in the prehistoric era carried the Indo- European languages from a restricted area into most of Europe, Persia, Armenia and North India.
But there is also the imposition of one language over the others. In the Western Roman Empire, Latin superseded the earlier Celtic languages not through population replacement but through abandonment of the languages by the inhabitants themselves as Latin was preferred as the language of commerce, civilisation, law, literature and social prestige.
Conquest of One civilisation or culture over another does not mean its language will dominate in the long run. Greek survived centimes of Turkish rule. It all depends on the various circumstances and mutual attitudes of those involved.
There are two points to be noted. One, when linguistically homogeneous people occupy a virtually empty area, as in the case of most of Australia, the movements of people would result in the spread of their language. Two, languages spread and even compete with each other but most importantly, they are in constant contact.
Every language shows that it has come in contact with other languages in the past and has assimilated words and other components of language from them. Modern Greek is full of Turkish words despite Greek attempts to ‘purify Greek; that French was the language of the ruling class in England for a period was enough to effect enormous changes in English which include a number of French words entering the English language.
Linguistic Diversity and Creation of Countries/States:
The effect to which differences in language can affect people has been discussed. The need to preserve one’s culture and its purity has been prominent in modern times through ‘purification’ drives. The Greeks have been keen to throw out Turkish words from their vocabulary. For a period under the Nazis, efforts were made to replace foreign words in German by words of native origin. There have been movements to replace later accretions in English by words derived from old English forms.
The care with which efforts are being made to preserve Sanskrit, the ‘sacred’ language, cannot go unnoticed. But a stronger impact of language has been seen in terms of its impact on creation of new political divisions. The creation of Bangladesh was a result of the Bangla- speaking people of East Pakistan rebelling against attempts to impose Urdu on them.
It was essentially a language tussle—a conflict arising from what was seen as imposition of one language, as superior, over another—that led to disenchantment among the Bengalis of East Pakistan. Likewise, creation of States in India after Independence was largely based on the language criterion.
It was a language movement that fought for creation of the State of Andhra Pradesh as a separate geographic entity from the Madras State. Linguistic divisions are of much paramount importance not only in India but also in other countries of the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. The secessionist movement in Sri Lanka, for instance, is based on religious as well as linguistic diversities—the perception of a people that their language and culture is being given a secondary status by the ruling elite.
Language can, on the one hand, spread over areas and unite people, as it is increasingly happening in the present time of globalisation. All over the world, English is becoming popular as a necessary as well as fashionable language, especially in the developing countries. This is, in a sense, a way to unite separate geographical areas, by bringing people of different countries and regions closer to each other through a common language.
On the other hand, linguistic diversities can reinforce conflicts and divide areas to give rise to new geographical areas—countries and divisions within a country.
A language generally have many dialects, that is, it is expressed in different ways in different areas. The dialects of a language are its sub-divisions. The dialects are identifiable as distinct but they do not render understanding impossible. Inter-communication is possible and not so difficult at all among people well-versed in various dialects of a language. The dialects of a language vary depending on the areas.
There are different dialects of English—Southern British English, Northern British English, Scottish English, Midwest American English, New England American English, Australian English—with many more sub-dialects. But Welsh and English will not be referred to as dialects. In the Indian context, Tamil, one of the oldest languages, has numerous dialects in Tamil Nadu—the Coimbatore dialect, Tirunelveli dialect, Tanjore dialect, Palakkad dialect and so on. But no one would refer to Tamil and Telugu as different ‘dialects’; they are two different languages.
The most widespread type of dialectical differentiation is geographic.
A widespread type of dialectical differentiation is geographic. The speech of one place differs from that of another place, differences between neighbouring dialects being small but increasing with distance. Every dialectical feature has an isogloss or heterogloss, its own boundary line. The crossing and interweaving of isoglosses constitute intricate patterns on dialect maps.
Geographical dialects are local ones or regional ones. The differences within a regional dialect are smaller than differences between two regional dialects of the same rank. The dialects are named and referred to using names of geographic regions or provinces. In some cases, geographic isolation plays a major role in division of dialects, for instance, Australian English or Louisiana French.
Unifying Influences on Dialects:
Communication and trade lines including roads, river valleys and sea-coasts have a unifying influence on dialects. Urban centres are the core of regions where often the same dialect is spoken. It has been noted that greater contact between populations tends to reduce dialectical differences and the other way about.
In modern times, dialectical differences are diminishing, the dialectical traits being replaced by the standard language. Mass literacy, schools, migration and the growing role of mass communication have contributed to it. But this is not a new phenomenon altogether. Even in the past, linguistic force has been exerted by a single dominating community. In the Hellenistic era, for instance, almost all the Greek dialects were replaced by the Kione which was based on the dialect of Athens. Geographical phenomena may cause a much stronger dialectical differentiation in one direction than in others.
Experts distinguish between focal areas, which are sources of innovations and centres of lively economic or cultural activity, and relic areas—places towards which innovations are spreading. Relic areas are in out-of-the-way regional pockets or along the periphery of the geographical territory of a particular language. The borders of regional dialects contain transitional areas that share features with a neighbour. Population mixture due to migrations, as it is happening much in recent times, result in unequal diffusion in mixed dialects.
In the case of bilingual speakers, dialects of the languages will be influenced by each other. This would be indicated by the loanwords, adoption of phonological or grammatical features and even development of creolized languages (pidgin languages that become the sole or main language of a speech community).
Different Language Groups:
Languages are classified on the basis of they being descendants of a common ancestral language. The genetic classification of languages into families depends on a study of the cognates or related words in the member languages.
The languages of the world have been classified according to the following geographic divisions: Europe, South Asia, North Asia, South-west Asia, East Asia, South-east Asia, Africa and the Americas.
The languages of Europe and of regions peopled by descendants of Europeans (as in the Americas) belong to the Indo-European and Uralic (or Finno-Ugric) language families.
The languages Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Romansh, Ladin, Frivlian, Italian and Romanian make up the Romance subgroup of the Italic branch.
The Germanic language groups that survive are English, Frisian, Netherlandic-German, Insular Scandinavian, each dividing on national criteria. Continental Scandinavian divides into Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.
The Celtic branch comprises Welsh, Breton, Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic.
The Slavic branch languages are classified according to three geographic zones: East Slavic (Russian), West Slavic (Polish) and South Slavic (Serb and Croatian). Baltic, Greek and Albanian are the remaining branches.
It comprises Sami (Lapp) and Baltic-Finno groups (Sami, Finnish and Livonian) which are spoken in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Hungarian belongs to this language family.
The languages of the region are languages of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the border-States, genetically classified into the Indo- Aryan sub-group and Iranian sub-group of the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European.
Indo Aryan Sub-group:
It has over 20 languages including Bengali-Assamese, West Hindi, Bihari and East Hindi.
The languages of this group in the South Asian region are Kashmiri and Shina, both spoken in Jammu and Kashmir.
South Asia has few indigenous languages like the Dravidian languages of Tamil and Telugu and some of the Sino-Tibetan languages.
Referring to the area from the Arctic Ocean on the North to South Asia and China on the south and from the Caspian Sea and Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean in the west-east direction, the languages of this region are (i) the Uralic family whose speakers are few; (ii) the Altaic group, speakers of Altaic languages being found in Iran, Afghanistan and Kansu province, China; (iii) the Indo-European languages of North Asia including Iranian which are new entrants when compared to others; and (iv) the Palaeo- Siberian languages which are not genetically linked to each other or other languages of this region and are spoken mostly in the north-easternmost part of Siberia.
The region comprising the West Asian countries (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel) has Indo- European, Turkic, Caucasian or Semitic languages.
Almost all the Iranian languages—Persian, Pashto, Kurdish and Balochi—are spoken in Iran; Armenian is the language in Armenia and Georgia.
Turkish is spoken in Turkey; other Turkic languages are spoken in the Caucasus.
Over 30 Caucasian languages are spoken in the Caucasus region.
Arabic is the most popular Semitic language, being spoken in the Arabian Peninsula and the rest of the Middle East region. West Aramaic dialects are spoken in Syria and Lebanon and Hebrew is spoken in Israel.
The region, comprising mainly China, Japan, Korea, has (i) Chinese languages of which Mandarin, Wu and Cantonese are widely spoken; (ii) Japanese in Japan; and (iii) Korean in the Koreas. Mandarin, spoken by 70 per cent of the Chinese, has more native speakers than any other language. The Altaic groups of languages that are spoken are Uighur, a Turkic language; and Manchu, a Manchu-Tungus language. Tai and Miao-Yao languages are spoken in the south-central parts of China as well as in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
Comprising the mainland sub- region in the south of China and east of India, insular Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, South-east Asia has Austroasiatic, Tai and Sino- Tibetan language groups. There are over 50 Austroasiatic languages including Khmer in Cambodia, Vietnamese and Mon in Thailand. The Tai and Sino-Tibetan languages are Thai in, Thailand, Lao in Laos and Cambodia, and Burmese in Myanmar. Insular languages which are members of the Austronesian family comprise over 500 Austronesian languages—the Western Indonesian sub-group, the largest, including Tagalog, which is the basis for Philippine, and 100 other languages of the Philippines.
New Guinea and Australia contain non- Austronesian languages like the Papuan languages of New Guinea and over 200 Australian aboriginal languages.
The native African language families are as follows:
The languages of this’ family, formerly called Hamito-Semitic family, are found across North Africa from Mauritania to Somalia and in Southern Asia.
The languages are spoken in central interior Africa.
There are 900 languages spoken from Mauritania to Kenya and in South Africa.
About 50 languages exist and they are spoken in Tanzania and southern Africa.
In North America, English dominates; in Central and South America, Spanish and Portuguese are dominant.
The indigenous languages of the continents came from Asia and are associated with the American-Indians.
They are classified into two:
(i) North and Central American Indian language families which comprises 20 Athabascan languages, 13 Algonkian languages, the Macro- Siouan languages and the Penutian languages— which represent the only North American-Indian language group successfully traced into South America;
(ii) South American-Indian language families which are more numerous and include the Andean-Equatorial group which further includes 14 families and almost 200 languages spoken from French Guiana to Colombia and south to Paraguay and along the Amazon as well.