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A first language?

There are many claims that such and such a language is the world’s oldest. It was once thought that Hebrew must be the oldest language because it is the language of the Christian Bible. But if the oldest parts of the Bible were written about 3,000 years ago, as most scholars believe, this is recent on the scale of human history.

To me, the implicit question here is unanswerable if, as seems likely, language, like the human species itself, originated in Africa. Call this the ‘Out of Africa Hypothesis’. From the evidence of stone tools in dateable deposits, it seems clear that human language must have existed in Africa in something like its modern, fully-developed form at least 100,000 years before the the major exodus from Africa around 70,000 years ago. On that time scale, there is no way of estimating what it might have sounded like.

Language changes inexorably. English as spoken today is different from the English of Charles Dickens, and proportionately more so from that of William Shakespeare and even more so from that of Geoffrey Chaucer. The Old English of King Alfred 1,150 years ago is plainly a different language. It is generally thought that it is not possible to trace back the history of a language more than around 10,ooo years. Most of the languages from Europe to Northern India are thought to have originated somewhere close to the Black Sea perhaps 6,500 years ago. English, Russian, Hindi and Gaelic represent some of the most divergent forms of this group of languages, but they mostly have similar words for me and numbers. It seems obvious that large changes in population must play a part in language change. In most modern capital cities, there are many who grew up in homes with a different main language.

So for children learning to talk there is an obvious need to take account of differences in the speech and language of parents, grand-parents, great grand-parents, which may be more and more divergent with each passing generation. Children may vary in their ability to ignore these divergences.

As soon as Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, there were obvious questions: What was the original language? Where was it spoken? In Africa? Such questions led to a flurry of speculation, leading to a notorious ban seven years later by the Société de Linguistique de Paris on any discussion of language evolution. But as Salikoko Mufwene (2013) shows, much of the late 19th century confusion, which so alarmed the Société de Linguistique, was due to the confounding effect of racism. The ban silenced scientific debate until Lenneberg (1967) dared to bring the topic back to life with a final chapter by Noam Chomsky.

Now a combination of genetic and paleoanthropological evidence suggests strongly that most of the decisive evolution was in Africa. David Reich (2018) shows that it is likely that there was some migration back into Africa after the exodus of modern humans around 70,000 years ago, But from the work of Curtis Marean and his colleagues (2007) on a population living on what was then a South African shoreline between 130,000 and 175,000 years ago it seems to me, as it does to Marean that they must have had a fully developed modern language in order to develop and carry out the difficult process of annealing flint, heating the flint red hot and allowing it to cool slowly over a period of a day or so. If that thinking is one the right lines, the last step of human language evolution must have been completed by that point.

When English puritan colonists settled in North America, assuming that they had rights to everything they found, their English started to sound different from the English of the country they had left, at least partly because of their contacts with rival settlers from France and Spain, native Americans, and their slaves.

As William Labov shows in ongoing research in the USA today, some of the prime movers of one sort of change are feisty, thirty-something, well-connected women.

For Londoners, there are obvious, ongoing changes. The traditional English of working class Londoners, known as Cockney, is now disappearing. Charles Dickens tries to reproduce it in his novels by Cockney speakers saying V as W. But this had disappeared at least by the 1930s when Cockney was strongly influenced by the Yiddish of Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia and then the Nazis.

For children, being able to talk is an obvious goal. But the goal changes, as is obvious from differences between English today, and the English of Dickens, Shakespeare, and Chaucer, getting more and more different, as the centuries roll by. Not even the speech of Shakespeare a mere 400 years ago would be easily understandable to a modern listener. Even within a human lifetime it is possible to detect the beginnings of change. Great grand parents often have difficulty understanding their youngest descendants.

It is difficult to measure the speed of language change. Some populations stay in the same place for 10,000 years or more. Other populations move – for all sorts of reasons, to conquer and exploit others, to find new resources, to escape deprivation, oppression, or starvation.

So however the system of speech and language acquisition works, it has to be able to adjust to change. This ability (or the lack of it) may be relevant to the problems which can arise in the development of speech and language.

Cockney is now being replaced by a new variety influenced by the heritage of Bangladeshi immigrants in 1970s and 1980s. The children from that generation are now starting to see their children going to university. The speech of the children is English, but of a new sort.

All the languages of Western Europe, apart from Basque, and the most widely spoken languages to  the East as far as Bangladesh have evolved from a language known as ‘Proto-Indo-European’ or PIE, ancestral to Sanskrit, Classical Greek, Latin, and spoken perhaps 6,500 years ago in an area somewhere between Europe and Asia. The idea of this ancestral language we owe to William Jones in 1786. Although others had seen the connections, it was Jones who both identified criteria still broadly accepted today for genetic relationships between languages. The term Proto-Ind0-European was only coined 100 years later. What has been conserved from PIE are the terms for numbers, members of the family, personal pronouns like thee and me, words for snow, death, bodies of water, and other terms relating to love, life and death. If we could hear a recording of Proto-Indo-European, not even the reconstructed words would be understandable.

If the farthest back that reconstruction can go is 6,500 years, if there is enough change even within a single life time to get in the way of easy understanding, if modern language must have emerged either before or at the same time as anatomically modern humans between 200 and 300 thousand years ago, it is obvious that this is far beyond any possible reconstruction or recovery.

Languages have been changing ever since, partly as a result of successive diasporas, and partly because language is always subject to two pulls in opposite directions, to simplify for the sake of least effort, and to increase distinctiveness for the sake of maximum clarity.

The most that can be done by way of reconstruction is to plot some of the possible forms, rather than any actual words. The rate of change is just too great. It is possible that the clicks and the correspondingly large consonant inventories characteristic of some of the languages of South Africa, and not evidenced anywhere else, date back to the original human language or languages.