For children, being able to talk is an obvious goal. But the goalposts don’t stay in the same place for ever, 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.
Since the faculty of modern human language first emerged it has been unstable in a way quite unlike the shapes of bodies and the colour of skin. 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 movements of the goalposts. This ability to reset the sights on a moving target may be very relevant to the problems which can arise in the development of speech and language. It may not work perfectly for all children.
The first language?
As soon as Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, there were obvious questions: What was the first language? What is the oldest language? Such questions are as unanswerable today as they were in Darwin’s time. But it is now commonly thought that there is evidence bearing on the origins of modern speech and language.
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, some of the prime movers of one sort of change in the USA today are feisty, thirty-something, well-connected women, not children.
For Londoners, there are obvious, ongoing changes in the speech. 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 1960s when Cockney was strongly influenced by the Yiddish of Jewish immigrants, fleeing the anti-semitism of first Czarist Russia and then the Nazi holocaust.
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.
Going back by orders of magnitude
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.
Let us assume that what makes us human is our shared linguistic heritage. This must have been somewhere between the Rift Valley and North Africa. And modern language must have emerged before the consequent diaspora across Africa. Or there would be pre-modern forms of language in Africa. But none have been found.
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.