Akorbi prides itself on being able to work in more than 170 languages as one of the world’s top language services providers. In the world today, linguists estimate there are around 7,100 languages currently spoken, Yet just 23 languages account for more than half of the population’s spoken words today. Where did all of these languages come from? Akorbi discusses the origins and evolution of human language throughout the millennia.
What Makes a Language a Language?
Officially, humans are the only species on Earth capable of language. There are arguments made for dolphins, whales, apes, and even chickadees that might be capable of using their own language on some level for communication.
Linguists note there are three main criteria for a language to be a language. First, it takes fine motor control over vocalizations. Humans can produce more than 800 distinguishable sounds with our vocal cords!
Second, language is a method for communicating for the sake of communicating, meaning we don’t just talk to each other for survival. Humans talk to express their thoughts and feelings, get closer to one another, and describe their world around them for purely aesthetic reasons.
Syntax is the third, and perhaps most important, requirement. Syntax describes the structure of sentences that make communication intelligible as opposed to gibberish. Take a look at this sentence: “Jessica, who was out for coffee with Rachael, was late to their meeting.” Syntax and grammar rules show us that it’s Jessica who was late as opposed to Rachael, even though the word “Rachael” is closer to the word “late.”
One reason for this is the structure of the nervous system. More neurons go from the brain to the language-producing muscles of the human body compared to other apes and animals. Humans have a better handle of language because our brains have adapted to accommodate this important biological step in our evolution.
Biology and Anatomy Play a Role
Humans began to evolve as a species around 2 million years in the past when they began to branch off from other hominids like Neanderthals. Anthropologists don’t know exactly when humans developed language. Current archaeological evidence suggests that the first humans capable of speech patterns appeared around 50,000 years ago.
The key to developing language came from the structure of our heads and necks. As humans evolved, our necks got longer and mouths became shorter. The lower amount of air passing through our throats allowed us to have better control over our vocalizations. Eventually, a tiny flap of skin about half the size of your pinky fingernail became the vocal cords.
Evolution Happened in Stages
Our brains also evolved to adapt to this evolutionary trait. There is one major downside to this evolutionary leap. Humans are the only mammals that can’t swallow and breathe at the same time. Luckily, we have the Heimlich maneuver to take care of that problem!
What Were the First Languages?
No one knows what the first human language was. However, anthropologists speculate that the first language was a series of gestures and pantomimes. Singing may have played a factor in the first protolanguage, as humans learned to mimic birds and other animals they came across. Storytelling was a big deal to early humans, as telling one another where to hunt, how to gather food, and where to hide from predators helped ensure our survival.
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