Mother Tongue

Language has always fascinated me — its richness and subtlety, the depth and meaning of what is stated and what is implied and the sheer joy of communication. But where do languages come from? And why are they so different and yet so much the same?

Europe is a good example. Lots of people and races living in close proximity and each has developed their own language, some similar and others quite different. How did all the languages of the world evolve?

The answer, it seems, is that every language of the world can be traced back to our prehistoric ancestors in Africa. Dr Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland has analysed more than 500 languages and believes they can all be traced back to a single Stone Age dialect some 100,000 years ago.

I’m not sure how he works this out since I don’t recall courses in Neanderthal being offered by Berlitz or Rosetta Stone, but I’ll take his word for it.

Much of the basics of the language are learnt on our mother’s knee, of course, and there are clues to be found in the first words we use.

Take mother and father for example. Look at the pairings in different languages and a theme starts to emerge. Mum and dad, ma and da, mere and pere, mutti and vatti. Mother sounds like a close, possessive word while father is more removed, as in “him over there”.

I don’t take any credit for this observation — it came from Stephen Fry on QI, so it must be true.

And the ums and ahs that we try to keep out of our conversation are actually important in children’s learning. A study published in the Developmental Science journal shows that parents use ums and ahs as a signal that important word is to follow so that they pay more attention.

But for truly childish behaviour with language, you can’t beat Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez who both live in the Mexican village of Ayapa.

They are the last two remaining speakers of the ancient language Nuumte Oote which means True Voice, except the two aren’t speaking to one another.

It seems human beings need a common tongue with which to find our differences and argue.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

2 comments… Add yours
  • Reader Wil 20th April 2011

    Like you, I am very much interested in languages and dialects. I chose English as my major subject. It has 800,000 words, so I was told, whereas French has 200,000 words and Dutch 250,000. English has been influenced by the Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, the Vikings, and the French/ English kings starting with William the Conqueror, and even by the Dutch sailors. The English spoken all over the world has undergone a lot of changes. Australian English, which I hear more often than the British English now, is very different from that of the rest of the world. A brekkie is breakfast, a bickie is a biscuit, a barbie is a barbecue.. Forgive my spellingsmistakes, because that was what I heard. Well it is and will always be fascinating! In Australia I was told I spoke Pommie English. A Pom is an English prisoner-of- her majesty, a convict sent to Australia in the 19th century.

  • Jay from The Depp Effect 21st April 2011

    Oh, that’s funny about the two people who speak ‘Nuumte Oote’! I hope someone has made many, many recordings of them speaking (individually) and made them write long pieces of text so that the language itself isn’t lost.

    I’m interested in language too. I’ve also loved English etymology and any games involving language from Scrabble to crosswords and anagrams etc. Love reading, love writing, and yes – love talking! Not so terribly good at learning languages, though now I’m learning Italian as an adult and doing well, I’m thinking the fault often lies with our teaching methods …


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