On a daily basis, most of us probably take our native language for granted. Expressing our needs, wants and ideas to other humans is almost automatic. The phrase “mother tongue” is perhaps an indicator of just how important language is to our existence and survival. And yet, language can also separate and divide us.
The “Top Twenty”
It is estimated there are more than 6700 languages in the world. However, twenty major languages are spoken by approximately 50% of all people. A list of major languages ranked according to native speakers includes:
Different studies may rank languages in different order and other languages may also be included in the top 20. However, this list represents approximately half of the world’s estimated population of 6.8 billion people.
It must be remembered that the above list does not adequately reflect the phenomenon of bilingualism. That is, in many parts of the world citizens may speak one or two official languages and still have a local language that is their mother tongue.
In the Beginning
So then, how did language get started? There are competing theories as to how human beings originally acquired an ability to communicate through language. These theories fall roughly along the lines of creation vs. evolution. That is, some theorists believe language was a divine gift, while others believe human language developed as the result of a unique set of biological and environmental conditions. Neither theory can be proved or disproved at present.
There are also competing theories as to how early language was spread. Some theorists believe there may have been just one original mother tongue, while others believe there were numerous mother tongues which developed in a parallel manner. Both of these theories are dependent upon subjective interpretation of evidence of the origination point or points of the human species.
All in the Family
Linguistic scholars have attempted to categorize languages into various “families” based upon research into root languages or “proto-languages.” One of the most well-known is the Indo-European language family which has some 12 major divisions and contains hundreds of known languages.
The Indo-European language family includes Latin which, interestingly, was more a written language than a spoken one. A spoken form of Latin, called “Proto-Romance” is now unknown, as it was the language of common people and not of scholars. However, from Latin we can trace the roots of many of the languages in our “Top 20” list above.
There are some languages which appear to have no known relatives or family. These languages are called language isolates. For example, Basque, an endemic language of a group of people who live in and near the Pyrenees Mountains of Southwestern Europe, seems to be a completely unique language.
Back to the Future
It is difficult to project the future of languages. More commonly, languages are studied as windows to the past. This is because language tends to change at a slower pace when compared to changes in technology and society. However, it is interesting to note that, while Mandarin is by far the most common spoken language, English is the most common language on the Internet. Is it possible we are returning to a world with a single “mother tongue?” Time will tell.
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