Link: Origins of human languages

1 minute read

The online magazine Sapiens has a fascinating piece by Elizabeth Svoboda looking at the ways that new languages form: “Where Do “New” Languages Come From?”

I’ll just quote a passage from the middle of the piece that touches on the value of a language for holding together a community with its own history:

In general, fostering language vitality is one of anthropologist Gwyneira Isaac’s goals as director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Recovering Voices program. Though Isaac does not work specifically with emerging languages, she witnessed how cultural practices can help revive language after meeting a Canadian man who spoke the endangered Anishinaabe language. The man found some of his tribe’s maple syrup–making tools in a cabinet at the Smithsonian and was so excited that when he returned home, he produced a series of videos about syrup-making using phrases from his native tongue.
Young people in his community hear the language when they watch the videos, but they also encounter aspects of their cultural heritage. “This small thing of opening a cabinet turned into this journey,” Isaac says, “building the collective knowledge which is really at the base of language.”

Humans have within them the potential to create new languages by recombining elements from different source languages. That amazing generative capacity reflects a deep-seated need for communication in our species.