Why are so many languages spoken in the world?
Around 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world. This seems like an extraordinarily large number in an increasingly connected world, even given that there are almost eight billion people living on the planet. But life today bears no resemblance to human society at the time when people first began to develop language skills.
It is impossible to confirm precisely why we have quite so many languages or why those languages are so diverse. However, there are several factors that almost certainly played a role in the way languages have developed.
The first human languages
There are two theories as to how human languages developed and proliferated. The first of these is monogenesis, the idea that all languages evolved from a single language after humans began migrating out of Africa. The second theory is polygenesis, the concept that multiple languages developed independently of each other and that there was no common ancestral language.
We will probably never know for sure which of these theories is correct. Unless, that is, we acquire the ability to travel back in time. It doesn’t really matter if we can’t get ourselves kitted out with a Tardis because multiple factors have influenced the evolution of languages. This means that thousands of different languages would likely have developed whether they boasted a common ancestor or not.
When people migrate
Humans have always migrated from one region to another in search of food and other resources. We know that languages change over time. Groups of people that shared a common language would have divided and travelled to different destinations. Once those people had migrated and were isolated from each other, their language would have continued to evolve but would have evolved differently in each group. The result would have been two or more related but distinctly different languages.
Countries at War
As humans began migrating across the planet, they would often wage war with other civilisations to gain control over their territories. The lives of people who spoke different languages would have merged to a lesser or greater extent and their languages would each have been influenced by the other. In just the last 2,000 years, the language spoken in England has been transformed due to Roman occupation, invasions by various Germanic tribes and then the arrival of William the Conqueror.
Warfare can lead to languages dying out when populations are forced to use the languages of their conquerors. Languages can also merge to form new ones. When populations are divided by hostilities, groups of people disperse, and their once common language then evolves differently in those disparate groups.
The influence of topography
It is easy to see how language development would have been affected by both migration and war. But these factors do not explain why languages are distributed unevenly across the world. There are over 200 languages spoken in Europe which sounds like a lot. But there are over 800 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea alone, a much smaller area with considerably fewer inhabitants. Indeed 29% of the languages in the world are spoken in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia or Nigeria.
Certain regions have far more languages than others and this could be down to the topography of the land. Papua New Guinea is a mountainous country featuring jungles, swamps and many rivers. The population is divided into numerous tribes that have always been isolated from each other and so the tribes have developed separate languages that have yet to be heavily influenced by outsiders.
Language prevalence and rainfall
It might seem odd to associate language diversity with rainfall, but research suggests that there is a connection. A study undertaken by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina looked at the distribution of Aboriginal languages in Australia. The researchers found that rainfall did impact the number of languages spoken in a region. This is because areas with heavier rainfall can support a greater number of people or groups of people and so there is greater likelihood of language diversity.
It is thought that the first human words could have been imitations of natural sounds that people heard around them. Primitive languages may have evolved from a series of onomatopoeic words such as coo-coo and bow-wow. This would explain some of the differences between languages as people would only have been able to mimic sounds in the local environment and these would have varied between regions.
The impact of acoustics
In 2015, a joint study conducted by the University of New Mexico and Laboratoire Dynamique du Language-CNRS in France explored the linguistic characteristics of numerous languages. Researchers compared the languages to the climates of the regions where there originated. The study revealed that languages that evolved in warm, forested areas featured fewer consonants.
Both people and animals naturally adapt the sounds they make according to the local environment to make it easier for others to hear and interpret those sounds. This is called acoustic adaptation. In hot climates and dense forests, vowels are easier to hear than consonants. Acoustic adaption could be partly responsible for some of the differences between languages.
Linguistic diversity, past, present and future
The languages of the world have been influenced by migration, warfare, topography and nature. Humans would have uttered their first words thousands of years ago but it’s impossible to confirm exactly when. From those first primitive sounds, populations around the world have developed thousands of languages. These feature vastly different vocabularies, sounds and grammatical rules. We will never know precisely why languages developed the way they have. As languages continue to change over time, neither do we know what the future holds for linguistic diversity.