Language Runs Deep in Our Species
There are over 7,100 spoken and written languages today, but which is the oldest? What about the oldest extinct language?
Back before cell phones were standard, my friends and I used to write each other notes during class and exchange them in the hallways between bells. The boys thought it was great fun to intercept these hallway exchanges and read the note’s contents.
To get around this annoyance and privacy violation, my friend Sarah and I made up a code by replacing each letter of the alphabet with a made-up symbol to make our notes unreadable to anyone but us — and it worked. It only took about a week for me to read Sarah’s coded letters as easily as if they were written in English.
I wish learning another language were as easy for me as learning Sarah and my made-up code. But alas, try as I might, my brain becomes an untenable jumble, unable to keep languages straight, and I end up mixing and matching them instead. Still, as a writer, I’m fascinated with language and have often wondered what the first language was. So, I finally decided to do something about my curiosity, and this is what I found.
The Importance of Language
I don’t think I need to explain why language is so important. Try for just a moment to imagine our society without language. It’s a struggle. Language and communication are as much a part of our species as breathing. The primary purpose of communicating is to connect with others, but it has countless purposes and comes in many forms.
Scientists know of over 7,100 spoken and written languages used today, almost 40 percent of which are endangered — meaning fewer and fewer people speak it, putting a language at risk of dying out. About a quarter of them are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people.
Another critical purpose for language, beyond connecting with others, is to teach and learn. Language not only allowed our ancient ancestors to pass knowledge on to future generations but also allowed us modern humans to learn about those ancient cultures. Claire Bowern, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale University, explains:
“Ancient languages, just like contemporary languages, are…