The Development of Languagesby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
How has human need for water, food, shelter and belonging influenced the development of languages from the Tower of Babel until today?
There are almost 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world.1 Where did all the languages come from? Many people have wondered and studied this extensively. An even more interesting question is that of how languages have changed and developed. How have human needs changed and influenced language development in the past to the present day?
In Genesis 11:1-9 the story of the original split in languages is given. Genesis 11:1 tells us, "Now the whole world had one language and a common speech." The people of the world all spoke one language, and they decided to build a monument into heaven of their own greatness. God responded to their prideful plan and frustrated them with different languages, so they could not understand each other. "That is why it was called Babel -because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth." Gen. 11:9.
As they were scattered over the earth, the various language groups needed to stick together. Being able to communicate is essential to survive and thrive, and it is by far easier to communicate with those who already speak the language you speak. So they would stay together because it was easier, and this allowed the languages to develop without too much mixing between languages, at least in the early days.
These groups of people speaking the same language had needs other than ease of communication and belonging. They also needed food and water. The best places for food and water are the river valleys of the world. The rivers provided water, both to drink and to irrigate land to produce crops. The Nile River, the Indus River, and the Euphrates River were the three early locations where people settled and developed larger communities speaking a common language. Assuming the Tower of Babel was located somewhere near where Babylon later came to exist, that would put a circle or ellipse around that center point, out of which these peoples expanded to the river valleys. Those people groups that did not settle in a river valley did not develop large groups of people and languages. They either merged with another group, died out, or remained small and dominated by the big language groups in the area.
You find the groups living along these rivers to be dominating powers. The Egyptians were one of the major world powers from ancient times to the Greek and Roman expansion. Their Arabic influenced the whole world. Even today Egyptian Arabic's influences can be seen.2 That influence came about because the Egyptians settled in an area that met their needs extremely well.
The Assyrians and Babylonians, both of which were along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, dominated the region and influenced the languages around them. Aramaic, the language spread by the Assyrians, outlived them in its various forms for many centuries. In fact in some places in the Middle East Aramaic is still spoken. Aramaic initially became the language of government for the Empires from Assyria, then Babylon, and finally Persia, but it eventually became the language of the masses.3 When attacking Judah and King Hezekiah, the Assyrians commander spoke in Hebrew. This was the Jew's response: "Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, "Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don't speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall."2 Kings 18:26 Apparently at this point, Aramaic had been spread by the Assyrians enough to be a language of government, but it was not yet understood by everyone.
A similar situation occurred along the Indus River. These people were not militarily dominating of the area around them, but they did dominate economically and through trade. Here too the needs of the people to have a plenty of food led them to settle along the river, which influenced the language development.
The Greek and Roman Influence
Alexander the Great spread Greek everywhere he went.4 People needed to know the language of the government. The scholars wanted to speak the language of philosophy. Trade on a large scale became easier as people learned one language, which in turn fed the spread of Greek. This same spread of Greek into the world at large as a common language is one of the factors that allowed Christianity to spread so quickly in the early years. Much of the New Testament was originally written in Greek.5
The Roman Empire spread Latin in a similar manner to the way Greek was spread, except that the major language of the Roman Empire in its height was Greek, since that is what everyone already spoke. But as the Roman roads opened the world, and the Roman Catholic Church adopted Latin as its language of scholars, Latin was spread. It never became a language of the common people, as Greek had, but it was the language of the Noble, of the Churchman, and of the scholar. People learned it in order to be Priests.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, Europe was in a period of great uncertainty and insecurity. At this point the Feudal system came to be the prime means of organization. Now whichever Lord had the power and strength to protect people would be the one they turned to. Whatever language he spoke would be the language that they learned.
People were so afraid of foreigners, who might be here to take their land, that speaking a foreign language could be quite dangerous. Latin was the only thing close to an international language, but only Church men and a few others were able to speak or write it. The common man held to the way of speaking in his local area in order to be protected and in order to belong.
The Modern World
In the modern world, human need to belong still influences language development. People are proud of their accents, dialects, and languages. It is a mark of uniqueness and simultaneously a mark of belonging. For example the way Southerners, Texans, New Yorkers, British, and Irish people all have different accents. The people who live in those areas are proud to speak the way they do, because they are different than the rest, but still part of a group.
Whereas accents and dialects are marks of belonging, and something that most people are proud of, language development has been influenced by less idealistic reasons. People learn to speak other languages for economic, political, and scholarly reasons. English is a language that is so widespread that people all around the world learn it simply to be able to communicate with a larger number of people. Money is a powerful influence, and more can be made if you speak English, so people learn English.
Spanish is very similar to English in that it is a large language, spoken by many around the world. People learn Spanish for many of the same reasons that they learn English. It is the dominate language in their area of the world, and allows them to communicate with others, and has economic benefits.
Arabic is a language that may begin to see an upsurge in speakers as a result of the world wide interest in the Middle East. The FBI has a great demand for Arabic speakers to aid in their intelligence gathering in their war on terror.6 The demand for Middle Eastern oil, the energy crisis, will probably also help to bring more interest in Arabic.
Throughout history, human needs have affected their behavior, how they lived, and how their languages developed. Food, water, and a place to belong were some of the major needs to begin with, but as time went by, they were joined by other needs. Economic, political, and scholarly needs also influence language development. The influence of human need on language development continues today, and will continue as long as the world lasts.
1. Which river did the early civilizations not develop on?
2. Where did multiple languages first occur?
a) Tower of Babel
b) Tower of Baby
c) Tower of Bengel
d) New York City
3. What new need influenced language development in the Feudal age?
4. What is one reason why so many people learn English?
b) To get married
c) Just because they love language learning
d) To talk to their dog
1 "Ethnologue" SIL International. 2000 <http://www.ethnologue.com/ethno_docs/distribution.asp> (March 7, 2005)
2"Arabic Trade's Influence on International Languages" 2004 <http://www.eternalegypt.org/EternalEgyptWebsiteWeb/HomeServlet?ee_website_action_key=action.display.module&story_id=&module_id=204&language_id=1> (March 1, 2005)
3 "The Aramaic Language" Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon. Hebrew Union College. <http://cal1.cn.huc.edu/aramaic_language.html> (March 1, 2005)
4 "Basics of Biblical Greek: The Greek Language" Teknia.com <http://www.teknia.com/level1/01%20greek_language.html> (March 2, 2005)
6 Sperry, Paul. "FBI Chokes on Backlog of Untranslated Arabic" WorldNetDaily <http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=34024> (March 3, 2005)
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