Teacher Notes on the Origins of Different Languages

The questions for discussion work best in the order listed. Before they read the myths, ask students why they think there are so many languages in the world. Have them record their ideas on half-sheets of paper and collect their comments. Use these as conversation starters and a means to recording their ideas about language. Collecting anecdotal comments like these allow teachers to be researchers as well as instructors. 

More myths about the origin of language

This story is found in Genesis 11:1-9 and appears in the King James Version as follows:

The “confusion of tongues” by Gustave Doré, a woodcut depicting the Tower of Babel. Image is in the Public Domain.

From Wikipedia Commons.

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. 6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

 

David Robinson, in his dissertation research reports that he found a brief version of the Babel story as understood and told by a Salish person from British Columbia. It demonstrates how one’s own experiences can shape one’s theories. Also, in the Plateau, many tribes tell of Coyote wandering from place to place, demanding a wife and obstructing local rivers when denied, leading to bioregional differences (like lack of salmon in certain places) and consequently cultural/tribal boundaries.

The Mexican story was that after the Deluge the sole survivors Coxcox and Chichequetzl engendered many children who were born dumb but one day received the gift of speech from a dove which came and perched itself on a lofty tree: but the dove did not communicate to them the same language, so they separated in fifteen companies. And Gemelli Carrer and Clavigero describe an ancient Mexican painting representing the dove with thirty three tongues, answering to the languages and dialects he taught.

           At Cholula they related that Xelhuaz began to build a tower on Mount Tlalok to commemorate his having been saved along with his brothers from the Flood. And the tower he built in the form of a pyramid The clay was baked into bricks in the province of Tlamanalco, at the foot of the Sierra Cocotl, and to bring them to Cholula a row of men was placed that the bricks might be passed from hand to hand. The gods saw this building whose top reached the clouds with anger and dismay and sent fire from heaven and destroyed the tower (Baring-Gould 1881).

Research and Writing Opportunity

Investigate more stories about the differences in language. A Hindu myth tells of the Tree of Knowledge, punished for its pride, whose severed limbs form the basis of new expressions of culture, including language, as they emerge as new Wata trees.

 

Punishment seems to be a common theme among the stories about the diversity of language Do all such myths involve punishment? Perhaps you can write a story of your own, which reflects a less punitive account of language diversity.

 

Esperanto and the quest for a universal language

Many over the years have witnessed the struggles that exist between different groups, and some have concluded that a lack of communication, due to not having a shared language, is at the root of such problems. Such was the belief of a Polish ophthalmologist named Ludovic Zamenhof, who first proposed the idea of creating a single, universal language in 1879. He then went about creating Esperanto. The rules were few, its verbs and spelling were always regular, and its pronunciation was fairly easy to master. Zamenhof reasoned that by using a constructed language, no one would have the upper hand in international interactions. Esperanto would automatically be everyone’s second language, and no one would have the unfair advantage of being a native speaker of the language of negotiation. Similarly, Chinook Jargon was sometimes proposed as a universal language in the Northwest.  Like all pidgin languages, it was nobody’s native language. Why then hasn’t Esperanto caught on? Well, linguistic diversity is most likely not the main cause of division among people. We are, for example, perfectly willing to fight and kill people who speak the same language, and language differences alone have not been the cause of widespread violence. With an invented language like Esperanto, communication is limited to only those who actually speak the constructed language well enough to converse, and language needs a community. And if a universal language were to gain a community, then it would become more complex, more varied, and more expressive, just like every other language. But then the constructed language would be just like every other human language that has already organically come into existence, making the whole point of a constructed language moot. Another reason that constructed languages do not easily catch on is that they are too limited; the simplified grammar limits what can be expressed, especially when it comes to words that need to be created for modern advances in technology, science, and business. Humans are wired for language, and this implies linguistic complexity and, even a little messiness. When exposed to “impoverished” linguistic input, people will adjust for this by injecting more complexity, by developing more grammatical rules from that impoverished input. This has been seen time and time again when pidgin languages become full creoles.

 

New Languages

A striking example of creolization is Nicaraguan Sign Language (Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua, ISN). ISN differs from other creoles in emerging essentially out of nothing, rather than out of contact among existing languages. (See Parts 2 and 3 for more on creoles and pidgins.) The discovery of this new language has been a boon not only for its signers, but for linguists as well, as it provides a wonderful example of humans’ ability to create language. 

          The short story about Nicaraguan Sign Language is the following. Deaf people who had had no exposure to a language, by virtue of not hearing the spoken language around them and not being exposed to a sign language, were brought together in the 1980s in schools for the deaf in Nicaragua. They quickly developed a pidgin sign language based on no input except a few individual home signs. (Linguists define home signs as a gestural communication system, though not a fully developed grammatical system. It is fairly common for deaf children, who have hearing parents and no access to a sign language community, to develop home signs.) In this case, the pidgin sign language emerged from human contact, but not from language contact.

          Most of the students in the school were teenagers, and while they were eventually able to communicate quite well, the “language” they developed had a great deal of grammatical variability, variation across signers, and lacked grammatical complexity. However, the younger students in the school saw the pidgin being signed and quite quickly began to develop that pidgin into a full-fledged language, a creole. This distinction between older and younger signers provides evidence for what is called the Critical Period of language acquisition (that children are able to acquire languages more easily and effortlessly than adults), and for another important aspect of language; it does not develop on its own in isolation, but takes two, a “speaker and a hearer,” to develop spontaneously.