If the Bible is to be believed, God, angry at people building the Tower Of Babel in order to reach heaven, destroyed their tower and their ability to cooperate freely by making them speak in different languages, thus creating confusion and preventing communication.
It’s a good story! But perhaps from an evolutionary point of view, our having separate languages is indeed in order to prevent us from communicating with each other! But why would that be?
Evolutionary scientists tell us that evidence from human fossils reveal that roughly, 60 000 years ago our ancestors began travelling across the globe, eventually to occupy every corner of it.
You might expect that new languages developed in isolated pockets of communities, as people began to adapt to the demands of their environment. But, it seems that new languages tended not to appear at these far-flung corners, but instead, where people were most closely packed together!
For example, Papua, New Guinea, despite being a very small land-mass, is home to approximately 1000 separate languages. This represents about 15% of all the languages spoken on the planet. It seems to have come about because of the desire of people choosing to separate into distinct and separate communities, and by doing so, becoming unable to communicate with each other.
By contrast, where the environment is a lot tougher to survive, for example at the extreme northern regions, people have to travel long distances to find food. It is thought that perhaps having to work so hard to survive, meant that humans didn’t have the time or inclination to diversify into separate clans and cultures.
In his book, Wired for Culture, Mark Pagel, at the University of Reading, UK, proposes that in order to defend their own territory, a separate language, unfathomable to outsiders gave the group an advantage in battle. What’s more, it creates a feeling of, ‘us’, and a powerful social bonding of the tribe’s identity.
To support this theory, he points out that there are numerous anthropological accounts of clans making the deliberate decision to change their language, expressly to differentiate themselves from other clans around them. One tribe in Papua, New Guinea swapped all their masculine and feminine nouns. So he became she, mum became dad etc! I bet there were some comical moments as people got used to it!
There are plenty of modern-day examples of this too. Think about the differences between American and British English spellings. Think also of the slang speak of the youth in Britain, or of Cockney rhyming slang.
Language, not only important for anchoring a cultural identity, it’s your internal voice that transports your thoughts and memories.
What would happen to your ability to retain information without that language?