Christopher J. Hall and Rachel Wicaksono
The very first modern humans probably came from somewhere in southern Africa around 200,000 years ago and probably spoke a click language, similar to the Khosian languages spoken today in the Kalahari Desert.
Clicks are speech sounds that occur as consonants and, to people who speak English, they sound like the ‘tut-tut’ or (tsk-tsk) sound some English speakers use to indicate disapproval, or the ‘clip-clop’ sound that children make to suggest the noise made by a horse’s hooves.
Khosian languages are indigenous to southern Africa and click sounds from these languages spread into the other languages that arrived later, including Xhosa and Zulu.
Famous South African singer and civil rights activist, Miriam Makeba (b. 1932 d. 2008), can be heard here singing a Xhosa wedding song, known in English as ‘The Click Song’. The audio quality is not very good, but it’s worth listening carefully to Miriam’s introduction to the song, in which she says,
…everywhere I go people say, ‘How do you make that noise?’ It used to offend me, because it isn’t a noise, it’s my language… the colonisers of my country call this song the ‘The Click Song’ simply because they find it rather difficult saying ‘Ongqothwane’.
About 100,000 years ago, when the first groups of humans started to move out of southern Africa, they, of course, took their language with them. We are all related to those people, so why, many centuries later, don’t we all speak a click language?
The answer to this question is that language is both biological and social. All human babies (unless something goes very wrong) are born with the ability to pick up language from their surroundings. But human babies are not like birds, bees or dolphins. Human babies are both with the ability to pick up a language (or languages) they don’t inherit this language from their parents, their brains are biologically hard-wired to pick it up. The actual language(s) (English, British Sign Language, Xhosa and so on) these babies end up using will (mostly) depend on what they hear or see when they are growing up. And because human babies don’t end up using an identical copy of their parents’ language(s), languages change.
So, as early humans began to move out of southern Africa, they took with them their biological ability to pick up language. As groups of humans moved further away from each other there was less contact between these different groups. Inevitably, their languages changed and became different from each other. As a result of all this change, more than 7,000 different languages are used around the world today.
7,000 different languages; that’s quite some variety! But the language map of the world is actually even more complicated than this number suggests. Firstly, there are only about 196 countries in the world, so ‘language’ DOES NOT = ‘country’. Secondly, it’s very difficult to accurately count numbers of language users, because we all have a different idea of what it means to ‘use’ a language. Thirdly, most people in the world are bi- or multilingual; they can use two or more languages. Fourthly, there are no walls between languages, so in many parts of the world people will mix bits from several languages, especially if they live in big, multicultural cities like London, or on a national border like the one between France and Germany, or if their family has moved from one country to another.
Finally, we get to the biggest complication of all; even within what we think of as a ‘language’ (English, for example) there is a HUGE amount of variety.
Why IS there so much variety? Well, we have already mentioned the connection between age and geographical location and variety, but there are many other reasons for variety within languages: gender (male/female/other), sexuality (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/other), job, hobbies, social class, ethnicity and so on. Remember that language is social (as well as biological); meaning that languages and all their possible varieties are one way of showing which groups you belong to. Do you want to sound posh? Do your friends think that some ways of talking are more ‘girly’ than others? Do you have a hobby, such as football, that involves knowledge of lots of specialist words and phrases? You express your identity through your use of English. Exactly how you do this will depend on where you are, who you are talking to and what you want them to think of you.
Unfortunately, you are not always in control of how people judge you, based on your use of English (or other languages). Sometimes you might feel annoyed by how others treat you, based partly on how you speak, write or sign, and you are right to be annoyed. Some varieties of English are considered more ‘proper’, ‘educated’ or ‘better’ than others. People who study language know that these judgments are social, not linguistic. The fact is, we all pick up and use language creatively to meet our needs as humans. No variety of English, no language, is ‘better’, than any other. Difference and change are necessary and useful, and that’s why, despite originating from the same part of the world, we don’t all speak the same language.
For more information about languages around the world, see Ethnologue.
This blog is adapted from Chapter 1 of Mapping Applied Linguistics: A Guide for Students and Practitioners by Chris Hall, Patrick Smith and Rachel Wicaksono. You can download the full chapter for free from the companion website on the Learning Resources page.