How did languages evolve? © Getty Images

How did languages evolve?

The process by which human language evolved is largely unknown. However, language is thought to have evolved independently many times over.

Asked by: Tanya Sebastian, by email

Advertisement

Slowly at first, possibly beginning with simple sounds made by our ancestors Homo heidelbergenis, and then increasingly rapidly until there were thousands of languages spoken around the planet. But this has been fiercely debated and much is still not understood. Some experts think there was one original ‘Proto-Human’ language from which all others evolved. This might have been spoken by Mitochondrial Eve about 150,000 years ago, before our ancestors left Africa. Others believe that, since some human populations have been isolated for as long as 40,000 years, language evolved independently many times. What we do know is that languages evolve much as organisms do, with isolated populations diverging in vocabulary, words changing to suit different functions, and some languages ultimately going extinct. Of the nearly 7000 languages spoken on Earth today, 90 per cent are expected to be gone by the middle of this century. Sad, but that’s evolution for you.


Advertisement

Subscribe to BBC Focus magazine for fascinating new Q&As every month and follow @sciencefocusQA on Twitter for your daily dose of fun science facts.