Indo-European Languages


Indo-European Languages, the most widely spoken family of languages in the world (although not the largest language family in the world), containing the following nine subfamilies: Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Indo-Iranian, Italic (including the Romance languages), Slavic; and five extinct subfamilies, Anatolian (including Hittite), Phrygian, Thracian, Tocharian, and an Unclassified group (including Venetic, which some linguists believe to be an Italic language). Indo-European languages were first spoken in Europe and southern Asia and, because of European colonialism, are now widespread throughout the world.


Proof that these highly diverse languages are members of a single family was largely accumulated during a 50-year period around the turn of the 19th century. The extensive Sanskrit and Ancient Greek literature (older than those of any other Indo-European language except the then-undeciphered Hittite) preserved characteristics of the basic Indo-European forms and pointed to the existence of a common parent language. By 1800 the close relationship between Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Latin had been demonstrated. Hindu grammarians had systematically classified the formative elements of their ancient language. To their studies were added extensive grammatical and phonetic comparisons of European languages. Further studies led to specific conclusions about the sounds and grammar of the assumed parent language (called Proto-Indo-European), the reconstruction of that hypothetical language, and estimates about when it began to break up into separate languages. (By 2000 bc, for example, Greek, Hittite, and Sanskrit were distinct languages, but the differences between them are such that the original tongue must have been fairly unified about a millennium earlier or in about 3000 bc.) The decipherment of Hittite texts (identified as Indo-European in 1915) and the discovery of Tocharian in the 1890s (spoken in medieval Chinese, or Eastern, Turkistan, and identified as Indo-European in 1908) added new insights into the development of the family and the probable character of Proto-Indo-European.

The early Indo-European studies established many principles basic to comparative linguistics. One of the most important of these was that the sounds of related languages correspond to one another in predictable ways under specified conditions (see Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law for examples). According to one such pattern, in some Indo-European subfamilies—Albanian, Armenian, Indo-Iranian, Slavic, and (partially) Baltic—certain presumed k sounds of Proto-Indo-European became sibilants such as s and ś (a sh sound). The common example of this pattern is the Avestan (ancient Iranian) word satem (“100”), as opposed to the Latin word centum (“100”, pronounced “kentum”). Formerly, the Indo-European languages were routinely characterized as belonging either to a Western (centum) or an Eastern (satem) division. Most linguists, however, no longer automatically divide the family in two in this way, partly because they wish to avoid implying that the family underwent an early split into two major branches, and partly because of this trait, although prominent, is only one of several significant patterns that cut across different subfamilies.


In general, the evolution of the Indo-European languages displays a progressive decay of infection. Thus, Proto-Indo-European seems to have been highly inflected, as are ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Avestan, and classical Greek; in contrast, comparatively modern languages, such as English, French, and Persian, have moved towards an analytic system (using prepositional phrases and auxiliary verbs). In large part the decay of infection was a result of the loss of the final syllables of many words over time, so that modern Indo-European words are often much shorter than the ancestral Proto-Indo-European words. Many languages also developed new forms and grammatical distinctions. Changes in the meanings of individual words have been extensive.


The original meanings of only a limited number of hypothetical Proto-Indo-European words can be stated with much certainty; derivatives of these words occur with consistent meanings in most Indo-European languages. This small vocabulary suggests a New Stone Age or perhaps an early metal-using culture with farmers and domestic animals. The identity and location of this culture have been the object of much speculation. Archaeological discoveries in the 1960s, however, suggest the prehistoric Kurgan culture. Located in the steppes west of the Ural Mountains between 5000 and 3000 bc, this culture had diffused as far as Eastern Europe and northern Iran by about 2000 bc.

See also Franz Bopp; Jacob Grimm; Ferdinand de Saussure; Philology.

Selected statistical data from Ethnologue: Languages of the World, SIL International.




Phonetics, a branch of linguistics concerned with the production, transmission, and perception of speech sounds. The main field of study is articulatory phonetics but other fields are experimental phonetics and acoustic phonetics. Basic phonetic principles are often applied to other linguistics disciplines, including sociolinguistics (for example, when variations in pronunciation according to social motivations are studied) and historical linguistics (for example, when pronunciation changes are investigated).


This describes speech sounds genetical, that is, with respect to the ways by which the vocal organs modify the air stream in the mouth, nose, and throat in order to produce a sound. Articulatory phonetics usually takes into account the following factors when describing a sound: air flow, vocal cords, the position of the soft palate, place of articulation, the manner of articulation, the position of the lips. All the vocal activities involved in a sound need not be described, but only a selection of them, such as the place and manner of articulation. Sounds are represented by phonetic symbols and their articulatory definitions. These are abbreviated descriptions of the selected activities taking place during the production of a certain sound. The symbols most commonly used are those adopted by the International Phonetic Association (IPA) and they are written in square brackets “[k]” (phonemic symbols are written between oblique strokes “/k/”). Diacritics can be added to denote, for example, place of articulation.

The organs of articulation are either movable or stationary. Movable organs such as lips, jaws, tongue, soft palate, or vocal cords are called articulators. Stationary parts include the teeth, the alveolar arch and behind them, the hard palate.

A Air Flow

During the production of a sound, the flow of air (in or out of the lungs) determines the type of sound produced. Most speech sounds are made using pulmonic egressive air (air flowing out of the lungs). However, some languages use sounds that do not involve pulmonic (lung) air. These include the click sounds of the Khoisan languages, and glottalic sounds (where the glottis controls the air flow) common in African and Native American languages.

B Vocal Cords

A sound is also affected by the action of the vocal cords, which can vibrate (or not) during sound production. The vocal cords are located in the larynx. A sound is labelled voiced if the vocal cords are vibrating, and unvoiced or voiceless when the absence of vibration (where the cords stay in an open position) is noted. The contrast between a voiced and voiceless sound can be seen in the difference between [b] and [p]. Another action in the vocal cord area is that of a closed glottis (the vocal cords are tightly closed), used in the production of a glottal stop (as in, for example, the “dropped” [t] sound in Cockney English butter).

C Soft Palate

The position of the soft palate (or velum) during the production of a sound determines whether that sound is nasal or oral. When the soft palate is lowered the air is allowed to pass through the nose thus producing a nasal sound (as in English [n]). If the soft palate is raised the air flows out through the mouth, producing an oral sound (as in most English consonants and all English vowels). Air can also flow out through both the nasal and oral cavities when the velum is lowered. This is done during the production of nasal vowels as in the vowel in French bon.

D Place of Articulation

The lips, teeth and hard palate are all places of articulation: the point at which a sound is produced. Sounds made by touching two articulators, for example, the bilabial [p], which requires both lips, or those made by an articulator and a stationary part of the vocal apparatus, are named according to the organs that make the juncture. Reference to the tongue, when it is an articulator, is not expressed; for example, the [t] sound, which is produced when the tongue touches the alveolar ridge, is called alveolar because this is the place of articulation. The hard palate is the place of articulation in the palatal semivowel sound [j], as in the first sound of English yes.

E Manner of Articulation

The manner of articulation is determined by the way in which the speaker affects the air stream with his or her movable organs. This action may consist of stopping the air completely (plosive, for example, [p]); making contact with the tongue but leaving space on either side of it (lateral, for example, [l]); making merely a momentary light contact (flap, as in the Spanish “r” in pero); leaving just enough space to allow a continuing stream of air to produce friction as it passes through (fricative, for example, [f] or [s]); or permitting the air stream to pass over the centre of the tongue without oral friction (vocal: all vowel sounds).

Vowels of different quality are produced by varying the position of the tongue on its vertical axis (high, mid, low) and on its horizontal axis (front, central, back). The speaker may move the tongue gradually upwards and to the front or upwards and to the back, making diphthongal off-glides. For example, a speaker moves the tongue from low to high in pronouncing the first two vowels of Aïda, and from back to front in pronouncing successively the vowel sounds in “who” and “he”. The tongue positions for the vowel sounds [i:] (as in flee), [a] (as in northern UK English cat), [u:] (as in root), and [ ] (as in pot) are the highest and lowest cardinal points on the left and right of the Cardinal Vowel system quadrangle, a framework of vowels at fixed points that can be used as a starting point to determine where an individual speaker’s vowel sounds lie. The vowel sound is known as schwa (as in the first vowel sound in English ago) has the most central position.

When the speaker gives a strong puff of air after the contact, this is called aspiration. If the hand is placed on the lips, aspiration may be observed in the [ph] sound produced at the beginning of the word pie in English (note that a superscript h is used to represent the quality of aspiration when transcribing sounds). In contrast, French [p] sounds characteristically lack aspiration.

F Position of the Lips

The position of the lips is used to describe some sounds, particularly vowels. The quality of a vowel depends on whether the speaker keeps the lips rounded or unrounded and the degree to which the lips are open or closed (using the jaw). The tip of the tongue can also affect vowel quality, as it can be flat or curled up (retroflex, as in some South Asian languages).


Also referred to as Instrumental Phonetics, this is the physical science that collects measurable data about the production of vocal sounds by recording and analysing speech and vocal organs using instruments such as the kymograph, which traces curves of pressure; the spectrograph, which analyses sound waves and represents them visually; the oscilloscope, which has a function similar to a spectrograph but is technologically more advanced; and the X-ray, which allows physiological study. The amount of detail in the measurement of vocal sounds is limited only by the precision of the instrument. Differences are found in every vocal sound.


This is the study of the physical properties of speech, that is, speech waves as the output of a resonator (the resonator being the vocal tract coupled with other sources). Sound waves are closer than articulations to the essence of communication, for the same auditory impression can be produced by a normal articulation and by an entirely different sound apparatus, like that of parrots. A spectrograph may be used to record significant characteristics of speech waves and to determine the effect of articulatory activities. Parts of this record of speech waves can be cut out experimentally and the rest played back as sound in order to determine which features suffice to identify the sounds of a language.


This is a study of the sounds of speech in their primary function, which is to make vocal signs that refer to different things sound different. It is the focus of the branch of linguistics called phonology, although phonetic analysis contributes to this study. The phonemes of a particular language are those minimal distinct units of sound that can distinguish meaning in that language. In English, the p sound is a phoneme because it is the smallest unit of sound that can make a difference of meaning if, for example, it replaces the initial sound of “bill”, “till”, or “dill”, making the word “pill”. The vowel sound of “pill” is also a phoneme because its distinctness in sound makes “pill”, which means one thing, sound different from “pal”, which means another. Two different sounds, reflecting distinct articulatory activities, may represent two phonemes in one language but only a single phoneme in another. Thus phonetic [r] and [l] are distinct phonemes in English, whereas these sounds represent a single phoneme in Japanese, just as [ph] and [p] in “pie” and “spy”, respectively, represent a single phoneme in English although these sounds are phonetically distinct.


Phonetics is one of the oldest branches of linguistics. The earliest contributions to phonetics were made more than 2,000 years ago by Sanskrit scholars such as the grammarian Panini, who dealt with articulation to keep the pronunciation of ancient rituals unchanged. The first phonetician of the modern world was the Dane J. Matthias, author of De Litteris (1586). The English mathematician John Wallis, who instructed deaf-mutes, was the first (1653) to classify vowels according to their place of articulation. The vowel triangle, the precursor to the quadrangle, was invented in 1781 by the German C. F. Hellwag. The Cardinal Vowel system was laid out by the British phonetician Daniel Jones. Ten years later, the Austrian mechanician Wolfgang von Kempelen invented the machine that produced speech sounds. The German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, who wrote Sensations of Tone (1863), inaugurated the study of acoustical phonetics; the Frenchman Abbé Jean Pierre Rousselot was a pioneer of experimental phonetics. Late in the 19th century, the theory of the phoneme was advanced by the Pole Jan Baudouin de Courtenay and the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure. In the United States, the linguist Leonard Bloomfield and the anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir contributed greatly to phonetic theory. The linguist Roman Jakobson developed a theory of the universal characteristics of all phonemic systems.

See also Language.


English Language


English Language, chief medium of communication of people in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and numerous other countries. It is the official language of many nations in the Commonwealth of Nations and is widely understood and used in all of them. It is spoken in more parts of the world than any other language and by more people than any other tongue except Mandarin Chinese.

English belongs to the Anglo-Frisian group within the western branch of the Germanic languages, a subfamily of the Indo-European languages. It is related most closely to the Frisian language, to a lesser extent to Netherlandic (Dutch-Flemish) and the Low German (Plattdeutsch) dialects, and more distantly to Modern High German. Its parent, Proto-Indo-European, was spoken around 5,000 years ago by nomads who are thought to have roamed the south-eastern European plains.


The English vocabulary has increased greatly in more than 1,500 years of development. The most nearly complete dictionary of the language, the Oxford English Dictionary (13 vols., 1933), a revised edition of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (10 vols., 1884-1933; supplements), contains 500,000 words. It has been estimated, however, that the present English vocabulary consists of more than 1 million words, including slang and dialect expressions and scientific and technical terms, many of which only came into use in the middle of the 20th century. The latest edition of the New Oxford Dictionary of English was published in 1998, after 6 years’ revision by a team of 30 editors. The publication caused much controversy as it describes how people speak English today, rather than how prescriptivists believe English should be used. It contains over 2,000 new words, including such 1990s phenomena as Prozac, Tamagotchi, and eye candy; new guidelines for acceptable usage are also included, such as the non-sexist generic singular pronoun they.

The English vocabulary is more extensive than that of any other language in the world, although some other languages—Chinese, for example—have a word-building capacity equal to that of English. It is approximately half Germanic (Old English and Scandinavian) and half Italic or Romance (French and Latin) and extensive, constant borrowing from every major language, especially from Latin, Greek, French, and the Scandinavian languages, and from numerous minor languages, accounts for the great number of words in the English vocabulary. From Old English have come cardinal and ordinal numbers, personal pronouns, and numerous nouns and adjectives; from French have come intellectual and abstract terms, as well as terms of rank and status, such as duke, marquis, and baron. In addition, certain processes have led to the creation of many new words as well as to the establishment of patterns for further expansion. Among these processes are onomatopoeia, or the imitation of natural sounds, which has created such words as burp and clink; affixation, or the addition of prefixes and suffixes, either native, such as mis- and -ness, or borrowed, such as ex- and -ist; the combination of parts of words, such as in branch, composed of parts of breakfast and lunch; the free formation of compounds, such as bonehead and downpour; back formation, or the formation of words from previously existing words, the forms of which suggest that the later words were derived from the earlier ones—for example, to jell, formed from jelly; and functional change, or the use of one part of speech as if it were another, for example, the noun shower used as a verb, to shower. The processes that have probably added the largest number of words are affixation and especially functional change, which is facilitated by the peculiarities of English syntactical structure.


English is said to have one of the most difficult spelling systems in the world. The written representation of English is not phonetically exact for two main reasons. First, the spelling of words has changed to a lesser extent than their sounds; for example, the k in knife and the gh in right were formerly pronounced (see Middle English Period below). Second, certain spelling conventions acquired from foreign sources have been perpetuated; for example, during the 16th century the b was inserted in doubt (formerly spelled doute) on the authority of dubitare, the Latin source of the word. Outstanding examples of discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation are the six different pronunciations of ough, as in bough, cough, thorough, thought, through, and rough; the spellings are kept from a time when the gh represented a back fricative consonant that was pronounced in these words. Other obvious discrepancies are the 14 different spellings of the sh sound, for example, as in anxious, fission, fuchsia, and ocean.


Theoretically, the spelling of phonemes, the simplest sound elements used to distinguish one word from another, should indicate precisely the sound characteristics of the language. For example, in English, at contains two phonemes, mat three, and mast four. Very frequently, however, the spelling of English words does not conform to the number of phonemes. Enough, for example, which has four phonemes (enuf), is spelled with six letters, as is breath, which also has four phonemes (breθ) and six letters. See Phonetics.

The main vowel phonemes in English include those represented by the italicized letters in the following words: bit, beat, bet, bate, bat, but, botany, bought, boat, boot, book, and burr. These phonemes are distinguished from one another by the position of articulation in the mouth. Four vowel sounds, or complex nuclei, of English, are diphthongs formed by gliding from a low position of articulation to a higher one. These diphthongs are the i of bite (a glide from o of botany to ea of beat), the ou of bout (from o of botany to oo of boot), the oy of boy (from ou of bought to ea of beat), and the u of butte (from ea of beat to oo of boot). The exact starting point and ending point of the glide vary within the English-speaking world.


Other ways of differentiating meaning in English, apart from the pronunciation of distinct vowels and consonants, are stress, pitch, and juncture. Stress is the sound difference achieved by pronouncing one syllable more forcefully than another, for example, the difference between ‘record (noun) and re’cord (verb). Pitch is, for example, the difference between the pronunciation of John and John? Juncture or disjuncture of words causes such differences in sound as that created by the pronunciation of blackbird (one word) and black bird (two words). English employs four degrees of stress and four kinds of juncture for differentiating words and phrases.


Modern English is a relatively uninflected language. Nouns have separate endings only in the possessive case and the plural number. Verbs have both a strong conjugation—shown in older words—with internal vowel change, for example, sing, sang, sung, and a weak conjugation with dental suffixes indicating past tense, as in play, played. The latter is the predominant type. Only 66 verbs of the strong type are in use; newer verbs invariably follow the weak pattern. The third person singular has an -s ending, as in does. The structure of English verbs is thus fairly simple, compared with that of verbs in similar languages, and includes only a few other endings, such as -ing or -en; but verb structure does involve the use of numerous auxiliaries such as have, can, may, or must. Monosyllabic and some disyllabic adjectives are inflected for degree of comparison, such as larger or happiest; other adjectives express the same distinction by compounding with more and most. Pronouns, the most heavily inflected parts of speech in English, have objective case forms, such as me or her, in addition to the nominative (I, he, we) and possessive forms (my, his, hers, our).


Although many grammarians still cling to the Graeco-Latin tradition of dividing words into eight parts of speech, efforts have recently been made to reclassify English words on a different basis. The American linguist Charles Carpenter Fries, in his work The Structure of English (1952), divided most English words into four great form classes that generally correspond to the noun, verb, adjective, and adverb in the standard classification. He classified 154 other words as function words, or words that connect the main words of a sentence and show their relations to one another. In the standard classification, many of these function words are considered pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions; others are considered adverbs, adjectives, or verbs.


Three main stages are usually recognized in the history of the development of the English language. Old English, known formerly as Anglo-Saxon, dates from ad 449 to 1066 or 1100. Middle English dates from 1066 or 1100 to 1450 or 1500. Modern English dates from about 1450 or 1500 and is subdivided into Early Modern English, from about 1500 to 1660, and Late Modern English, from about 1660 to the present time.

A Old English Period

Old English, a variant of West Germanic, was spoken by certain Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) of the regions comprising present-day southern Denmark and northern Germany who invaded Britain in the 5th century ad; the Jutes were the first to arrive, in 449, according to tradition. Settling in Britain (the Jutes in Kent, southern Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight; the Saxons in the part of England south of the Thames; and the Angles in the rest of England as far north as the Firth of Forth), the invaders drove the indigenous Celtic-speaking peoples, notably the Britons, to the north and west. As time went on, Old English evolved further from the original Continental form, and regional dialects developed. The four major dialects recognized in Old English are Kentish, originally the dialect spoken by the Jutes; West Saxon, a branch of the dialect spoken by the Saxons; and Northumbrian and Mercian, subdivisions of the dialects spoken by the Angles. By the 9th century, partly through the influence of Alfred, king of the West Saxons and the first ruler of all England, West Saxon became prevalent in prose literature. The Latin works of St Augustine, St Gregory, and the Venerable Bede were translated, and the native poetry of Northumbria and Mercia were transcribed in the West Saxon dialect. A Mercian mixed dialect, however, was preserved for the greatest poetry, such as the anonymous 8th-century epic poem Beowulf and the contemporary elegiac poems.

Old English was an inflected language characterized by strong and weak verbs; a dual number for pronouns (for example, a form for “we two” as well as “we”), two different declensions of adjectives, four declensions of nouns, and grammatical distinctions of gender. These infections meant that word order was much freer than in the language today. There were two tenses: present-future and past. Although rich in word-building possibilities, Old English was sparse in vocabulary. It borrowed few proper nouns from the language of the conquered Celts, primarily those such as Aberdeen (“mouth of the Dee”) and Inchcape (“island cape”) that describe geographical features. Scholars believe that ten common nouns in Old English are of Celtic origin; among these are bannock, cart, down, and mattock. Although other Celtic words not preserved in literature may have been in use during the Old English period, most Modern English words of Celtic origin, that is, those derived from Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, or Irish, are comparatively recent borrowings.

The number of Latin words, many of them derived from the Greek, which was introduced during the Old English period has been estimated at 140. Typical of these words are the altar, mass, priest, psalm, temple, kitchen, palm, and pear. A few were probably introduced through the Celtic; others were brought to Britain by the Germanic invaders, who previously had come into contact with Roman culture. By far the largest number of Latin words was introduced as a result of the spread of Christianity. Such words included not only ecclesiastical terms but many others of less specialized significance.

About 40 Scandinavian (Old Norse) words were introduced into Old English by the Norsemen, or Vikings, who invaded Britain periodically from the late 8th century onwards. Introduced first were words pertaining to the sea and battle, but shortly after the initial invasions other words used in the Scandinavian social and administrative system—for example, the word law—entered the language, as well as the verb form are and such widely used words as taking, cut, both, ill, and ugly.

B Middle English Period

At the beginning of the Middle English period, which dates from the Norman Conquest of 1066, the language was still inflectional; at the end of the period, the relationship between the elements of the sentence depended basically on word order. As early as 1200 the three or four grammatical case forms of nouns in the singular had been reduced to two, and to denote the plural the noun ending -es had been adopted.

The declension of the noun was simplified further by dropping the final n from five cases of the fourth, or weak, declension; by neutralizing all vowel endings to e (sounded like the a in Modern English sofa), and by extending the masculine, nominative, and accusative plural ending -as, later neutralized also to -es, to other declensions and other cases. Only one example of a weak plural ending, oxen, survives in Modern English; kine and brethren are later formations. Several representatives of the Old English modification of the root vowel in the plural, such as man, men, and foot, feet, also survive.

With the levelling of inflections, the distinctions of grammatical gender in English were replaced by those of natural gender. During this period the dual number fell into disuse, and the dative and accusative of pronouns were reduced to a common form. Furthermore, the Scandinavian they, them were substituted for the original hie, hem of the third person plural, and who, which, and that acquired their present relative functions. The conjugation of verbs was simplified by the omission of endings and by the use of a common form of the singular and plural of the past tense of strong verbs.

In the early period of Middle English, a number of utilitarian words, such as egg, sky, sister, window, and get, came into the language from Old Norse. The Normans brought other additions to the vocabulary. Before 1250 about 900 new words had appeared in English, mainly words, such as baron, noble, and feast, that the Anglo-Saxon lower classes required in their dealings with the Norman-French nobility. Eventually, the Norman nobility and clergy, although they had learned English, introduced from the French words pertaining to the government, the Church, the army, and the fashions of the court, in addition to others proper to the arts, scholarship, and medicine. Another effect of the Norman Conquest was the use of Carolingian script and a change in spelling. Norman scribes write Old English y as u and ū as ou. Cw was changed to qu, hw to wh, and ht to ght.

Midland, the dialect of Middle English derived from the Mercian dialect of Old English, became important during the 14th century, when the counties in which it was spoken developed into centres of university, economic, and courtly life. East Midland, one of the subdivisions of Midland, had by that time become the speech of the entire metropolitan area of the capital, London, and probably had spread south of the River Thames into Kent and Surrey. The influence of East Midland was strengthened by its use in the government offices of London, by its literary dissemination in the works of the 14th-century poets Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate, and ultimately by its adoption for printed works by William Caxton. These and other circumstances gradually contributed to the direct development of the East Midland dialect into the Modern English language.

During the period of this linguistic transformation, the other Middle English dialects continued to exist, and dialects descending from them are still spoken in the 21st century. Lowland Scottish, for example, is a development of the Northern dialect.

C The Great Vowel Shift

The transition from Middle English to Modern English was marked by a major change in the pronunciation of vowels during the 15th and 16th centuries. This change, termed the Great Vowel Shift by the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, consisted of a shift in the articulation of vowels with respect to the positions assumed by the tongue and the lips. The Great Vowel Shift changed the pronunciation of 18 of the 20 distinctive vowels and diphthongs of Middle English. Spelling, however, remained unchanged and was preserved from then on as a result of the advent of printing in England in about 1475, during the shift. (In general, Middle English orthography was much more phonetic than Modern English; all consonants, for example, were pronounced, whereas now letters such as the l preserved in walking are silent).

All long vowels, with the exception of /i:/ (pronounced in Middle English somewhat like ee in need) and /u:/ (pronounced in Middle English like oo in food), came to be pronounced with the jaw position one degree higher. Pronounced previously in the highest possible position, the /i:/ became diphthongized to “ah-ee”, and the /u:/ to “ee-oo”. The Great Vowel Shift, which is still in progress, caused the pronunciation in English of the letters a, e, i, o, and u to differ from that used in most other languages of Western Europe. The approximate date when words were borrowed from other languages can be ascertained by means of these and other sound changes. Thus it is known that the old French word dame was borrowed before the shift, since its vowel shifted with the Middle English /e:/ from a pronunciation like that of the vowel in calm to that of the vowel in name.

D Modern English Period

In the early part of the Modern English period the vocabulary was enlarged by the widespread use of one part of speech for another and by increased borrowings from other languages. The revival of interest in Latin and Greek during the Renaissance brought new words into English from those languages. Other words were introduced by English travellers and merchants after their return from journeys to continental Europe. From Italian came cameo, stanza, and violin; from Spanish and Portuguese, alligator, peccadillo, and sombrero. During its development, Modern English borrowed words from more than 50 different languages.

In the late 17th century and during the 18th century, certain important grammatical changes occurred. The formal rules of English grammar were established during that period. The pronoun it came into use, replacing the genitive form his, which was the only form used by the translators of the King James Bible (1611). The progressive tenses developed from the use of the participle as a noun preceded by the preposition on; the preposition gradually weakened to a and finally disappeared. Thereafter only the simple ing form of the verb remained in use. After the 18th century, this process of development culminated in the creation of the progressive passive form, for example, “The job is being done”.

The most important development begun during this period and continued without interruption throughout the 19th and 20th centuries concerned vocabulary. As a result of the colonial expansion, notably in North America but also in other areas of the world, many new words entered the English language. From the indigenous peoples of North America, the words raccoon and wigwam were borrowed; from Peru, llama, and quinine; from the Caribbean, barbecue and cannibal; from Africa, chimpanzee and zebra; from India, bandanna, curry, and punch; and from Australia, kangaroo and boomerang. In addition, thousands of scientific terms were developed to denote new concepts, discoveries, and inventions. Many of these terms, such as neutron, penicillin, and supersonic, were formed from Greek and Latin roots; others were borrowed from modern languages, as with blitzkrieg from German and sputnik from Russian.

E Present-Day English

In Great Britain there exists an accent that is not region-specific, known as Received Pronunciation (RP). A class dialect rather than a regional dialect (it used to be exclusively associated with the educated and rich), it is based on the type of speech cultivated at public schools and at such older universities as Oxford and Cambridge. Many English people who speak regional dialects in their childhood acquire Received Pronunciation while attending school and university. Its influence became even stronger in the recent past because of its use by public media such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (RP is also known as “BBC English”).

RP is not intrinsically superior to other varieties of English and is, itself, only one particular accent with its own system of phonological rules (just as, say, Scouse, which has an equally valid set of rules). RP is estimated to be spoken by less than 4 percent of the population of Great Britain.

Widely differing regional and local dialects are still employed in the various counties of Great Britain. Other important regional dialects have also developed; for example, the English language in Ireland has retained certain individual characteristics of pronunciation, such as the pronunciation of lave for leave and fluther for flutter; certain syntactical characteristics, such as the use of after following forms of the verb be; and certain differences in vocabulary, including the use of archaic words such as adown (for down) and Celtic borrowings such as banshee. The Lowland Scottish language, sometimes called Scots, first made known throughout the English-speaking world by the songs of the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, contains differences in pronunciation also, such as neebour (“neighbour”) and guid (“good”), and words of Scandinavian origin peculiar to the dialect, such as braw and bairn that have influenced the English spoken in Scotland. Australian English, with its marked diphthongization of vowels, also makes use of special words, retained from English regional dialect usages, or taken over from indigenous Australian terms.

F American English

An important development of English outside Great Britain occurred with the colonization of North America. American English may be considered to include the English spoken in Canada, although the Canadian variety retains some features of British pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary. The most distinguishing differences between American English and British English are in pronunciation and vocabulary. There are slighter differences in spelling, pitch, and stress as well. Written American English also has a tendency to be more rigid in matters of grammar and syntax, but at the same time appears to be more tolerant of the use of neologisms. Despite these differences, it is often difficult to determine—apart from context—whether serious literary works have been written in Great Britain or the United States/Canada—or, for that matter, in Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa.

G English Around the World

Since the mid 20th century, the English language has become so widespread it is often considered the world language. The fast spread of English was facilitated by a number of factors, including the dominance of the United States as a world power and the remnants of British colonial power around the world. Nowadays, the English spoken around the world is quite different from that spoken in the UK where it originated, with many different varieties existing and evolving across the globe. The majority of World English speakers use English as a second or third language, and live in an environment where multilingualism is the norm, although English may be the official language. In many countries, including Singapore and Nigeria, English is the main language of instruction in schools (especially after primary education level) and is used in business and other official transactions. Just as UK English differs from US English, Indian English, Singaporean English, Nigerian English, and others are all varieties of English that have individual syntactic, lexical, and phonological systems, often influenced by the other languages in daily use. In fact some of these varieties are so distinct that some linguists suggest that they are separate, although related, languages.

H Basic English

A simplified form of the English language based on 850 keywords was developed in the late 1920s by the English psychologist Charles Kay Ogden and publicized by the English educator I. A. Richards. Known as Basic English, it was used mainly to teach English to non-English-speaking people and promoted as an international language. The complexities of English spelling and grammar, however, were major hindrances to the adoption of Basic English as a second language.

The fundamental principle of Basic English was that any idea, however complex, may be reduced to simple units of thought and expressed clearly by a limited number of everyday words. The 850-word primary vocabulary was composed of 600 nouns (representing things or events), 150 adjectives (for qualities and properties), and 100 general “operational” words, mainly verbs and prepositions. Almost all the words were in common use in English-speaking countries; more than 60 percent were one-syllable words. The abbreviated vocabulary was created in part by eliminating numerous synonyms and by extending the use of 18 “basic” verbs, such as make, get, do, have, and be. These verbs were generally combined with prepositions, such as up, among, under, in, and forward. For example, a Basic English student would use the expression “go up” instead of “ascend”.

I Pidgin English

English also enters into a number of simplified languages that arose among non-English-speaking peoples. Chinese Pidgin English, spoken in the Melanesian islands, New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines, and Hawaii and on the Asian shores of the Pacific Ocean, developed as a means of communication between Chinese and English traders. The Chinese adopted many English words and a few indispensable non-English words and created a means of discourse, using a simple grammatical apparatus. Chinook Jargon, used by a small number of Canadians and North Americans contains English, French, and Native American words; its grammatical structure is based on that of the Chinook language. West African Pidgin English (WAPE) is spoken in various West African countries (from Gambia to Cameroon). It is mutually intelligible across some of these countries and has become a creole in some areas. WAPE arose in the 16th century through contact between West Africans and English traders.


The influence of the mass media appears likely to result in a more standardized pronunciation, more uniform spelling, and eventually a spelling closer to actual pronunciation. Despite the likelihood of such standardization, a unique feature of the English language remains its tendency to grow and change. Despite the warnings of linguistic purists, new words are constantly being coined and usages modified to express new concepts—change is inherent in language so this is an infinite process that can never be halted. The vocabulary of the English language is constantly enriched by linguistic borrowings, particularly by cross-fertilizations from American English. Global media, the Internet, and ever-improving technology are just some of the reasons why English is fast becoming a world language, but as predictions about language are very difficult to make, this situation could easily change very quickly.





Communication, the process of transmitting and receiving ideas, information, and messages. The rapid transmission of information over long distances and ready access to information have become conspicuous and important features of human society, especially in the past 150 years, and in the past two decades, increasingly so.


Communication between two people is an outgrowth of methods developed over centuries of expression. Gestures, the development of language, and the necessity to engage in joint action all played a part.

A Communication Among Animals

Charles Darwin pointed up the importance of communication and expressiveness in biological survival. Recent studies have dealt with the range of animal communication. For example, when bees discover a source of nectar, they reveal its location to the other bees on returning to the hive. They communicate the distance to the source by means of a dance; the direction is indicated by the angle of the axis of the dance, and the amount of nectar by the vigorousness of the dance. Scientists have recorded and identified birdcalls for courting, mating, hunger, food bearing, territoriality, warning, and distress. Research into the behaviour of whales and dolphins has revealed that they have relatively elaborate vocal signals and that they communicate over long distances underwater. See Animal Behaviour.

B Language

The origin of language is subject to considerable speculation. Some words may be imitative of natural sounds. Others may have come from expressions of emotion, such as laughter or crying. Language, some theorists believe, is an outgrowth of group activities, such as working together or dancing. Another theory holds that language developed from basic sounds that accompanied gestures.

Although it is difficult to quantify the world’s languages, it is estimated that almost 7,000 are spoken in the world today, most of them grouped in families. As some languages grow, others decline and disappear. The changes in language reflect class, gender, profession, age group, and other social forces, such as the effects of technology on everyday life.

C Symbols and Alphabets

Early peoples sought the means by which to record language. They drew and painted on cave walls to convey messages and they used signs and symbols to designate tribe or ownership. As human knowledge expanded, writing became necessary in order to transmit information. The earliest writing was pictographic, with symbols representing objects. The first pictographic writing was cuneiform, by which wedge-shaped characters were inscribed with a stylus on a clay tablet. Cuneiform later developed ideographic elements; the symbol came to represent not only the object but also ideas and qualities associated with it.

Writing, however, continued to convey only the meaning, not the sound, of words. Eventually, cuneiform incorporated phonetic elements, that is, signs that represented certain sounds. Egyptian hieroglyphs underwent a similar development. This system progressed from pictograms to ideograms; it incorporated signs for consonants, but it never developed into an alphabet. The alphabet, invented in the Middle East, was carried by the Phoenicians to Greece, where vowel sounds were added to it. The Cyrillic alphabet was adapted from the Greek; the Latin alphabet developed in countries farther to the west where the Roman culture was dominant.


With the growth of civilization and the development of written languages came the need to communicate regularly at longer distances as well, so as to conduct the trade and other affairs of nations and empires.

A Paper and Printing

The Egyptians discovered that a kind of writing material could be made from strips of the stem of the papyrus plant. A later discovery was parchment, which was made by preparing both sides of a sheet of animal tissue for writing uses. Meanwhile, in China, about 105 ads, the method of papermaking was discovered. It took over 1,000 years for the technique to travel to Europe, and it came at a time when a great demand for books began to appear. In the middle of the 15th century, the German printer Johann Gutenberg used movable type for the first time in Europe to print the Bible. This technique expanded the opportunities for learning and led to radical changes in the way people lived. It contributed to the growth of individualism, the Reformation, rationalism, scientific inquiry, and regional literature that reflected the rise of nationalism. Newssheets called corantos began to appear in Europe in the 17th century. At first devoted to trade and other business news, they eventually developed into the first true newspapers and magazines providing the dissemination of current information to the public at large.

Printing techniques and applications developed rapidly in general over the next centuries, especially following the growth of steam power and its use for driving presses in the early 19th century and, somewhat later, the invention of typesetting machines. The first such device, called the Linotype, was patented in 1884 by the German-American Ottmar Mergenthaler; a wide range of increasingly rapid and large-scale printing techniques appeared in succeeding decades. By the late 20th century both typesetting and the printing process itself relied largely on computer technology (see also Desktop Publishing).

B Postal Services

Among the many kinds of communication services in ancient times, the most notable were the relay system of the Persian empire. People on horseback could transfer written messages at one relay station to fresh carriers who could then transport it to another station. From this system, the Romans developed their own system of posts (Latin, positus, the origin of the term “postal service”). Similar systems were also employed in the Far East.

Although the postal services of medieval Europe were largely privately owned, the rise of nationalism that followed the Renaissance also resulted in the growth of government-owned postal systems. Private operations had largely come to an end by the 17th and 18th centuries.

C Speedier Long-Distance Communication

Since their inception, modern postal systems have continued to develop along with the growth of railways, motor vehicles, aircraft, and other carriers; recent years have also seen the introduction of electronic mail services. Over the centuries, however, people have also sought means for communicating more rapidly over long distances than conventional modes of transport would allow. Early methods included drumbeats, fire, smoke signals, and instruments such as a ram’s horn. In time, bugle calls and drums came to play an important role in communicating military commands. During the Middle Ages, homing pigeons were used to transmit messages. In the early 1790s, Claude Chappe, a French scientist, and engineer, began the construction of a system of semaphore stations, a visual telegraph capable of sending a message many kilometres in a few minutes. Some of these tall towers, similar to later rail semaphore towers, were as far as 32 km (20 mi) apart. The system was copied in Britain and the United States. Such semaphore systems, which variously used telescopes and sun-reflecting mirrors, remained slow because each signal had to be repeated at each station to verify the accuracy of transmission.

D Telegraph

With the beginnings of a modern understanding of the phenomenon of electricity in the 18th century, inventors started to search for ways in which electrical signals might be employed for the rapid relay of messages over long distances. The first practical telegraph system, however, was not produced until the 19th century, when two such inventions were announced in the same year of 1837: one, in Britain, by Charles Wheatstone and William F. Cooke, and the other, in America, by Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse also developed the code system of dots and dashes—Morse code—that was universally adopted for the new medium. Morse code was in worldwide use until February 1, 1999, when it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which uses satellite and terrestrial radio communication. Various refinements of telegraphy appeared in later decades. For example, in 1874 Thomas Edison developed quadruplex telegraphy, by which two messages could be transmitted simultaneously in two directions. Modern offshoots of telegraphy are seen in teletype, telex, and facsimile transmission.

E Telephone

Although telegraphy marked a great advance in rapid long-distance communication, early telegraph systems could convey messages only letter by letter. The search was therefore also on for some means of voice communication by electricity as well. Early devices that appeared in the 1850s and 1860s were capable of transmitting sound vibrations but not true human speech. The first person to patent the electric telephone in the modern sense was the American inventor Alexander Graham Bell, in 1876. At the same time, Edison was also in the process of finding a way to record and then reproduce sound waves, paving the way for the invention of the record player. By the late 20th century, such developments as transoceanic cable, fibre optics, and satellite technology had revolutionized the use of the telephone. Mobile telephones (see Cellular Radio) are increasingly in use.

F Radio

Early telegraph and telephone systems depended on the physical medium of wires for message transmission, but scientific developments indicated other possibilities. The theory of the electromagnetic nature of light was advanced by the British physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1873 in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. The theories of Maxwell were validated by the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz. In 1887 Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves, thus laying the technical foundation for wireless telegraphy.

During the following decade, much experimentation was conducted with the sending of wireless signals. In 1896, the Italian inventor Marchese Guglielmo Marconi transmitted a wireless signal from Penarth to Weston-super-Mare in England, and in 1901 sent a wireless signal across the Atlantic Ocean, from Cornwall. The vacuum tube with two elements was invented by the British physicist John Ambrose Fleming in 1904. A valuable improvement was made a few years later by the American inventor Lee De Forest, who invented a three-element vacuum tube that provided the basis for many electronic devices. The first radio broadcast was made in 1906, in the United States. The first broadcast of opera, from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, was transmitted by De Forest in 1910. By 1920 several radio stations began transmitting in the United States, and by 1923 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was transmitting in the United Kingdom; by 1925 there were 600 radio stations worldwide. Nowadays almost every home in Britain and other countries has a radio.

G Picture Communication

Early manuscripts were illuminated with intricately drawn pictures. In the late 15th century woodcuts for illustrations came into use in printed books. At the end of the 18th-century lithography was invented, permitting the mass reproduction of artwork. In 1826, using sensitized metal plates exposed for eight hours, the French physicist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced the world’s first photograph. Building on Niépce’s work, the French painter and inventor Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre discovered a chemical developing process that permitted a greatly reduced exposure time, producing the photograph known as the daguerreotype.

As the 19th century progressed, various methods were devised to give photographs and photography the illusion of motion. In 1891 Edison patented the kinetoscope, a machine for projecting moving pictures that he had first demonstrated in 1889. In 1895 the French chemist and industrialist Louis Jean Lumière and his brother Auguste Marie Lumière, also a chemist, demonstrated and patented the cinematography, which successfully projected moving pictures. In the late 1920s sound was added to films.

H Television

The system of transmitting moving images has many roots. One is the invention of a scanning disc by the German television pioneer Paul Gottlieb Nipkow in 1884. Another landmark in the development of television was the invention in 1923 by the Russian-American electronics engineer Vladimir Kosma Zworykin of the iconoscope for transmitting and the kinescope for receiving images over a distance. In 1926 John Logie Baird used this system to demonstrate the first electrical transmission of moving images. This stimulated further developments in the United States, Britain, and Germany. In Britain, the BBC began television broadcasts in 1927, using Baird’s system, and by 1937 had begun the world’s first high-quality public broadcasting service.

At the end of World War II, television captured the popular imagination in the United States. By the end of the 20th century, watching television was Britain’s most popular leisure activity, with 94 percent of households having a colour television; 98 percent of all American households have at least one television receiver. The advent of cable, satellite, and digital television have increased dramatically the number of channels and services available.

Television has expanded worldwide; the communications satellite makes possible the transmitting of programmes between continents and events can be shown simultaneously as they happen in most parts of the world. Closed-circuit television is used by banks to identify cheques, by airlines to present flight information, by doctors to study techniques used in operations, and in numerous other ways. The development of video recording has also revolutionized the capacity to store, retrieve, and transmit information.

I Computers

One of the most dramatic advances in communication potential—data communications—is found in the field of computer technology. Since the first development of the modern electronic digital computers in the 1940s, computerization has infiltrated almost every area of society in nations with advanced technology. Computers are available in many formats for use in industries, businesses, hospitals, schools, transport networks, and individual homes—and computer networks and auxiliary devices provide a means for people with the use of a personal computer for the rapid transmission of a wide range of data. Use of the Internet has revolutionized access to information for the business world, libraries, education, and individuals. Publishing is increasingly happening in electronic form (see Electronic Publishing).

J Laser Technology

The laser is also of great potential importance for the future of communications. Modulated beams of the coherent light produced by lasers can transmit a much larger number of messages at a time than can ordinary telephone systems. Prototype laser communications networks are already in operation, and they may eventually replace to a large degree the use of radio waves in telephony. Laser beams are also ideal for use in space for satellite communications systems.

K Communications and Education

Films on various subjects and other forms of audio-visual education can be a vital element in classroom instruction and audio-visual devices are used in many schools in developed industrial nations. These include pictures, posters, charts, models, mock-ups, slides, filmstrips, and videos. Tape recorders are used extensively in the teaching of languages.

Educational broadcasting has widened enormously access to education through such establishments as the Open University in Britain and School of the Air in Australia. Schools are increasingly linking into the Internet and incorporating the use of satellite data and CD-ROM technology. Rapid advances in computer technology are likely to have a dramatic impact on education (see Information Technology in Education and National Grid for Learning).

L Communications and Cultural Change

Historically, the means of communicating have grown alongside the increased power of people to shape their physical world as well as with their increasing interdependence. With the telecommunications and data communications revolutions has been the evolution of the world as a “global village”. The influence of the new communications media has increased the study of their effects. It is believed by some that the individual media tend to reinforce personal views rather than to convert people to other views, and by others that political conversion and influence, depending on who controls which medium of transmitting information, is prevalent. None the less, the changing communications media have proven to have long-term effects, which bring subtle but very important changes to views and perceptions of the audience.





Alphabet (from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet), set of written symbols, each representing a given sound or sounds, which can be variously combined to form all the words of a language.

An alphabet attempts ideally to indicate each separate sound by a separate symbol, although this end is seldom attained, except in the Korean alphabet (the most perfect phonetic system known) and, to a lesser degree, in the Japanese syllabaries. Alphabets are distinguished from syllabaries and from pictographic and ideographic systems. A syllabary represents each separate syllable (usually a sequence of from one to four spoken sounds pronounced as an uninterrupted unit) by a single symbol. Japanese, for example, has two complete syllabaries—the hiragana and the katakana—devised to supplement the characters originally taken over from Chinese. A pictographic system represents picturable objects, for example, a drawing of the Sun stands for the spoken word sun. An ideographic system combines various pictographs for the purpose of indicating non-picturable ideas. Thus, the Chinese pictographs for sun and tree are combined to represent the Chinese spoken word for east. Most alphabets have about 20-30 symbols, though Rotokas, used in the Solomon Islands, has only 11 letters while Armenian, the largest alphabet, has 39 letters.

Early systems of writing were of the pictographic-ideographic variety; among them are the cuneiform of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, Egyptian hieroglyphs, the written symbols still used in the Chinese and Japanese languages, and Mayan picture writing (see Native American Languages). What converts such a system into an alphabet or syllabary is the use of a pictograph or ideograph to represent a sound rather than an object or an idea. The sound is usually the initial sound of the spoken word denoted by the original pictograph. Thus, in early Semitic, a pictograph representing a house, for which the Semitic spoken word was beth, eventually came to symbolize the initial b sound of beth. This Semitic symbol, standing originally for the entire word beth and later for the sound of b, ultimately became the b of the English alphabet.


In 1993-1994 American Egyptologists surveying ancient travel routes in southern Egypt discovered inscriptions in a semi-cursive Semitic script in the Nile valley in Egypt, dated to about 1900 bc to 1800 bc, which constitute the earliest evidence of semi-alphabetic writing. Before this discovery, the general supposition was that the first known alphabet developed in Palestine and Syria between 1700 and 1500 bc. This alphabet, known as North Semitic, evolved from a combination of cuneiform and hieroglyphic symbols; some symbols might have been taken from kindred systems, such as the Cretan and Hittite. The North Semitic alphabet consisted exclusively of 22 consonants. The vowel sounds of a word had to be supplied by the speaker or reader. The Hebrew, Arabic, and Phoenician alphabets were based on this model and the present-day Hebrew and Arabic alphabets still consist of consonantal letters only, the former having 22 and the latter 28. Some of these, however, may be used to represent long vowels, and vowels may also be indicated in writing by optional vowel points and dashes placed below, above, or to the side of the consonant. Writing is from the right to the left.

Many scholars believe that around 1000 bc four branches developed from the original Semitic alphabet: South Semitic, Canaanite, Aramaic, and Greek. (Other scholars, however, believe that South Semitic developed independently from North Semitic or that both developed from a common ancestor.) The South Semitic branch was the ancestor of the alphabets of extinct languages used in the Arabian Peninsula and in the modern languages of Ethiopia. Canaanite was subdivided into Early Hebrew and Phoenician, and the extremely important Aramaic branch became the basis of Semitic and non-Semitic scripts throughout western Asia. The non-Semitic group was the basis of the alphabets of nearly all Indian scripts; the Semitic sub-branch includes Square Hebrew, which superseded Early Hebrew to become the prototype of modern Hebrew writing.


Around 1000-900 bc the Greeks adapted the Phoenician variant of the Semitic alphabet, expanding its 22 consonant symbols to 24 (even more in some dialects), and setting apart some of the original consonant symbols to serve exclusively as vowels. There were several forms of the Greek alphabet, Chalcidian (western) and Ionic (eastern) being the most prominent. After about 500 bc, Greek was regularly written from left to right and the Ionic script was dominant. The Greek alphabet spread throughout the Mediterranean world, giving rise to various modified forms, including the Etruscan (from Chalcidian), Oscan, Umbrian, and Roman (or Latin) alphabets. The Roman alphabet developed mainly from the Etruscan script. Because of Roman conquests and the spread of the Latin language, that language’s Roman alphabet became the basic alphabet of all the languages of Western Europe.


In about ad, 860 Greek missionaries from Constantinople converted the Slavs to Christianity and devised for them a system of writing known as Cyrillic from the name of one of its inventors, the apostle to the South Slavs, St Cyril. The Cyrillic alphabet, like the Roman, stems from the Greek; it is based on the 9th-century uncial writing style. Additional characters, however, were devised to represent Slavic sounds that had no Greek equivalents. The Cyrillic alphabet in various forms is used currently in Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Belarusan, Turkmen (Turkmenistan), Kazakh (Kazakhstan), Kyrgyz (Kyrgyzstan), Kurmanji (Turkey), Northern Uzbek, and Bulgarian among others. It is not used in Polish, Czech, Slovak, or Slovenian however, which are written in modified Roman alphabets. An interesting division exists in the Balkans, where the Roman Catholic Croats use the Roman alphabet, but the Greek Orthodox Serbs employ Cyrillic for the same language.


The Arabic alphabet, another offshoot of the early Semitic one, probably originated about the 4th-century ad. It has spread to such languages as Persian and Urdu and is generally used by the Islamic world: throughout the Near and Middle East, in parts of Asia and Africa, and in southern Europe. Arabic is written in either of two forms: Kufic, a heavy, bold, formal script, was devised at the end of the 7th century; Naskhi, a cursive form, is the parent of modern Arabic writing. Like the Hebrew alphabet, it is virtually vowelless: only 3 of its 28 letters are used for long vowels, the others being supplied by diacritical marks. The question arises whether the various alphabets of India and South East Asia are indigenous developments or offshoots of early Semitic. One of the most important Indian alphabets, the Devanagari alphabet used in the Sanskrit language (See also Indian Languages), is an ingenious combination of syllabic and true alphabetic principles. The progenitors, whether Semitic or Indian, of the Devanagari alphabet, seem also to have given rise to the written alphabets of Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Sinhala, Burmese, and Siamese, or Thai.


The Hebrew alphabet is thought to have developed from Aramaic around 1000-900 bc. It was a more modern form of the widely used (in the Middle East) Phoenician script and was adopted by Jews. The letters in the script are all very square, as were many scripts in that area before the rise of the Roman and Arabic alphabets. Although the Hebrew and Aramaic languages died out as spoken languages among the Jews, the Hebrew script was used to write Yiddish and Judaeo-Spanish. At the end of the 19th century, the Hebrew alphabet became the official alphabet for writing the Hebrew language.


Most of the alphabets considered in this article evolved gradually or were adapted from older prototypes. Some alphabets, however, have been created artificially for peoples previously illiterate, or for nations hitherto using alphabets of foreign origin. An outstanding example is the Armenian alphabet invented by St Mesrob in 405 and still in use today. Also of great interest is the Mongolian hP’ags-Pa script (written from top to bottom), invented in China in about 1269. In modern times, the Cherokee syllabary was invented soon after 1820 by the Native American leader Sequoya. Later in the 19th century, missionaries and others created syllabaries and alphabets for Native American languages, based on the Roman and, in the northwest, Russian Cyrillic scripts.


Any alphabet used by peoples speaking different languages undergoes modifications. Such is the case with respect both to the number and form of letters used and to the subscripts and superscripts, or diacritical marks (accents, cedillas, tildes, dots, and others), used with the basic symbols to indicate modifications of sound. The letter c with a cedilla, for instance, appears regularly in French, Portuguese, and Turkish, but rarely, except in borrowed words, in English. The value of ç in French, Portuguese, and English is that of s, but in Turkish it represents the ch sound in church. It used to represent ts in Spanish, but that sound no longer exists in standard Spanish. So, too, letters have different sound values in different languages. The letter j, for example, as in English jam, has a y sound in German.

Although alphabets develop as attempts to establish a correspondence between sound and symbol, most alphabetically written languages are highly unphonetic, largely because the system of writing remains static while the spoken language evolves. Thus, the spelling of the English word knight reflects the pronunciation of an earlier period of the language, when the initial k was pronounced and the gh represented a sound, since lost, similar to the German ch in Wacht. The divergence between the written and spoken forms of certain languages, particularly English, has prompted movements for spelling reform. See also Runes; Shorthand; and articles on the individual letters and languages.




Language, communication among human beings that is characterized by the use of arbitrary spoken or written symbols with agreed-upon meanings. More broadly, language may be defined as communication in general; it is regarded by some linguists as a form of knowledge, that is, of thought or cognition.


Language can be studied from at least two points of view: its use or its structure. Language use is the concern of scholars in many fields, among them linguistics (in particular sociolinguistics), literature, communications, speech and rhetoric, sociology, political science, and psychology. Examined in studies of language use are what humans say, what they say they are thinking, and what they mean by what they write and say to one another. Included are content analysis and criticism of literature, studies of the history and changes of meaning of words, and descriptions of the social factors that determine what appropriate speech behaviour is. The fields of speech and rhetoric include studies of the ways in which language can influence behaviour. For literary specialists, language consists of words arranged to produce a logical or harmonious effect. For lexicographers, it is an inventory of vocabulary, including the meanings, origins, and histories of words. Language is also the particular way words are selected and combined that is characteristic of an individual, a group, or a literary genre.

Language structure is the concern of linguistics. Within the field of linguistics, the definitions of language vary, and linguists differ in approach according to the definition they use. Those who study language as written communication are interested in the structure of what they call “text”—how sentences and their parts are organized into coherent wholes—and concerned with how one language can be accurately translated into another. In the field of machine translation, computers handle the vast amount of data needed for such studies. Comparative linguists seek to identify families of languages descended from a common ancestor.

Structural and descriptive linguists view spoken language as having a hierarchical structure of three levels: sounds, sound combinations (such as words), and word combinations (sentences). At the phonemic level, sounds are analysed; at the morphemic level, the combination of sounds into meaningful units of speech (morphemes, that is, word-building units) is described; and at the syntactic level, the combination of words in sentences and clauses is the focus. See also Morphology; Phonetics; Phonology; Semantics.

Transformational-generative grammarians are linguists who define language as knowledge. They study both the nature of the human capacity to acquire language and the language acquisition process in their quest to describe the grammar of a language or languages.


The study of language as a means of expression or communication necessarily includes the study of gestures and sounds. Considering that animals gesture and make sounds, do animals, as well as humans, have language? It seems clear that many species communicate; human as distinct from animal communication, however, has been characterized by some scholars as unique in having the following seven features: (1) Human languages have separate, interrelated systems of grammar and of sound and gesture. (2) They allow new things to be communicated all the time. (3) Humans make a distinction between the content that is communicated and their labels for that content. (4) In human communication, spoken language is interchangeable with language that is heard. (5) Human languages are used for special purposes; intent lies behind what is communicated. (6) What is communicated can refer to the past and the future, not just the present. (7) Humans are born with the ability to learn and then teach, any language, unlike some animals whose communication systems are with them from birth.

Some convincing recent research in teaching American Sign Language (AMESLAN) to primates, and other experiments where chimpanzees used computers and voice synthesizers to produce basic sentences, indicate, however, that a number of these features may not be uniquely human. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that although language as a system of communication is not uniquely human, human language nevertheless has unique characteristics. Humans string together discrete signs and units of grammar to form an infinite set of never-before-heard, thought, read, or signed sentences. The linguist Noam Chomsky introduced the idea that children are born with an innate knowledge of complex grammatical rules (universal grammar) that they apply to the language they are exposed to. See also Animal Behaviour.


For human language to be possible, certain factors are necessary. These factors are physiological (the body must be capable of producing the sounds of speech), grammatical (the speech must have structure); and semantic (the mind must be capable of dealing with the meanings of what is spoken).

A Physiology

Although most of the human organs of speech evolved primarily to perform other functions (such as eating), they are so well equipped for speaking that human speech appears to be the most efficient communication system of any living organism. In the speech, an airstream is produced by the lungs and modulated by vibration (or lack of vibration) of the vocal cords and by movement of the tongue, the soft palate, and the lips. The airstream can be obstructed in varying degrees by the teeth and can be closed off from or kept open to the nasal cavity. People who have physiological impairments of speech and hearing still possess language, although the production and reception of language may have been transferred to visual systems such as AMESLAN.

B Grammar

All human language has a grammatical structure whereby sound (signalling) units are combined to produce meaning. The minimal units of sound combination that have meaning are called morphemes. A morpheme can correspond to a word, but it can also refer to other sound combinations that have meaning but are not words (such as prefixes and suffixes). In the word coexist, for example, both co and exist are morphemes. Words and morphemes can be classed together according to what they do in a sentence. Classes of morphemes include parts of speech (such as nouns and verbs) as well as prefixes, suffixes, and so forth. Members of different word classes from phrases that in turn combine into larger units—sentences or utterances.

C Semantics

Finally, in human language, the speaker necessarily attaches meaning to the structured sound sequences, and the meaning is perceived and understood by other humans who share the same language. The process of communicating meanings with sounds, words, and sentences and perceiving meanings that others communicate in this way is believed to involve grammar as a tool for relating thoughts or ideas to speech, or signalling. Every meaningful sentence or utterance has a surface and an underlying structure. At the surface are the words and sentence elements as spoken and interpreted. At the underlying or deep level are the words and sentence elements as they are grammatically structured. This level of deep structure is where sentence structure appears ambiguous. Two different surface structures can be perceived to mean one thing, and one surface structure of a sentence may have two meanings. The surface sentence “Flying planes can be dangerous” means both that it can be dangerous for someone to fly planes and that planes that are flying can be dangerous. The different interpretations of this sentence have to do with its common surface structure having two distinct deep structures. On the other hand, “To please John is easy” and “It is easy to please John”, despite different surface structures, are the same sentence at the level of deep structure. Human communication is a unique process combining special speech organs, grammatical structure, and intended and understood meanings.


Spoken-gestured-signalled communication involves the same process for all humans, and any human language can convey any human thought; nevertheless, the actual languages spoken in the world are numerous, and they differ vastly in their sound systems and grammatical structures.

A Classification by Form

Languages can be classified by the form of their grammar. Beginning in the 19th century, linguists attempted to group the world’s languages into four morphological, or typological, categories (that is, categories based on how words are formed): analytic, agglutinating, inflectional (or synthetic), and incorporating (or polysynthetic). Analytic languages typically have words of one syllable with no affixes, or added parts; words are on their own, isolated, as in Chinese. In agglutinating (from the Latin for “to glue to”) languages, words are composed of roots, or basic parts, and one or more affixes (prefixes at the beginning, infixes in the middle, and suffixes at the end of words) with distinct meanings. An example is Turkish, which has äv (“house”), ävdä (“in the house”), ävlär (“houses”), and ävlärda (“in the houses”). In inflectional languages, the basic and added parts have merged, and the added parts have no independent meaning. For example, in Latin, which is inflectional, the subject’s person and number are reflected in the form of the verb, as in fero (“I bear”), ferimus (“we bear”), and ferent (“they bear”). Swahili is also agglutinating, as in hatukuviwanunulia, which means “We did not buy them (= things) for them (= people)”. The components of this word are ha (negative), tu (“we”), ku (indicator of past), vi (“them”, meaning “objects”), wa (“them”, meaning “people”), and nunulia (“buy for”). Polysynthetic languages have very long, complex words that have a mixture of agglutinating and synthetic features. Examples include Eskimo languages and Mohawk, all Native American languages.

B Genetic Classification

Even though two languages form words or organize sentence elements, in the same way, they are not necessarily related to each other. To establish relationships among languages is to study their genealogy and classify them genetically. Unlike a typological classification, a genetic classification involves comparing the sound and meaning units of different languages in order to show common parentage. Like family resemblances among people, shared genetic resemblances among related languages do not depend on where the languages are spoken or when they existed.

Members of a language family have a historical connection with one another and descend in common from a single ancestor. Language family trees show the relationships among languages; the oldest traceable ancestor language is shown at the top of the tree, and the bottom branches show the distance of relationship among current living members of the family. Related languages are alike in that their grammatical elements and vocabulary show regular correspondences in both sound and meaning. For example, the English word fish corresponds to Latin piscis, and English father to Latin pater. The English and Latin words are cognates, that is, genetically the same. Where English has f, Latin has p; English th corresponds to Latin t; and so forth. Comparative linguistics is the field in which sound and meaning correspondences (that is, cognates) among languages are analysed; genetic groups of languages are established; and by comparing modern languages, the hypothetical ancestor languages of such groups are tentatively reconstructed. (Such reconstructed precursor languages are indicated by the term proto-, as in Proto-Indo-European.)

B1 European and Asian Families

The best-known language family is the Indo-European family, which represents about 1.6 billion people and includes most of the languages of Europe and northern India and several languages of the region in between. Indo-European has the following subfamilies: Italic, Germanic, Celtic, Greek, Baltic, Slavic, Armenian, Albanian, Indo-Iranian, and the extinct Anatolian, Phrygian, Thracian, Tocharian, and Unclassified Indo-European. Further sub-classifications exist within subfamilies. English, for example, belongs to the Anglo-Frisian group of the West Germanic branch of the Germanic subfamily. The closest relative of English is Frisian, which is spoken today in parts of Germany and the Netherlands. The relationship of English to other Indo-European languages such as Swedish (North Germanic), Latin (Italic), and Sanskrit (Indo-Iranian) is progressively more distant.

The Indo-European family is only one of over a hundred families and proposed larger groupings. Linguists differ in their approach to classification, and what a conservative scholar may term a family, another more liberal scholar may consider a subfamily within a larger grouping. Conservative scholars, on the other hand, may consider that too little evidence exists to support such larger groupings.

Other languages are present in Europe besides the Indo-European family. Basque is an isolate or a language with no known relatives, and Finnish, Estonian, Saami, and Hungarian are the westernmost members of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family (which also includes various languages of the Ural Mountains region and Siberia). Occasionally linked with the Uralic languages in a Ural-Altaic group (a relationship now rejected by most scholars) is the Altaic family, the main branches of which are Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus. Several unrelated language groups of Siberia are referred to by the regional name Palaeosiberian languages. In the Caucasus three groups, possibly related, have been identified; the best known of the Caucasian languages is Georgian. Many languages of India and its north-west neighbours belong to the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European. Two other groups—the Munda languages, usually considered a branch of the Austro-Asiatic languages, and the Dravidian family—represent more than 80 million speakers (see Indian Languages). In South East Asia the Sino-Tibetan languages have hundreds of millions of speakers. The family’s principal branches are the Tibeto-Burman and the Sinitic (which includes the many Chinese “dialects”, really separate languages). Some scholars attach the Tai-Kadai languages (including Thai or Siamese) to this family; most consider them of separate ancestry.

B2 Pacific and African Languages

In the Pacific, the three main language groups are, first, the Austronesian languages, a family that has a Western or Indonesian branch and an Eastern or Oceanic branch; second, the Papuan languages, a regional group of New Guinea, comprising a number of isolates and families (some possibly related to one another); and third, the Australian Aboriginal languages (related to one another but not to non-Australian languages). The extinct Tasmanian language may represent the fourth group.

Africa has four language families, the largest of which (with over 1,400 languages) is Niger-Congo. The Niger-Congo family includes branches such as Mande, Atlantic, Gur, and Benue-Congo, which includes Africa’s most widespread group, the Bantu languages (such as Swahili and Zulu), and Yoruba (of the Benue-Congo sub-set), one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa (along with Swahili and Hausa). The around 400 languages of the Afro-Asiatic family originate from parts of Africa and Asia. The family’s branches include Semitic, including Arabic and Hebrew (see Semitic Languages); Chadic, including Hausa; Berber; Cushitic; Omotic; and Egyptian, of which the sole member is the extinct Egyptian language. In the Nilo-Saharan family, which is made up of around 200 languages and several sub-groups, the principal subdivision is East Sudanic; its Nilotic branch includes such languages as Maasai, while the Saharan branch of the Nilo-Saharan languages includes Kanuri. The Khoisan family comprises around 30 Click languages of the San and other peoples of southern Africa. See also African Languages.

B3 Native American Languages

Attempts to classify Native American languages have resulted in the conservative identification of more than 150 families. In liberal classifications, these are further grouped into about a dozen so-called superstocks (superfamilies, or groups of families that may be remotely related), but recent studies have challenged such groupings. Even with a liberal approach, many small families remain unlinked to larger groups, and many isolates exist. Along the Arctic coast and in Greenland, Inupiaq (Eskimo-Aleut family) is spoken by the Inuit (Eskimo). Subarctic Canada includes various Athabascan and Algonquian languages. Native American languages in the United States east of the Mississippi River are predominantly Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Muskogean. The principal Great Plains family is the Siouan, but Caddoan and western Algonquian languages are also spoken. Shoshonean languages (Uto-Aztecan family) dominate the Great Basin, bordered on the north by the Sahaptian family. On the Northwest Coast are the Salishan and Wakashan families, Tlingit (thought to be related to Athabascan languages), and a probable isolate, Haida. The Apachean branch of Athabascan is found throughout the Southwest, alongside the Yuman family and the Pima-Papago language (Uto-Aztecan) of Arizona and southern California. In California many small families exist, their mutual relationships often disputed.

Important in Mexico and Central America are the Uto-Aztecan family (Aztec or Nahuatl), the Oto-Manguean superstock (Mixtec, Otomí, and Zapotec, among others), and families such as Mixe-Zoquean, Totonacan, and Tequistlatecan. The Mayan family comprises about two dozen languages with millions of speakers.

Depending on their approach, linguists classify South American languages into 90-odd families and isolates or into three nearly all-inclusive superstocks; Macro-Chibchan, Andean-Equatorial, and Gê-Pano-Carib. The most widely spoken native South American languages are Quechua and Aymara, Guaraní, and Mapuche or Araucanian. Important in Central America and northern South America are Macro-Chibchan languages (such as Guaymí, Paez, and Warao) and also the large Arawakan group (including Island or Black Carib, Guajiro, and Campa). The widely accepted Macro-Gê superstock includes many languages spoken in the Brazilian tropics.

C Areal Classification

The geographical, or a real, classification of languages is also useful. Areal classification is based on the observation of the ways in which neighbouring languages have influenced one another. In discussions of the Northwest Coast languages of North America, for example, statements are often made that these languages share various consonants of a certain type, or that they all have a large fishing-related vocabulary. Underlying such statements is an assumption that the similarities exist because, over time, these languages have borrowed grammar, sounds, and vocabulary from one another. Such regional resemblances, however, do not necessarily indicate either the genetic relationship or typological similarity.

D Written and Spoken Language

When individual languages have a written as well as a spoken form, it is often the case that the writing system does not represent all the distinctive sounds of the language. The writing system of one language may make use of symbols from the writing system of another language, applying them to sounds, syllables, or morphemes for which they were not originally intended. Written and spoken forms of the same language can be compared by studying the “fit” between the writing system and the spoken language.

Many kinds of writing systems exist. In Chinese, a written character is used for every morpheme. The written form of the Cherokee language has a symbol for every consonant-and-vowel syllable. Japanese is also written with such a system, which is called a syllabary. In writing systems using an alphabet, such as the Latin alphabet, each symbol theoretically stands for a sound in the spoken language. The Latin alphabet has 26 letters, and languages are written with it generally use all 26, whether their spoken form has more or fewer sounds. Although it is used for written English, the Latin alphabet does not have symbols for all the sounds of English. For example, for some sounds, combinations of two letters (digraphs), such as th, are used. Even so, the combination th does not indicate the spoken distinction between th in “thin” and th in “this”.

The written form of a language is static, unchanging, reflecting the form of the language at the time the alphabet, syllabary, or character system was adopted. The spoken form is dynamic, always changing; eventually, the written and spoken forms may no longer coincide. One of the problems with the English written language is that it still represents the pronunciation of the language several centuries ago. The word light, for example, is today pronounced “lite”; the spelling “light” reflects the former pronunciation. In languages with writing systems that have been recently developed (such as Swahili) or reformed (such as Hebrew), the written and spoken forms are more likely to fit.

Unlike speech, writing may ignore pitch and stress, omit vowels, or include punctuation and capitalization. The written and spoken forms of a language also differ in that writing does not incorporate spoken dialect differences. Speakers of mutually unintelligible Chinese languages or dialects, for example, can read one another’s writing even though they cannot communicate through speech. Similarly, speakers of the different German dialects all write in High German, the accepted standard form of the language. See also Writing.

E Standard and Non-standard Language

The written form of a language may have more prestige than the spoken form, and it also may have a more complex grammar and a distinctive vocabulary. A standard written literary language thus tends to influence the speech of educated people. In certain circumstances, they will try to imitate it when they talk, and they may relegate the unwritten form to situations where prestige is less important. In Arabic-speaking countries, for example, educated people sometimes use classical Arabic in speech as well as in writing, whereas uneducated people speak only colloquial Arabic. The use of two such varieties of a single language by the same speaker in different situations is called diglossia. People who use the spoken form of a standard literary dialect in public and their native regional dialect when they are with friends (as do much German-speaking Swiss) are said to be diglossic.

A standard language is that one of the language’s dialects that have become dominant. Often, such dominance is due to the governmental policy whereby one dialect is given prestige over others, and various regulations or customs ensure that it is used. A standard variety is not in any way inherently superior to other dialects and is, itself, just another dialect with its own individual grammar, vocabulary, and accent (while the standard can—and is—spoken in many accents, there is usually one accent that is held as more prestigious than others, as in Received Pronunciation in the UK). The standard language (such as High German) is frequently the dialect used in writing; that is, it is the literary language of a speech community or at least a dialect that has an existing orthography and a body of material written in it.

Few people actually speak such a standard language; rather, they approximate it with their own regional variations. The standard dialect is the one that is used when a language is taught to non-native speakers; the learners then speak it but do so with an accent, or variation carried over from their first language and region. The standard language also provides a common means of communication among speakers of regional dialects (as in the examples given above for German). Standard languages are thus highly useful in efforts to unite people and create a sense of national spirit.

F Dialect, Argot, and Jargon

A dialect is a variety of a language that differs consistently from other varieties of the same language used in different geographical areas or by different social groups. For example, Boston residents who speak the New England dialect of American English drink tonic and frappés, whereas people in Los Angeles sip sodas and milkshakes. Within groups of people who speak the same geographical or social dialect, other language variations exist that depend on specific situations. People who have activities in common or share a profession or trade may have a special “language” called an argot that identifies them as distinct from outsiders. Teenagers, thieves, and prostitutes have an argot separating them from parents, police, and other authorities. Such a specialized informal argot is called slang. An argot or specialized terminology, as shared by members of a profession, without any connotation of slang, is called a jargon. Professional groups with distinct jargons include doctors, lawyers, clergy, linguists, and art critics. (The use of the terms argot, jargon, and slang, however, varies somewhat from writer to writer).

G Pidgins and Creoles

Just as a language may develop varieties in the form of dialects and argots, languages as a whole may change (Latin, for example, evolved into the different Romance languages). Sometimes rapid language change occurs as a result of contact between people who each speak a different language. In such circumstances, a new language called a pidgin may arise (see Pidgins and Creoles). Pidgins are based on one language from which they take much of their vocabulary but are also influenced by at least one other language; they have relatively small sound systems, reduced vocabularies, and simplified and altered grammars and they rely heavily on the context in order to convey meaning. Pidgins are often the result of contact by traders with island and coastal peoples. A pidgin has no native speakers; when speakers of a pidgin have children who learn the pidgin as their first language, that language is then called a creole. Once the creole has enough native speakers to form a speech community, the creole may expand into a fuller language. This is the case with Krio, a language with many speakers in Sierra Leone in West Africa. Krio arose from what was originally an English-based pidgin and has influences from Yoruba among other languages.

H International Languages

In the midst of world linguistic diversity, a number of international languages have been proposed as a means for solving world problems thought to be caused by misunderstandings of communication. Sometimes, existing natural languages are advanced to fill this role. These so-called LWCs (Languages of Wider Communication)—such as English or French, already spoken by many people as a second language as well as by many native speakers—have proponents who hold that everyone should know one or the other. More often, efforts have been made to construct artificial languages for everyone to learn. A number of artificial languages have enjoyed a period of vogue, then fallen into disuse. One artificial language, Esperanto, has had a relatively high success rate because it has a regular grammar, an “easy” pronunciation, and a vocabulary based on Latin and ancient Greek and on the Romance and Germanic languages. To speakers of languages of other families, however, Esperanto seems less international and is harder to speak and learn. One new language proposed for international use is LOGLAN (standing for logical language), a laboratory-created language that is claimed to be culture-free and to allow people to speak their thoughts clearly and unambiguously. It has a small sound system and few grammatical rules, and its vocabulary is drawn from the eight most widely spoken languages in the world today, including Hindi, Japanese, Chinese, as well as Russian and other Indo-European languages.

Even if a perfect international language could be devised and adopted, however, it is by no means certain that it could minimize global communication problems. Moreover, the thought processes that relate languages to the ideas that people express with them are still not understood. Even if everyone did learn Esperanto or LOGLAN and used these languages in international or public dealings, it is probable that processes of language change would soon take over. The world would then have dialects of Esperanto or some other international language, leading eventually to even further differentiation or to pidginization, creolization, and so forth. Indeed, English and French in different parts of the world have already become differentiated; Indian English, for example, is different both from American English and from British English.


Defined as the production and perception of speech, language evolved as the human species evolved. As a communication system, it can be related to the communication systems of other animals. As discussed above, however, human language has a creative and interpretive aspect that appears to mark it as distinctive. The understanding of human speech is believed to involve specialization of part of the left hemisphere of the brain (Broca’s area). It is possible that human language may not have been distinct from animal communication until this physiological specialization occurred. The production of human language is believed to have occurred first in Neanderthals (100,000-30,000 years ago); it is speculated that about 40,000 to 30,000 years ago the emergence of modern Homo sapiens (with skull and vocal tract possibly better specialized for speech) was accompanied by significant linguistic development. Modern human language, then, may be only 30,000 to 40,000 years old. The immense diversity of languages spoken in the world indicates an incredible acceleration in the rate of change of human language, once it emerged. If there was, in fact, a first language, its sounds, grammar, and vocabulary cannot be definitely known. Historical linguists, focusing on finding out and describing how, why, and in what form languages occur, can only suggest hypotheses account for language change.

In the 18th century, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz suggested that all ancient and modern languages diverged from a single proto-language. This idea is referred to as monogenesis. Most scholars believe that such a language can, at best, be posited only as a set of hypothetical formulas from which one can derive the world’s languages, and according to which they can be related to one another; it is unlikely that such a reconstruction reflects a real first language as it was actually spoken. Although many modern languages do derive from a single ancestor, it is also possible that human language arose simultaneously at many different places on Earth and that today’s languages do not have a single common ancestor. The theory that present language families derive from many original languages is called polygenesis.

Whether human language was ultimately monogenetic or polygenetic, the differences among languages are believed to be relatively superficial. Although many humans find it difficult to learn a second language (as opposed to acquiring a second language before puberty), and although languages such as Chinese, English, and Swahili may seem to have little in common, the differences among languages are not nearly so great as the similarities among them. The sounds and sound combinations of the world’s languages, despite the ways in which they differ from language to language, are believed to have been selected from a universal set of possible sounds and sound combinations available to all human languages. Human languages likewise have individual structural properties that are selected from a common pool of possible structures. That is, no human language utilizes any sounds that cannot be produced by any human being or any grammatical categories that cannot be learned by any human—whether or not the native language of a given person makes use of those sounds and structures. The range of possible language changes, in other words, seems to be limited by the universal structural properties of language.

When a language undergoes substantial changes both in vocabulary and in sound and structure, the whole language may become another language. This occurs in pidginization and creolization and also, for example, in the development of the modern Romance languages from Latin. Language growth can also occur when a minor dialect becomes dominant and breaks off from other dialects. Eventually, the dialect that is split off ceases to be mutually intelligible with the other dialects; it may develop new dialects of its own, become subject to pidginization and creolization, and so forth, over and over again through time. This continual growth and development characterize language in all its aspects as a living expression of both human nature and culture.