Craig White's Literature Courses

Historical Backgrounds


History & Nature of Human Language

150,000-100,000 years ago: human species (homo sapiens) and language co-evolve.

Many animals communicate through motions, pheromones, and / or soundsóbees, ants, birds, wolves, dogs, elephants, dolphins, whales, non-human primates like chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutansóbut human languages are by far the most complex and sophisticated languages known.

(Animal communications are "closed" or limited to a comparatively small number of expressions and ideas; human communication is "open-ended" or capable of recombining a limited number of sounds or symbols to new and potentially unlimited ideas and expressions.)

The number of languages in human history and prehistory is countless. In all likelihood there was no "original language" from which all other languages descended, comparable to new evolutionary theories speculating that there is no "original human"; rather, modern humans evolved from any number of diverse competing or disparate lines of primate evolution.

No single event or element determined the development of language. As with all evolution, the biological and cultural features of human language rose across generations of trial and error.

However, most theories of language revolve around humans' development as social creatures who must cooperate in order to survive and prosper.

Language as mediation between individual minds and intentions.

Language as gossip and social control.

Language as mimesis: education and entertainment.

3000+ years ago:

First evidences of writing and record-keeping in Middle East and China.

Spoken language is a feature of all human existence, but writing and record-keeping develop with more complex cultures, larger civilizations, states, cities

"Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature." (Walter J. Ong Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word  London: Routledge, 1982,p. 7)

500 years ago:

Development of movable metallic type printing by Johannes Gutenberg > wider availability and uniformity of written texts > greater general literacy, increased communications > European Renaissance, growth of European empires.

(Historical precedents: cylinder printing in 6c BCE Babylon and Persia; woodblock printing in 2c BCE China; movable type in 11c CE China and 14c CE Korea) 

Now:

"Secondary literacy": electronic audio and video communications supersede reading and writing, though basic literacy still required for advanced communications.

Less print, more video, audio > wider knowledge but less depth and privacy

"World languages"

English is currently the world's most widely used language, with 1.38 billion speakers (out of 7+ billion).

Other past "world languages" or recent or current competitors with English are mostly languages that have accompanied expansive states and empires, or nations with large populations; e.g., Egyptian, Greek, Latin (Roman), Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, French, Russian.

Why has English prospered as a World Language? (e.g. international air travel, business, government, diplomacy)

Historical answer: British Empire from 1600s to 1900s. "The sun never sets on the British Empire."

+ timing: Many previous world languages, but English emerged simultaneous with growth of global communications and travel. This historical moment may not be repeated, so English may be a more or less permanent World Language.

Formal answer:

English has simple grammar, so easy to learn basic sentence structures. (English also has complex subordination patterns.)

No grammatical gender (e.g. masculine and feminine nouns in Spanish or French).

Simple alphabetic writing system. (Contrast Chinese, Japanese ideograms.)

Absorptive and creative word-formation and inclusion.

English makes up new words through combinations of pre-existing words: highway, netscape, cyberspace (< This technique is inherited from Germanic languages.)

English readily absorbs new words from other languages. (Contrast French, which resists foreign words and creates French equivalents as substitutes.)