… has always been a bit of a hot potato in Wales.
I grew up here through the late 1960s and 1970s in the days of the Cymdeithas yr iaith Gymraeg direct action in support of bilingualism in Wales.
For a young man growing up, it was a fairly exciting time.
Not only were there fresh daubings of green paint on English language road signs to be watched out for on regular car journeys through the Valleys. The newspapers and television news also carried reports of burning holiday homes, attacks on radio and television transmitters … even crude explosive devices strapped to pipelines carrying Welsh water to English cities.
Oh yes. And then there were the quiet whispers behind shielding hands … ‘See him? Free Wales Army he is …’
It was all very exciting for a boy … but where did it all come from?
In 1980, Brown first proposed that modern humans possessed a mitochondrial common ancestor that may have lived as recently as 180,000 years ago.
In 1987, Cann et al. suggested that ‘mitochondrial Eve’ may have lived between 140-280 thousand years ago.
So ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ was the woman from whom all living humans today descend, on their mother’s side, and through the mothers of those mothers and so on, back until all lines converge on one person.
It seems that there were other women around during her lifetime, so it might have been better to have called her ‘Mitochondrial Mrs Noah’ … but that’s not really the point here.
So where did all these different languages COME from?
Because of ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, it is strictly speaking, in biological and evolutionary terms, difficult to see where the divisive issue of diverse world languages comes from.
After all, one of the great joys of motherhood is teaching the little darlings to speak, isn’t it?
And if one mother taught everyone to speak … how do we account for this?
6,809 distinct languages
The most extensive catalogue of the world’s languages, generally taken to be as authoritative as any, is that of the Ethnologue organization (http://www.ethnologue.com), whose detailed classified list currently includes 6,809 distinct languages.
New language arises through ‘amalgamation’
Some of these seem to be related in some degree of detail or another … and can be said to belong to a particular language type. But these similarities demonstrably arise out of human contact between the language groups … so wealthy Normans came to less affluent Wales speaking French and donated the word for ‘window’ (Welsh ‘ffenest’ from French ‘fenestre’) for example.
Languages are dying not emerging!
Languages seem to die out rather than emerge or evolve afresh in any event.
Stephen R. Anderson’s paper for the Linguistic Society of America (2004) indicates
“Around a quarter of the world’s languages
have fewer than a thousand remaining speakers,
and linguists generally agree in estimating that
the extinction within the next century
of at least 3,000 of the 6,809 languages listed by
or nearly half,
is virtually guaranteed
under present circumstances.”
So here’s the big question …
If there are 6,809 languages in the world, unrelated except where there were borrowings due to human contact, but one mother way back in pre-history to teach HER language and speech patterns to us all …
Then where did all those distinctly different and mutually incomprehensible languages come from?
And mightn’t there be some sort of case for revisiting Genesis 11?
“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech …
… The LORD said, If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.
7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.
8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.
9 That is why it was called Babel— because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”