April 14, 2021
Curious Kids: How are languages formed?
Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. Have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Send it to CuriousKidsCanada@theconversation.com.
How are languages formed? — Pearl, 12, Regina, Sask.
Easily! In fact, you can create a new language right now.
Simply choose some sounds, like “f,” “m,” and “e,” and invent words with them: fme could mean “shrimp,” em could mean “eat,” e “it,” and ef “is.” Next, organize these words into sentences — and feel free to use a wonky word order (like Yoda):
- e fme ef “it’s a shrimp” (literally: it shrimp is)
- e em fme ef “it is eating shrimp” (literally: it eat shrimp is)
- e fme em “it ate shrimp” (literally: it shrimp eat)
- fme em e “shrimp ate it” (literally: shrimp ate it)
By the way, shrimp really do eat shrimp sometimes!
This is the genius of human language. We can create and learn thousands of words by pairing meanings with arbitrary strings of meaningless sounds (or signs). We can also generate and understand an infinity of sentences according to the language’s grammar — the rules for ordering words.
Over 7,000 languages
Today, our world has over 7,000 languages, each with its own words and particular grammar. These languages are so mindbogglingly different that you might think, “anything goes!” But in reality, there are countless possibilities in sound patterns and grammars that never occur.
For example, our invented sentences above involve a grammar that has not been found in any human languages, including past ones!
In Old English, which was spoken a thousand years ago, the meaning of e em fme ef could be expressed with the equivalent of “it shrimp eat is,” or “it is shrimp eat,” or “it shrimp is eat.”
Similarly, the meaning of e fme em could be expressed with the equivalent of “it shrimp ate” in Old English, and the meaning of fme em e could be expressed with “shrimp it ate,” but apparently no speakers of Old English — or any other language — would insist on saying both “it shrimp ate” and “shrimp ate it,” as in e fme em and fme em e.
So, if we taught our newly invented language to children, chances are they would change its grammar to make it more like other human languages. What’s possible in a human language may be shaped by the way children acquire language and by the way language works in our human brains. This is why the famous linguist Noam Chomsky claims that all humans uniquely share a “language acquisition device” and a “universal grammar.”
As a very general example of universal grammar, we humans do not simply string words together in sentences, but rather we organize words into “chunks” called phrases. This chunking allows us to create and make sense of complex sentences like “shrimp shrimp eat eat shrimp,” meaning “the shrimp that other shrimp eat also eat shrimp.”
More generally, humans are constantly changing our languages in terms of sounds, words, meanings and grammar, so much so that it becomes increasingly difficult to understand our own distant relatives across time and space. In effect, we come to speak different languages!
So that’s how new languages are formed, but to be honest, linguists aren’t sure why languages change in the first place. We don’t know why speakers of Old English shifted their grammar to “it is eating shrimp” from earlier “it shrimp eating is” or “it is shrimp eating.”
The older word order survives to this day in forming nouns: “shrimp-eating.”
Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsCanada@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live. And since curiosity has no age limit — adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.
Darin Flynn is associate professor of linguistics in the School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Calgary.