Today, let's look for the first language. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
People look for the original
Biblical artifacts. They scour Mount Ararat looking
for Noah's Ark, and they try to explain the Star of
Bethlehem. They ask, "Was there really a flood?"
Recently, a Nova program took on the
Tower of Babel. But, instead of asking, "Was there
really a tower?" it cuts to the underlying
question: "Did we all once speak a common tongue?"
Certainly languages evolve and splinter. A linguist
studying modern Philadelphians finds it takes only
twenty years or so for "bad" to evolve into "byad"
or "snake" into "sneak." We listen to the Lord's
Prayer as it was said 800 years ago, and we can
hardly follow it. The 1200-year-old version is
Trace English back 6000 years, and we reach the
so-called Proto-Indo-European language -- ancestor
of the Germanic, Indo-Iranian, Balto-Slavic,
Celtic, Albanian, Italic, Hellenic, and Armenian
language groups. Linguists figured that out 200
years ago by looking at stable words that change
slowly --like numbers, body parts, and certain
pronouns. In our cousin language of Sanskrit, the
word for "three" is "trayas." It doesn't change
But languages of the Indo-European family have been
written down for 5000 years. We can trace them
back. Only a few of the 300-odd languages in the
Sino-Tibetan family were written before this
century. Now linguists armed with computers try to
extrapolate to the parent Oriental tongue. They
begin with body parts like eye. It comes out in
kindred words like mik,
myak, or smik.
Basque, spoken in southern France and northern
Spain, has no kinship with any known family of
languages. It's called a "language isolate." So
geneticists descend on the Pyrenees to sample blood
and DNA. Sure enough, the Basque people are as
isolated genetically as they are linguistically.
Any division from common ancestors, either
biolological or linguistic, must have occured very
And we're left puzzled. Was there ever a single
parent tongue? A group of Russian linguists thinks
there was, 15,000 years ago. They're trying to
reconstruct it. The resulting language is rich in
words for animal anatomy and a near-mystical world.
But few American academics buy the idea.
Anthropologists are pretty sure that human speech
is about 40,000 years old. Language would have
splintered long since --a mere 15,000 years ago.
Still, language probably did start among one
advanced people, then spread and divided. In fact,
the Genesis account says that God not only confused
language at Babel, but He also scattered the
people. And, at least in that sense, the Tower of
Babel story seems to be literally true -- after
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds