Speaking in Tongues.

A Long, Long Time Ago, In a Place Far, Far Away…

There are lots of languages floating around the world today, fewer then there used to be because of the internet and tea and coffee, but a lot more than there was a long long time ago. Back when there were so few people walking the Earth that they probably knew each other to see the folk who would become the Europeans hung out a lot with the dudes who would become the Indians (of Asia, not America. Those guys hung out with the Chinese mostly). They are thus known as the Indo-Europeans, but they probably called themselves something else because India and Europe didn’t exist yet. Though it would have been interesting if they had thought of that in advance and trademarked the names, they’d have made a fortune. Anyway. So this group split up for some reason. Maybe one person became more popular and wanted his own career and the others were jealous or one of them got married to a guy who wasn’t really good for her but she went off with him anyway because she was young and foolish and in love. Or maybe they just liked wandering around since most of the world hadn’t been discovered by them yet. In any event, there was a big split.

Poe-Tay-Toe, Poe-Tah-Toe

Imagine there are no schools, no internet, tv, radio, newspapers. Basically, imagine that you are in Leitrim. Imagine your family, which shouldn’t be hard as you’ve known them all your life, and all the things they say and how they say them. Without schools and such most of your language and how to use it would be learned from your family and your neighbours and such. To understand each other you’d all say things the same way and in the same accent. The people down the road in the next village over might have a slightly different accent and way of using language. Imagine now due to some crisis, oh like a .com bubble, a housing bubble, a South-Sea bubble, a bubble bath, you have to immigrate so you head off to America. Your accent will change and so will your language and the way you use it. You’ll start calling biscuits cookies, you’ll think that ‘King Of Queens’ and ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’ are funny, and you will start spelling autumn with an ‘f’.

Things Get Complicated Now, Sorry

Now imagine you live somewhere between the Black and Caspian Seas 6000 years ago, which is roughly around the time Creation began according to Bishop Ussher. You, for the purposes of this scenario, are called E(uropean), and your have a sibling called I(ndo). Let’s call your parents Proto-I-E since they came before you. You, your sibling and a few of your mates decide to leave home and family and friends. You go west and your sibling goes east. (This is called the Kurgan Hypothesis, possibly because there can be only one and the McLeod was busy that day). You both take the language you learned with you, but somewhere along to way you happen to start saying things a little different. Maybe you need new words to explain the new things you see, maybe you don’t like calling ‘Marathons’ ‘Snickers’, maybe you need new insults for the people you found already living in the place you will call Europe. So, you have new words. But the old words also change in ways you might not notice. You start saying, for example, ‘c’ like ‘s’, while your sibling says it like a ‘k’. But you are isolated from one another so you never notice a change. Then you have kids and they wander off and see new things and become isolated, and they have new kids etc., etc., and they all start saying things funny. By now it’s roughly 4000 years ago, the time of Noah’s Ark if a Creationist you be, the Bronze Age for everyone else. Your language has continued to change as the small alterations are reinforced over time. Your grandchildren haven’t a clue what you are saying and you don’t know what they are talking about because you’ve never seen an ocean or a ‘Gaul’ or met a ‘Greek’. The divisions in your family are so deep no-one can understand anyone at Christmas dinner. Which might be a good thing because it means you are less likely to insult your mother-in-law. Just smile politely and nod.

1000 B(efore anyone) C(ared to make a dating system that made any sens)E to Now-ish

By about 3000 years ago the some of your descendents are speaking Greek and Celtic and Germanic and Italic and such, but none of these are one coherent language. People from Kerry, New Delhi and Harlem might all speak English but they wouldn’t necessarily all speak it the same way, use the same accent or slang. There might be hundreds of variations. But then the Romans come and build roads everywhere and civilise people whether they like it or not and encourage everyone to learn Latin. But then Germans start wandering around, moving into all the nicest houses, taking all the best jobs, not building roads and really messing up the whole ‘Rome is the awesomest place ever because we have baths and toilets and engineering and all you have is an interesting smell’ theme that Europe had been going for. The Celtic languages are pushed to the very edge of Europe, languages so ancient that they have more in common with Sanskrit of India then they do with other European tongues, Sanskrit being one of your long-lost sibling’s great-grandchildren. Latin, which had taken over, is shattered by some overly friendly Germans. Spain and Italy stay very Latin-ish but French goes off and does its own thing because, well, it’s French. And its ruling class is mostly German, so the languages mix a bit, and lots of other complicated sound changes happen. And then about 500 years ago some very smart people start figuring out that all these languages are related somehow and realise they are all descended from Proto-Indo-European. Funnily enough the Germans call it Indo-German… It’s like they think Europe belongs to them or something…

Reality Check:

This is an extreme simplification of a process that began roughly five and a half thousand years ago based on theories and hypotheses. Even the connection between La Tene culture and the Celts is debated and that is several thousand years closer in time to us. The development of the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European into the languages spoken today involved countless individuals over a vast period of time living on two continents and has only been studied for two centuries by a handful of scholars.

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