In 1938, Richard Archibald, an explorer, penetrated the interior of New Guinea and was surprised. Who wouldn’t be? Everyone sort of knew that the area was uninhabited. But it turned out that nestled in the valleys between two rows of mountains, were 50000 aboriginal people, speaking approximately thousand different languages. An area one tenth the size of Europe, and one hundredth the population, had that many languages- and that many peoples. A fossil of the Stone Age. This was probably how we had lived for two lakh years, till the recent development of agriculture, a mere 10000 years ago.
Aren’t these languages simpler than, say, English? Or Hindi; or Latin? More primitive?
No. Surprising. Every language studied so far, from English and Greek to Finno-Ugric and Nicobarese, has the same inherent complexity. An identical capability for human expression. Merely variations in an universal template. It turns out that the abstract world of languages follow a strict form of socialism.
All languages are equal.
Some are more equal than others only because of the variations in the number and power of the people speaking it.
Dead languages are not more exalted than current languages. Till the last century, scientists used to learn in Latin and Greek. That is why we have “Drosophilia Melanogaster’, when a simple,’ black bellied water loving fly’ would have sufficed. Instead of ‘Hypertrophic CardioMyopathy” we could have said- ‘thickening heart disease’.
Till about the nineteen fifties, Church Services in Catholic Europe was in Latin, while Syrian Churches in Kerala had them in ancient Syriac, another dead language.
How do languages die? It is a gradual, continuous process. Suppose this thing I am writing, was preserved in a sealed jar and was opened after 500 years. it would probably require an expert in ancient languages to read it. Don’t believe me? Look at these sentences from the bible, all in English:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”- Current English.
“Our Lord gourneth me, and nothing shall defailen to me”- 500 years ago.
“Drihten me raet, ne byth me nanes godes wan”- 1000 years ago.
Experts feel that after about 10000 years, not a trace of the origin of the language family can be discerned. The roots would have vanished, without a trace.
We are mere whirlpools in the river of time. The individual molecules keep changing. The shape alters and distorts. Finally they disappear and new ones form.
That doesn’t stop us from loving our fathers and mothers. I think my parents were the best in the world. But this is only a rhetorical belief. Attachments make us human, and that is good. But it is also good to know what they are, in an objective sense.