Last & Least
Dr Binoy Barman
THERE are about five thousand languages in the world. And they are distinct in their sounds and grammar. Some languages are close to one another while some are quite distant or dissimilar. Close languages are grouped together to form language family. Bangla, Hindi, Urdu and some major European languages including English, French, German, Spanish and Italian belong to the Indo-European Family of language. Other language families are Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic, Austronesian, Dravidian, Altaic, Japonic, Austro-Asiatic and Tai-Kadai. A language family is formed based on phonological, lexical and structural similarities tracing back historical linkages. The process of forming language family indicates and vindicates the common origin of all languages, although it cannot be said with certainty where and when the first human language evolved and how it branched into separate entities. Here we will consider different arguments put forward in support of the common origin of language with the spirit of a voyage in quest of Lingua Adamica.
The anthropological linguists claim that all the human languages have come from a common ancestor and, with a mythical sense, he might be called Adam. So the human languages are all Adamic languages. We speak the language which Adam used to communicate with Eve. And it is for this reason we must find striking similarities at the very core of all languages although they may appear to be immensely diverse. For example, all languages use an array of basic sounds or 'phonemes'; all languages are structure-dependent; and all languages have nouns and verbs to refer to objects and actions. Historically speaking, the primal linguistic pattern is 'Lingua Adamica', to which all human languages, extant and extinct, owe their life.
Anthropologically, the original father of human races, Adam, might be Homo sapiens that supposedly originated about one lakh years ago somewhere in Africa.
One may even go further back in evolutionary line and argue that Adam was Homo erectus or Homo habilis. The descendants of Adam spread all over the world carrying the Adamic tongue, making way for diversity. Therefore in geographical consideration it is almost sure that the Lingua Adamica, the first brand of human language, was African.
Palaeontological evidence for the above claim is scarce but it is well perceived. Available fossils make it clear that the Homo sapiens developed the physical features necessary to utter sounds characteristic of humans. They had vocal organs -- jaw, teeth, lips, palate, nasal cavity, pharynx and larynx -- like we have now; and they had mature brain -- cerebral cortex, in particular -- to perform linguistic functions. In brain, particular locations like Broca's area, Wernicke's area and motor area are closely associated with language processing. Broca's area is thought to be responsible for language production, Wernicke's area for language comprehension and motor area for the movement of vocal organs essential for pronouncing words in language. Some neurologists point to the role of lateralisation of brain in language activities. They argue that the left hemisphere of brain specialises, through the course of psychophysical development, in the functions of language that individuals need for interaction as social beings.
Some postulate the existence of Language Acquisition Device (LAD) as a language learning facilitator for humans. The function of LAD is to receive and process data for a child who is in the business of learning the first language or the mother tongue. Thanks to this device, a child can easily learn a language and use it perfectly in a particular language setting. The matter is however still a hypothesis and yet to be established as a theory, in strict scientific sense. The proponents of this hypothesis cannot sufficiently prove the physical existence of LAD, precisely locating it in the brain. We need not go into the debate. Suffice here to say that whatever language-related physical characteristics humans share universally, it is essentially Adamic, to the core. Without Adamic physiological and neurological features, we are only speechless animals like chimpanzee or other primates.
The biological scientists provide evidence for the common ancestry of human race as well as the common origin of languages. From the information of our genetic code, they argue that certain genetic characteristics which are responsible for language are common in human species. Humans carry the genes in their body and send them down to progeny. The genetic matter is never lost. Hence every human baby is born, some claim, with innate propensity to learn language. He can learn any language, in fact, of any human community. Born in a Bengali family, a child will naturally and spontaneously learn Bangla. If born in English family, he will learn English and so on. It is only possible for genetic boost-up. Again, language malfunction may also be triggered by genetic problem.
Noted linguists Joseph Greenberg and Noam Chomsky attempted to discover the universal features of human languages and enriched our knowledge with their research. From a large number of linguistic data, Greenberg discovered what are now known as absolute and implicatonal universals, which are mainly concerned with categories of grammar. He applied statistical measures to extract his research findings. Chomsky on the other hand conducted his research on formal and substantive universals, with a rigorous analysis of structures encountered in different languages. He took a computational approach and laid the foundations of modern syntax and semantics. The projects of Greenberg and Chomsky make it sufficiently clear that the human languages share some core characteristics, indicative of genetic affinity.
Theologists have long been claiming the existence of a common language on the basis of scriptural proof, albeit not evidentially scientific. According to them, God created humans and gave them a language to communicate with one another. As they dispersed, their languages took different shapes. In the story of Babel tower, we get an interesting story, accounting for the diversity of languages. The story is like this. The people of Babel once gathered together and started to construct a tower to reach the heaven directly. Looking down, God realised the danger and decided to make them fail in their mission. He changed the languages of the each individual so that they were not able to understand the words and thoughts of one another. So, out of mistrust, they went away to different directions and the tower of Babel remained incomplete. How can we talk in the same Lingua Adamica when God has planned otherwise? Diversity was in His mind that we witness today!
(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)