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How Language Developing Into Writing

Approximately 6500 languages are currently spoken worldwide. Statistically, one language vanishes every fortnight. Most importantly, the literary languages such as Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian are driving local minority languages into extinction. Barely half of them have a chance to survive the century.

The prognosis of the Association of Endangered Languages is even grimmer. They fear that up to 90 percent of today’s existing languages will disappear by 2100. The association is attempting to preserve at least a few of these languages for future generations through recordings and texts.

There are more than 660 known literary languages from the past and present. The one hundred largest languages are spoken by more than 90 percent of the world’s population. Papua New Guinea provides a stark contrast. There, besides the colloquial language of Pidgin, 742 Papua dialects are spoken.

In his fight for survival with the Neanderthals, modern man’s advantage consisted of his intelligent use of language, which empowered him to form social structures far superior to those of large, loose tribal units.

The Neanderthals extinction had less to do with his limited ability to communicate; it was mainly due to his incomplete nutrition which came almost exclusively from meat. As the climate change this diet became hopelessly inferior to a more balanced diet.

Communication within the group progressed. Soon simple interpersonal communication developed into a new stage where humans sought contact to supernatural powers. In addition to prayers and rituals, the first cave drawings exhibit this, and ascetic tendencies seem to have played a minor role.

Naturalistic depictions then went through a process of abstraction. Pictographic symbols appeared whose meaning is still clearly evident leading to the development of characters which merely represented individual sounds of languages.

The oldest evidence of the use of writing was found in the Balkans near Belgrade, not in Mesopotamia as commonly believed. Eight thousand years ago the people of the Vinca culture began to develop the first known system of writing, which was used exclusively in sacred rituals. For more than two thousand years, inscribed spindle heads, clay statuettes and votive offerings were used to intercede on behalf of the dead to find favor with the “Great Mother”.

In the middle of the fourth millennium B.C., Indo-European herdsmen invaded from the East, putting an end to older European cultures in the Danube area. In contrast to the old Europeans, the social structure of the intruders was patriarchal. Nevertheless written traditions did not cease completely.

Around 3200 B.C., a culture appeared on the Cyclades seemingly out of nowhere. Old European traditions were practiced there in a new form and endured for over a thousand years. Later the character set known as Linear A of Minoan Crete developed which had many similarities with the written characters of old Europe. On Cyprus, the Cypriot syllabic script created a last branch, which was used up until the Hellenistic age. With its demise - a five thousand years writing tradition came to an end. We will never find out for certain which lingual foundation developed into the linear writing of the Vinca culture.

It is possible however, that the Cypriot syllabic script influenced the development of alphabetic script in the Near East.

Cuneiform, Hieroglyphics and Indus script of the first high cultures are still considered by many researchers to be the first systems of writing. All agree that they were created for religious reasons.

The development of cuneiform from old Sumerian pictorial writing into the earliest cuneiform is well documented. Even today, without any prior knowledge, the meaning of the characters is easily understood because of their strong denotation and very naturalistic depiction. It was during this stage in the development of the Theocratic city-states that early forms of bureaucracy were created, epitomized by the elaborately itemized inventory lists which even include the city deities of the temples.

The last stage in the development of cuneiform culminated in the use of characters to represent the sounds of syllables, characters which then served as the writing platform for other languages. Acadian became the language for intercultural communication and has been found in a multitude of document types in Egyptian archives. In the ruins of Mesopotamia, the number of clay tablets runs into the millions.

Hieroglyphics, whose picturesque illustrations impress readers to this day, took the same path from logography to phonography. The only difference was that they developed not into syllabic writing, but into segmental (alphabetic) writing which exclusively reflected consonant frameworks. This in turn developed into the cursive forms of Hieratic and Demotic script.

All that is known about Indus writing is its character set. Like other scripts, it too was a victim of Indo-European invasions.

At the height of the Bronze Age, in the middle of the 2nd Millennium B.C., the Northern Semitic alphabet appeared at the intersection of trade routes in Syria and Palestine, based on the writing systems existing there.

At the same, time a script began to develop in China which has been in continuous use up to the present day. This unique logographic writing system, which dates from the “oracle inscriptions”, has up to 50,000 word characters which have remained distinct up to the present day.

After the upheavals at the end of the Bronze Age, the Aramaic language and script established itself as the language of trade and replaced which the Acadian language and its cuneiform in the Near East. The Aramaic language and script laid the foundation for a multitude of different alphabets in the Arabian and Indian subcontinents. The Phoenicians spread the new technique throughout the Mediterranean. The Greeks used it to create the first complete alphabet with characters for vowels. Greek and Phoenician colonization then established alphabetic script in the western Mediterranean.

Thus many variations of alphabetic script were invented , but it was Latin which spread due to the growing military and commercial power of Rome. The global expansion of Christianity completed the spread of the alphabet as the written basis for such diverse languages as Maori, Swahili, Quechua, Sami and many more. Latin’s use as the language of science has continued into modern times. This has led to the incorporation of Latin loan words into all European languages, words which play an particularly dominant role in many language areas such as medicine, jurisprudence, etc

Ever since the construction of the Tower of Babel, interpreters and translators must have belonged to antiquity's most esteemed professions. The “Rosetta Stone” is the work of one “Translation Office” from the year 196 B.C.. Champollion was able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs using the stone's corresponding texts in Demotic and Greek. This is indisputably one of the most important scientific discoveries in the history of archeology.

The demands that science and economics have placed on modern languages have led to the formation of various colloquial and literary languages, out of which a multitude of "Expert Idioms" (technical or professional languages) have emerged. These professional and technical languages are typically only understood by those in the same field or profession, who make no bones about using this to set themselves apart from the masses. This dynamic created the need for "Intra-language translation services“. An example of this is found in popular science, where scientific language is translated into easier to understand popular language. Special scientific languages apply morphemic language design, drawing mainly from Latin and Old Greek. “International Business English and IT English“ have become today’s languages of globalization, serving as the new universal language much as Latin did 2000 years ago.

Today, the development of language is more dynamic than ever: Innovative media are generating new forms of communication and even creating new languages like programming languages. The digital age also fashions modern applications from archaic communication techniques: It made the trade mark symbol omnipresent, which derives from the potters mark, virtually dating back to the earliest development of writing. Today’s youth also seems to have a new appreciation for this process: SMS short messages have invented a new use for archaic pictographic techniques - at least until everyones thumbs end up in casts ;-)


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