Although this question is still being debated, most linguists assume that the full language capacity had evolved by 100,000 BC. This is when modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved in Africa with a modern skull shape (indicating modern brain function) and a modern vocal tract which would allow these people to articulate all the sounds found in modern languages. Some anthropologists speculate that language or parts of the language ability may have developed earlier, but there is no firm consensus yet
Oldest written and spoken form
If you’re counting absolute oldest, probably Sumerian or Egyptian wins because they developed a writing system first (both start appearing in about 3200 BC). If you’re counting surviving languages, Chinese is often cited (first written in 1500 BC), but Greek is a possible tie because it was written in Linear B beginning ca. 1500 BC.*
Writing is not equal to speaking.
In 3200 BC, there were many, many languages spoken besides Sumerian and Egyptian, but they weren’t fortunate enough to have a writing system. These languages are just as old. To take one interesting case, the Albanian language (spoken north of Greece) was not written down until about the 15th century AD, yet Ptolemy mentions the people in the first century BC. The linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that Albanians were a distinct people for even longer than that. So Albanian has probably existed for several millennia, but has only been written down for 500 years. With a twist of fate, Albanian might be considered very “old” and Greek pretty “new”.
The popularity of Spanish as a foreign language continues to grow in Brazil, the only Portuguese-speaking nation on a continent dominated by Spanish. Brazil shares a border with seven Spanish-speaking countries, and it conducts a substantial amount of trade with countries where Spanish is spoken (1/4 of exports and 1/5 of imports).
A significant number of non-Brazilian Spanish speakers, estimated at about 1 million people, call the nation home, mostly as the result of immigration from surrounding countries. Sephardic Jews – who speak both Ladino and Spanish – settled in Brazil and now compose a small portion of the country’s Spanish-speaking peoples.
With an eye toward more fully integrating Brazil with its Spanish-speaking neighbors and partners in the South American trade bloc Mercosur, the Brazilian Congress passed an education bill in 2005 requiring all secondary schools to offer Spanish as a second language. This legislation spurred an increase in resources dedicated to Spanish, and the number of Brazilian students studying español has increased from one million to five million in a period of just five years. A recent agreement between Spain’s Cervantes Institute, an organization devoted to promoting the Spanish language worldwide, and the Brazilian Ministry of Education provides for the training of 26,000 Spanish teachers to manage the increased demand sparked by the 2005 bill.
With approximately 400 million native speakers worldwide, Spanish is currently the second most widely spoken language, just behind Mandarin Chinese and ahead of English and Hindi/Urdu. Spanish is also the second most commonly used language on the Internet, trailing English. Most linguistic studies indicate that English, Spanish and Chinese will dominate as the languages of international communication and commerce in the 21st century.
The image of the Spanish language seems to have undergone a makeover in the last few years, resulting in its growth as a language of international communication. Many now view Spanish as a practical, useful language thanks to its demographic power. The use of the language in over 20 countries as well as its foothold in key places such as the United States provides incentive for people to learn Spanish as an investment in their professional futures, especially in the case of young people.
The Spanish language continues to grow at an astounding rate in the United States. Each year more than 1.5 million new speakers join the ranks. Brazil has also seen tremendous growth in the number of students choosing to study Spanish. The governments of countries such as Brazil, the Philippines, France and Italy have invested in high-quality Spanish language education for their citizens, recognizing the growing impact and importance of the language.
Many scholars and researchers agree that the Spanish language’s future in the United States looks promising, though it seems highly unlikely that Spanish will unseat English as the nation’s dominant language. There are those, however, who argue that Spanish faces the possibility of diminishing influence in the United States over time, the result of a language shift seen previously in other immigrant groups.
A study commissioned by Hispanic USA, a market resource firm targeted at Latinos, estimates that by the year 2025, the tally of Spanish-speaking Latinos in the U.S. will climb to some 40 million. The study challenges the notion that the use of Spanish will decline as future generations of Latinos are born and raised in this country in the coming years. The authors of the Hispanic USA study claim that, unlike other immigrant groups, those born in the U.S. to Latino parents will continue to speak Spanish in exceptionally large numbers.
In separate but related analysis, Linguist Steve Schaufele notes: “Given the current health of the U.S. Hispanic community and the level of its emotional investment in its distinctive culture, I would say that American Spanish as one of the principal vehicles of that culture has an excellent chance of surviving indefinitely.”
In addition, the pool of new Spanish-speaking immigrants favors the continued importance of the language in the United States. Over half of the legal immigrants who arrive annually hail from Spanish-speaking countries, and the percentage is even higher for undocumented immigrants.
With the emergence of the Internet as a tool for international communication, the increasing growth and importance of the global economy, and the sheer number of Spanish speakers worldwide, there are more chances to use the language in the United States and greater economic incentives to retain and promote the use of Spanish.
However, some are not as optimistic about the future of the Spanish language in the U.S. They point to conflicting studies that reveal a failure on the part of second- and third-generation Hispanics to preserve the language, a trend which is gradually diminishing the pool of Spanish speakers. Additionally, recent studies by sociologists indicate a rapid shift to English among the children of immigrants.
Only time will tell the fate of the Spanish language in the United States, but it appears that, by most accounts, Spanish is here to stay.
An open database of endangered languages has been launched by researchers in the hope of creating a free, online portal that will give people access to the world’s disappearing spoken traditions.
The website has been developed by researchers at the World Oral Literature Project, based at the University of Cambridge, and is now available at its website, http://www.oralliterature.org/.
It includes records for 3,524 world languages, from those deemed “vulnerable”, to those that, like Latin, remain well understood but are effectively moribund or extinct.
Researchers hope that the pilot database will enable them to “crowd-source” information from all over the world about both the languages themselves and the stories, songs, myths, folklore and other traditions that they convey.
Users can search by the number of speakers, level of endangerment, region or country. In the United Kingdom, the site lists 21 disappearing languages, ranging from the relatively well known, like Scots and Welsh, to obscure forms such as Old Kentish Sign Language.
Where possible, the research team has also included links to online resources and recordings so that users can find out more. Their hope is that by making an early version of the database open to all, more people will come forward with information and references to recordings that they have missed.
Dr Mark Turin, Director of the World Oral Literature Project, said: “We want this database to be a dynamic and open resource, taking advantage of online technology to create a collaborative record that people will want to contribute to.”
At present, the world has more than 6,500 living languages, of which up to half will cease to exist as spoken vernaculars by the end of the century. In most cases, their disappearance is a by-product of globalisation, or rapid social and economic change. The World Oral Literature Project aims to document and make accessible these spoken traditions before they are lost without record.
Three existing datasets are raising awareness about the number of languages under threat: the online Ethnologue, the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and innovative work by conservation biologist Professor William Sutherland in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. Each, however, evaluates the risk and the problem differently, with varying results.
“While some severely endangered languages have been well documented, others, which may appear to be less at risk, have few, if any, records,” Dr Turin said. “Here in Cambridge we are interested not only in language endangerment levels but also in what might be called a ‘documentation index’. To this end, we are locating references to and recordings of oral literatures in collections around the world.”
“At the moment if you’re a researcher, a member of an endangered speech community or just an interested member of the public, there is no way to pull all these useful but disparate resources together in one place. We wanted to create a resource that does just that, and also build something that can be developed and expanded further to encourage other people to submit additional information. At present, the database allows us to pose comparative research questions about which languages are closest to extinction and where the records are.”
Of the 3,524 languages listed, about 150 are in an extremely critical condition. In many of these cases, the number of known living speakers has fallen to single figures, or even just one.
Examples include the Southern Pomo language, spoken by Native Americans in parts of California; Gamilaraay, the language of the Kamilaroi of New South Wales; and the language of the Sami communities based in northwestern Russia.
The entries specific to the United Kingdom include Manx, Cornish and Old Kentish Sign Language – a precursor to the generic British version which Samuel Pepys, among others, referred to in his famous diary.
Another disappearing oral tradition in the United Kingdom is Polari, a form of slang once used by the likes of actors and circus or fairground communities, and which was then adopted by gay subcultures as a type of code language.
Elsewhere in Europe, the endangered languages list includes a version of Low Saxon spoken in the north-eastern Netherlands; Mocheno (a Germanic language used in north Italy); and Istriot, which is spoken on the Croat coast and has about 1,000 speakers left.
The database also covers extinct languages about which enough is known through existing records to render them visible. In some cases this may be because the speech form died out very recently, as is the case with Laghu, which was spoken on Santa Isabel in the Solomon Islands and disappeared in 1984. In other scenarios, the language ceased to be spoken long ago but is still well known or used in a specialised setting, as with both Latin and Ancient Greek.
The database is being launched to coincide with a workshop at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge on December 10 and 11, which will bring together researchers to discuss some of the key issues surrounding the dissemination of oral literature through traditional and online media.
More information about both the database and the World Oral Literature project can be found at: http://oralliterature.org/ The pilot database was made possible by a Small Research Grant from the British Academy with additional funding from the Chadwyck-Healey Charitable Trust.
Poet Dylan Thomas is also responsible for 635 entries, they said.
Prof John Koch of the University of Wales said: “The two languages have lived side-by-side for 1,500 years.”
The OED, first published in 1884, this week relaunched itself online.
It claims to be the only English dictionary that tries to trace the first known use of every sense of every word in the English language.
And to prove the point its compilers have pointed to the number of entries that originated from Welsh.
The earliest recorded use of ‘penguin’ can be traced back to Wales, they said.
Apparently in spite of the fact that most penguins have black heads, the OED’s compilers said Welsh coined the term from pen meaning head and gwyn meaning white.
OED quotes the first written citation from 1577: “Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.” [sic]
According to the OED the word ‘Taffy’, a nickname for a Welshman, has its roots in the pronunciation of Dafydd, it says.
‘Cariad’, a Welsh term of affection, is referenced as far back as the 13th century, from caru, meaning to love or woo.
Edmund Weiner, deputy editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, said Dylan Thomas was one of the most cited authors in the OED Online.
“His rich use of language has resulted in being acknowledged as the source of words and phrases such as ‘moochin’, a difficult or disagreeable person.
“The term to ‘prodnose’, meaning to pry or be inquisitive, is taken from Quite Early One Morning.”
Prof John Koch of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth, said the influence of Welsh on the English language is surprising to many, but should not be.
“Before English was there, Welsh was there,” he said, “and you cannot say that about any other language that English has had contact with.
“The two languages have lived side-by-side for 1,500 years, so it shouldn’t be surprising.”
Prof Koch said that the English language behaved in many ways that could not be attributed to other Germanic languages and its contact with Welsh may be the reason.
“There has been an underestimation from the beginning of the Welsh component in English,” he said. “It probably isn’t massive like that of French or Latin. It’s more under the surface.”
Prof Koch said there were historical and political reasons behind the lack of credit given to the influence of Welsh.
He explained: “In the universities in which people studied the language most people who compiled the dictionaries in the first place did not know a lot about Wales, so it would not have been something they looked for.”
Prof Koch added that many proper names in England came from Wales and most of the names of major rivers in Britain are pre-English.
“That’s something that is well-known by experts but tends to be otherwise overlooked, but the influence of Welsh on English may yet come into its own as a subject.”
Merchet – the Welsh word for daughter, merch, became an English term for a dowry
Cariad – commonly used by English speakers in Wales for sweetheart
Source: OED Online
Some History of the Welsh Language:
Welsh is a Celtic language, closely related to Cornish and Breton. The Welsh we speak today is directly descended from the language of the sixth century.
Until the mid-19th century, the majority of the Welsh population could speak Welsh – over 80%. Over the past centuries several factors have affected people’s usage of the language – these are some of the most prominent factors:
• The 1536 and 1542 Acts of Union: The passing of the 1536 and 1542 Acts of Union made English the language of law and administration of Government. Although the Welsh language was not banned, it lost its status, and brought with it centuries of steady linguistic decline.
• Translation of the Bible in 1588 by Bishop William Morgan: This was a great boost to the language because it ensured that Welsh was the language of religion and worship, and kept the language alive within communities.
• 18-19 Century Industrial Revolution: This caused the biggest collapse in Welsh speakers because of the huge influx of people into the industrial areas. Number of Welsh speakers fell to 50% of the population.
This decline continued through the Twentieth Century for several reasons:
• migration patterns from rural to urban areas in search of work
• inward migration of English speakers to rural areas
• increased availability of English-language news and entertainment media
• a general secularization of society, leading to a decline in chapel attendance, on which so many traditional Welsh-medium activities were centered.
The 2001 Census shows that 20.8% of the population of Wales said that they could speak Welsh. Analysis, maps and briefing papers for the 2001 Census can be found in the publications library of the Welsh Language Board site. The next Census will take place in 2011 and it is likely that the results will be announced during 2013.