Who Invented Words?

May 13, 2016

On But Why we let you ask the questions and we help find the answers. One of the things that many of you are curious about is language. How we speak, why we speak and what we speak.

There are 7097 living languages, according to people who study languages. These people are usually called linguists.

But that number is shrinking all the time because many languages have just a handful of speakers. So some linguists say there are really more like 6,000 spoken languages still around right now. But the bottom line is that language is part of what makes us human. So in this episode we focus on verbal communication.

"My question is: who invented words?" -Winlon, 6, Atlanta, GA

We turned Winlon's question over to a guy named John McWhorter. He is a linguist who writes books and gives talks and teaches at Columbia University in New York City.

John McWhorter is a linguist at Columbia University
Credit Eileen Barroso / Columbia

"I think that most people who study language would say in terms of who invented the first words, it would have been the first people. And the first people who were exactly like us were in Africa, probably about 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. They would have been the ones who first came up with words for things and then they would have passed those on to their children, and that would have kept going to you and me.

"But what you're really asking is how did they come up with the words. That's a tough question because there are 6,000 languages in the world and they all have different words for things, and we can't go back in time so we will probably never know what those first words were. Some people have said that it must have had to do with imitating the sounds that things make. That may work with some things, but most things don't make sounds. It's hard to say what would have lead people to come up with some kind of word like 'sun' or 'tree,' or something like 'already' or 'maybe.' It's a mystery. We'll never know why they came up with those words, but we know once they did, there seemed to have never been any more people who didn't have any words.

Winlon, 6, lives in Atlanta, Ga. He wants to know who invented words.
Credit Photo courtesy Winlon's mom.

"Language changes all the time. Like the clouds in the sky are always moving, the sounds are always changing a little bit. The word 'tree' used to be pronounced more like 'tray,' but you might be hearing something more like 'tree,' so you're going to grow up saying something in between. Then the person who listens to you talking and learns how to talk may say it more like 'tree.' Pretty soon, the word is 'tree.' The word changes bit by bit. If you imagine that happening to every word in every language all the time, you know why one language could never stay the way it was. It's always inching along and changing to a new language.

"If you have a bunch of people and one bunch goes in one direction and one bunch goes in another, then not only are everyone's languages changing, but languages change in all sorts of ways. Take all of those changes happening to every word all the time and it means that you're going to get two different languages, one on one side of the mountain and one on the other side."

"Why is the alphabet in the order that it is?" -Nephele, 8, Burlington, VT

Nephele, 8, from Burlington, Vt. wants to know why the alphabet is in the order it is.
Credit Photo courtesy Nephele's mom.

"The answer to this question is one that is just no fun. There is no reason. The order of the alphabet has never made any sense. All we know is that the people who invented the first alphabet put the letters in a certain order. When they passed those letters on to other people, and those people passed the letters on to us, we kept the letters in that order. "The best I can do is to say that x y and z are hanging down at the end because with the first alphabets you didn't need an x or a y or a z. Those letters weren't needed in the languages those people spoke, but as the alphabet got passed down to people speaking other kinds of languages, people wanted new letters: x, y and z were those letters.

"Even now x and z feel kind of strange. They are only in so many words, they are kind of the peculiar letters. They were invented later and it seemed natural to tack them on to the end."  --John McWhorter, Columbia University

7097 languages means 7097 ways to say hello!  Listen to the full podcast to hear some of them.

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