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Why Are There So Many Languages?

Why Are There So Many Languages? 

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world today. But why? Why are there so many languages?

It’s an ancient question, almost as old as humanity itself.  Explanations for why people speak so many languages are common in myths from cultures around the world. The story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is one well-known example, but there are many others.

The truth is, we don’t have an easy answer for why people speak so many languages. That’s probably because there isn’t one.  Instead, linguistic diversity is a response to a variety of different elements that we’re only beginning to understand.  We may not have an answer, but here are 6 factors that encourage new languages to form.

Language May Have Developed In More Than One Place

Did humans ever speak just one language? We don’t know. There are two schools of thought:

  • Monogenesis, which holds that all languages evolved from a single ancestral language as ancient humans migrated out of Africa.
  • Polygenesis, which holds that multiple ancestral languages developed independently, as did agriculture and the domestication of animals.

So there may have been quite a bit of language diversity right from the start. But even if there was a single common human language to start out, humans would still speak thousands of different languages. That’s because . . .

People Move, and Languages Change

The main reason why there are so many languages has to do with distance and time. Groups of people are always on the move, seeking new opportunities. And languages change over time, too. Even English. Do remember trying to read Chaucer for the first time?  English has changed so much over the centuries that it’s difficult for modern English speakers to “get” Chaucer without footnotes.

What happens when you combine these two factors? Groups of people who speak a common language get divided by distance, and over time their dialects evolve in different directions. After enough time passes, they end up speaking two separate, but related languages. Read more