How old is your language?


The death was reported in the press a few weeks ago of an 85-year-old lady living in the Andaman Islands. She was the last surviving member of the Bo tribe, and the last native speaker of its language. Since the death of her parents, more than 30 years ago, she had been the only native speaker of her language, and had had to learn Hindi and another Andaman tribal language in order to communicate with other people.

The Andaman Islands remained isolated from the modern world until well into the 19th century, and its people had lived undisturbed by outsiders since they arrived there from Africa some 65,000 years ago. This is truly remarkable. Most human cultures, at some time or another, migrate to pastures new, or integrate with other human groups. Not so the Andaman Islanders who, having got to their shores, stayed put for tens of thousands of years while the rest of humanity never came to call.

The coming to an end of a continuous line of human history is very moving, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I am treating this sad subject lightly. But I do want to ask, does any of this make the Andaman languages among the oldest in the world?

A number of news outlets reported on this story:


Even the linguist working to record and preserve what she can of the indigenous Andaman languages describes Bo as one of the most ancient languages in the world, and as such, something truly precious.

But how you measure the age of a language? You can put a precise date to the death of language when its last speaker dies, but you can’t put a date to its birth because to identify its first speaker is absurd. No-one makes up a language on their own and starts it off. All children learn their language from the adults who speak it around them.

To explore this knotty problem, let’s ask the question, how old is English? English descends from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. Before Germanic tribes left their homes in Northwest Europe to invade and settle the British Isles in the fifth century AD, there was obviously no language called English. Once these invaders had made their permanent homes here, we might say the language they spoke should be called English, even though it was identical to the Germanic dialects spoken by their cousins who had not crossed the North Sea. By this purely geographic measure, we can say English is about 1,600 years old, but we would have to admit that nothing new came into existence with this ‘birth’. It was more a case of same language, new country. And by any linguistic measure English 1,600 years ago is incomprehensible to English speakers now, and so one might want to say that the two are therefore not actually the same language.

Let’s ask another question. How old is French? French did not arrive in France the way English arrived in England. It was Latin that arrived in France (or Gaul as it was known) over 2,200 years ago. The local Celtic peoples adopted Latin to fit in with their Roman overlords. After the Romans left, Germanic peoples invaded and settled, but rather than go on speaking their German language (as their cousins had in England) they adopted Latin too. And as the years wore on, their Latin developed distinctly local characteristics in grammar and accent and, behold, it was called French.

There is no way you can put a date to the beginning of French in France, anymore than you can put a date to the death of Latin in France. There is a smooth linguistic continuity here. The one morphed into the other generation by generation, as the population changed from Roman to Celt to Frank. And if modern French is a version of Latin, then it is as old as Latin and can trace its birth back along the Italic branch of Indo-European. Geographically, however, we might only want to allow Latin to be called French once it had arrived in France, even though it would not have been, at the beginning, distinct from Latin in other parts of the Roman Empire.

One can discern here the idea that the age of a language is tied up, not with its grammatical and lexical forms, but the location of its speakers. The location of the speakers of Bo did not change for 65,000 years. We can predict that during the course of this very, very long time (2,600 generations) the forms of the language spoken by the first Andaman settlers underwent change. Maybe very slowly, given their isolation from other languages which would have put the brakes on forces for change, but over that great expanse of time changes must have occurred which would have meant a modern day speaker of Bo could not have understood an ancestor who made the journey from Africa.  We could even confidently predict that of the 65,000- year- old variety of Bo nothing survived into the 21st century. For comparison we can look at the relatively short period of time that the Melanesian language spread across the Pacific Islands from Papua New Guinea. In the course of just a few hundred years, it was diverging considerably from island to island.  Given a few tens of thousands of years of isolation, each island community would have developed a language distinct from every other and no linguist would be able to show they were ever related.

 Just as any human alive today has as many ancestors as anyone else, all modern languages are equally old. They are all, ultimately, traceable back to Africa and the first humans, and none has the remotest resemblance to the language(s) spoken then.  The death of any language is tragic. We do not need to make it more tragic by claiming that it was especially ancient and especially precious.


One thought on “How old is your language?

  1. I am not a professional linguist but I think there is one argument to be made here. In some sense all languages are equally old/young, since language change is constantly taking place. But some languages/varieties are more conservative than others, and to a certain extent there can be — whether merely in the eye of the lay person (i.e. normatively) or empirically — a certain specialness in languages which closely retain features of their very ancient ancestors…Sardinian might be an example (chosen totally at random and without comprehensive evidence). Similarly, since languages like Hittite, Elamite, Sumerian, Akkadian, and Ancient Egyptian have not only completely died out but left few or no living ancestors (yes Coptic continues but not as a daily language I believe), there is also a certain specialness in, say, Chinese or Mayan, in that it has close recognizable ancestors attested at a dramatically earlier date than most other languages–at least since those languages were blessed with the invention of writing at an early stage.

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