Where do modern languages come from?

Most people don't realize that the language they use in daily conversation is constantly evolving. Languages often include various dialects - spin-offs of an original language that are peculiar to a region or community. The French spoken in Provence is very different from that in Paris, for example. Often, a dialect will continue to evolve until it becomes its own language, as in the case of Haitian Creole (derived from French, but not recognizable to most French speakers).

All modern languages are evolved versions of ancestral languages. Spanish, for example, derives from Latin, as do the other Romance languages: French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan. Latin first spread across Europe with the growth of the Roman Empire, but when the empire collapsed, different regional dialects began to evolve into their own languages.

Scholars aren't sure exactly when Latin ended and the different Romance languages began. Written forms of French first began to appear in the ninth century, but chances are, the spoken version began well before that.

English is not a Romance language, but is actually a member of the Germanic family, along with German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. English itself has evolved over the years, from Old English to Middle English (think Chaucer) to modern English - which itself has seen a number of changes, as evidenced by the difference between today's literature and that of Shakespeare.

Although English is a Germanic language in its origins, at least half the vocabulary of modern English derives from Romance languages. Terms like president, legislature, and parliament are French, for example, as are city, village, and mansion. Words like cigar, mosquito, and vanilla all come from Spanish. Many musical terms are borrowed from Italian (allegro, andante), along with architectural terms (cupola, piazza) and literary terms (canto, stanza).

Moreover, inherent similarities between Romance and Germanic languages have led scholars to believe that they are all descended from one ancestral language, which they have called Indo-European. This ancestral language (which scholars have had to reconstruct, since there is no written record of it) would have been spoken around 5,000 years ago, by nomads roaming the southeast European plains.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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