13 Things About Language That Will Leave You Speechless

Without language, we would ~literally~ be reinventing the wheel ALL THE DAMN TIME.

Mark Pagel, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist who has made a career of applying the mathematical tools of his trade to the evolution of language and human culture. BuzzFeed Science spoke with Pagel about his thoughts on the origin and evolution of that distinctly human trait, and the conversation was cool as hell. Here are some of the cool things he talked about:

1. Language may have been around as long as modern humans have been around.

2. Homo erectus used the same tool for like 40,000 generations because that's as good as they could manage without language.

3. Without language, we would have to reinvent culture with every generation.

4. Language allowed us to haggle with each other, which is a super-important aspect of developing an honest-to-god society.

5. There aren’t that many sounds available for humans to use.

6. Every language ever may have originated from a single “mother tongue.”

7. Language does change fairly rapidly, but it’s not a problem because you only really ever talk to someone two, maybe three, generations removed from you.

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One of the most important features of language is that it is so good at transmitting information between generations. But it’s also true that language does change fairly quickly. This isn’t a big deal though if you think about it. Humans rarely talk to someone more than three generations removed from themselves.

Pagel looks at the evolution of English to make that point. If you go 500 years back, you are getting into Shakespearian language, which is notably different sounding. If you go back even further, you are getting into Chaucer, which is even harder to read.

8. In fact, languages take about 500 years of separation to become unintelligible to each other.

9. There are at least 7,000 languages alive today, and there have perhaps been as many as 140,000 languages spoken throughout humanity's existence.

10. We may, one day, return to having all of humanity speaking a single language.

11. We will probably never know most of language’s evolution.

12. We might be able to use genetic information to suss out parts of that evolutionary tree.

13. Sadly, though, we will probably never know what the first word was.

Language. Bringing people together since, like, 100,000 B.C.

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