Liguistic question

Why is it that so many languages have the same initial sound form many common words? Were there one or two original languages from which all other languages sprang? Also, are new languages still coming into use?

I did mean linguistic. I am the worlds worst speller so please forgive.

Most of the languages of the world are related through a very few language families. Some languages are more closely related than others within those families.

For example, English and German and French and Italian are all related through the Indo-European family of languages, but English and German are more closely related to each other than to the other two (they are in the Germanic group), and French and Italian are more closely related to each other than the other two (they are in the Romance group).

Do some searching on Indo-European languages and you’ll find more than you ever wanted to know.

Insider, your inference is roughly true when looking at conceptually simple words of languages within the same family. However, when comparing languages from different families, the initial-consonant similarities you notice disappear.

I’ve heard it asserted that the word for “mother” starts with an “m” sound in most human languages, but I don’t know enough of any non-European language to verify for myself. True?

Although it is nowhere near universal, there are a great many languages whose word for “mother” contains the phoneme “m”, including non-Indo-European languages such as Arabic (umm), Taiwanese (ma), Crow (masake) off the top of my head. And of course, most of the I.E. languages have the word “mother” beginning with “m” because they share a common ancestor. In general, very basic words such as kin-terms show the highest degree of commonality among languages in the same family.

Where’s that forehead slapping smilie for when you realize you misunderstood the OP?

There are theories about the universality of words like “mother” which are more or less unrelated to the question the OP raises. Matt covers the basis on the postulated language universal regarding the word “mother”.

Another very tenuous theory is that in many languages, basis words for “big, large” will contain a “back” open vowel sound like ah and oh, while words for “small, little” contain “front” vowel sounds like ee, short i and short e.

French petit, grand seems to fit the pattern. Russian kind of fits – malenkiy (menshiy, ‘lesser’, is a better fit**), bolshoi**. Mandarin Chinese xiao3 ‘small’ seems to not fit, but zi3 “small thing, child, small animal” fits, as does da4 ‘big’. Swahili seems to blow the curve, however, with -dogo ‘small’ and -kubwa, ronjo 'big.

Of course, there’s also good old English busting up that universal theory – big, small.

Most of the world’s languages fall into a very few “phyla” – think “family of languages” stretched to the extreme. Indo-European, covering all but a handful of European languages and a group stretching from eastern Turkey to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, is one large one. Almost all of the southern “peninsula” of Africa along with the West African coast is another group. A third group stretches across Asiatic Russia, the Central Asian republics, and includes northernmost Norway and Sweden, Turkey, Finland, Estonia, Mongolia, and Hungary. Another large group is spoken in China, Burma, Thailand, and much of Indochina. Yet another stretches from Madagascar through Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago to the farthest islands and atolls of Polynesia. Some theorists posit a common origin for most languages of Native Americans of both North and South America, though this one is still strongly debated.

Smaller groups are all over the place. And there are a number of “language isolates” – individual languages with no apparent relatives, however distant.

Several theorists have attempted to construct common links between phyla, with a hypothetical group called “Nostratic” covering most of Eurasia being the most widely held (though still extremely controversial) such grouping.

Regarding the “M” for mother phenomenon, it’s been speculated that this is due to the ability of the infant to form this sound the earliest – in short, that the “ma” sound as an identifier for “mother” derives from it being most commonly the first “word” formed by the infant as it develops communication skills.

Here’s a list of the generally accepted language families in the world:

This comes from Ethnologue, a good quick online source for your language questions. (Yes, I know it’s not perfect. Let’s not start a debate about it here.) By Ethnologue’s count, there are 6,809 languages in the world. As you can see, they list 108 families with anywhere from 2 to 1,489 languages in them. There are also many languages not listed there which are not related, in so far as we can discover, to any other languages. The general assumption is that all the languages of the world are related if you go back far enough, but we can’t figure out those relationships if you go back more than about 8,000 years. There are a few linguists who think they can find relationships between the known families further back than that, but that’s highly disputed.

What about large and little?

Doesn’t work for Hungarian. “Anya” is the word…

There’s indeed a theory (quite recent) stating that all families of languages are indeed related to the same original language, which would have been spoken 100 000 years ago or so by a tiny human group we would all descend from. I can’t remember, unfortunately, the name of the quite well known author or this theory, or else it would be quite easy to make a google search for more information. Someone will certainly remember it.

Though this theory fits well with an anthropological theory about the origin of mankind, it’s apparently not at all accepted by mainstream linguists. Not that it’s unlikely. Simply, most linguists think there are no serious evidences backing this claim, hence it’s only a hypothesis, as appealing as it may seems, not a scientific theory. The guy who fathered this hypothesis wrote a book and many articles intended for the general public. I read some of them, and found it quite convincing. Until I read an article written by another linguist, which, for once, was also written in a way a non-linguist can understand and debunking the “convincing” arguments, by explaining how a linguist actually determine if two languages are related, and by giving some statistical counter-evidences. Then , I understood why, this concept of a “mother of all languages” wasn’t accepted.

Apparently, even the meta-families of languages (like the nostratic already pointed at by a previous poster) which would group together several well known families (including IE languages in the Nostratic case) aren’t backed by serious enough evidences to be widely accepted by the community of linguists.

So, it seems that the answer to your question : “were there one original language from which all others languages sprang?” is “there’s no way to know”. And actually, I don’t know how the answer could be found anytime soon, since contrarily to some other sciences, I can’t figure out how new evidences could be found about a language spoken 100 000 years ago.

This post comes from someone who obviously isn’t a linguist, so take it with ten pounds of salt. I’m certain that someone much more aknowledgeable will be able to elaborate.

You are likely thinking of Joseph Greenberg, the originator and one of the main proponents of the theory.

Though this theory fits well with an anthropological theory about the origin of mankind, it’s apparently not at all accepted by mainstream linguists. Not that it’s unlikely. Simply, most linguists think there are no serious evidences backing this claim, hence it’s only a hypothesis, as appealing as it may seems, not a scientific theory. [\B][\QUOTE

You wrote this as though there was a definable difference between a hypothesis and a scientific theory. What you mean to say is that this particular hypothesis is rather less well confirmed than, say, the hypothesis that Newton’s law of gravity predicts, to a very high degree of accuracy, the motion of the planets. Which hypothesis is false as regards a tiny anomoly (.43 seconds of arc per year) in the orbit of Mercury and is corrected by general relativity, which itself is incorrect at very tiny scales where it is assumed a quantum theory of gravity is required… And so it goes.

But yes, the evidence for Greenberg’s theory, while not non-existent, is several notches short of compelling. In comparing families, you don’t just look at sounds, which are notoriously unstable. To see an example, note that the Latin, French, German, English words for 6 and 7 begin with s, while in Greek they begin with h. The words are unquestionably all related and there was some change in Greek that didn’t happen in the others. Greenberg might point out, for example, that in Hebrew the words for 6 and 7 do both start with the same sound (I forget what it is). This might be called a second level inference and I guess Greenberg gets to even higher and more obscure levels. Doesn’t mean he’s wrong; in fact I tend to believe him, but it isn’t convincing.