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Mother Tongue Pt. 1


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Our society places a great emphasis on diversity. Universities and corporations brag about their diversity, censuses and surveys collect information on diversity, and our own USA calls itself “the melting pot”. Travel, too, widens your gaze to new diverse perspectives that you would not otherwise encounter. Diversity is the difference, and difference (or variety) is the proverbial spice of life.

While there is beauty in contrast, there is beauty in the commonality of humanity as well. The traits that we all share reflect choices our species has made as an entity—among these music, religion, and language.

Language is a field of immense diversity. There are hundreds of languages spoken all over the world. Just in Spain, people speak Basque, Galician, Catalán, and Spanish. Even on a less macroscopic scale, dialects of specific languages vary by city and region. Language has more entropy (disorder) than almost any other human quantity, yet there are amazing webs of similarity that draw languages together.

There are the large connections drawn from language groups (Germanic, Romance, etc.). In fact, Google now provides an excellent etymology resource built-in to their search function. If you search “[word] etymology” on Google, it will display an etymology map of the word and a definition.

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The further you go down the web, as it were, the closer you get to something common. Languages become fewer and farther between as you go back in time; as the time that humans have had to develop language diminishes. This website provides a great visualization of the similarities between the word for “beer” in different European countries—exhibiting these macroscopic languages groups. http://boingboing.net/2013/07/08/map-of-local-word-for-beer.html.

If you look at the words, you can clearly see the connections between languages. Moreover, the word for beer in Russia, “pivo” bears striking resemblance to 啤酒 (pijiu, pronounced pee-joe), the word for beer in Chinese. If this interests you, I encourage you to check out www.reddit.com/r/linguistics or www.reddit.com/r/etymology, both great resources if you can get past the web design.

These patterns of language groups manifest all over the world and seem to suggest one thing. In cosmology, we assume that as everything is spreading out, it must have been together at one point—what we call the Big Bang. Likewise, language patterns like this seem to suggest something similar, an original singularity of language, as it were. A mother tongue. Whoa.

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