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"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more

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Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

Subject: Age of a language
Question: How is the age of a language, without any written evidence,

Reply: This is a tricky question for reasons noted in the FAQ page at
<a href='http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/oldest.cfm' target='_blank'>http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/oldest.cfm</a>;

Essentially all languages are about the same age. That is, most linguists assume that a
typical language has had a continuous history going back tens of millennia whether it
was written down or not.

For instance, a language like Zuni was not written down until contact with Europeans,
but it is safe to assume that some form of it was brought to North America by those
who settled in that part of the Southwest. Before it came to North America, some form
of it was spoken by people in Eurasia.

The one big exception are pidgins which may become creoles. These are relatively
young languages.

The other question linguists examine is when two languages split. They use evidence
from historical linguistics, but dating methodology is still a bit controversial. It should
be noted that two related languages like Spanish and Portuguese typically begin life as
dialects of one language. That further complicates the dating question.

Reply From: Elizabeth J Pyatt      click here to access email
Date: 24-Oct-2012
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Age of a language    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (24-Oct-2012)
  2. Re: Age of a language    James L Fidelholtz     (24-Oct-2012)
  3. Re: Age of a language    M J Hardman     (24-Oct-2012)
  4. Re: Age of a language    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (27-Oct-2012)

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