Arabic: The Mother of All Languages?

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Source: Muslim Sunrise, Summer 2009 Volume

“It is not that I doubt that language evolved only once,” Steven Pinker a famous linguistic confesses, “one of the assumptions behind the search for the ultimate mother tongue.” [1] A gradual consensus seems to building among the linguists that all languages have come from one source. If the 5000 extant languages of the world were coming from divergent sources they would show varied degree of organization and complexity. But that does not seem to be the case. According to the famous linguist Merritt Ruhlen, “All extant human languages are today considered of equal ‘complexity’ by virtually all linguists.” [2] Guy Deutscher writes, “Small tribes with stone-age technology speak languages with structures that sometimes make Latin and Greek seem like child’s play.” [3]

Edward Sapir, has been described by Encyclopedia Britannica as, “One of the foremost American linguists and anthropologists of his time, most widely known for his contributions to the study of North American Indian languages.” [4] According to him:

“There is no more striking general fact about language than its universality. One may argue as to whether a particular tribe engages in activities that are worthy of the name of religion or of art, but we know of no people that is not possessed of a fully developed language. The lowliest South African Bushman speaks in the forms of a rich symbolic system that is in essence perfectly comparable to the speech of the cultivated Frenchman. …

Many primitive languages have a formal richness, a latent luxuriance of expression that eclipses anything known to the languages of modern civilization. Even in the mere matter of the inventory of speech the layman must be prepared for strange surprises. Popular statements as to the extreme poverty of expression to which primitive lan­guages are doomed are simply myths.”[5]

Mario Pei was an Italian-born American linguist whose many works helped to provide the general public with a popular understanding of linguistics and philology. Pei immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was seven years old. By the time he was out of high school he knew not only English and his native Italian but also Latin, Greek, and French. Over the years he became fluent in five languages, capable of speaking some 30 others, and acquainted with the structure of at least 100 spoken languages. He wrote:

“Is there a possibility that our present classification of languages will be improved? More light is being shed upon language affiliations as more material is discovered. It is even possible that one day dream of some linguists will come true, and all languages be proved to have a common origin. Linguists, however, are hard headed scientists, not impractical theorists. Before, they will accept a hypothesis, however attractive, the proof must be cogent beyond a shadow of doubt.” [6]

Read further: Muslim Sunrise, 2009_summer

Suggested reading

Arabic a revealed language and the mother of all languages

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