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Brown, Christine
2007 Mother Tongues: Languages Around the World. Princeton, New Jersey: Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

Notes: VHS/DVD 5-part series, 42 minutes
Reviewed 11 Dec 2010 by:
Reyhner, Jon <jon.reyhner@nau.edu>
Northern Arizona University
Medium: Film/Video
Subject
Keywords:
Comparative linguistics. Historical linguistics
Communication - History
Africa - Languages
Oceania - Languages
Asia - Languages
Europe - Languages
America - Languages

ABSTRACT:    Mother Tongues: Languages Around the World is Episode 3 of Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language. Mother Tongues is divided into five parts that survey the languages of Africa, Oceana, Asia, Europe, and the Americas with narration provided by respected U.S. and Canadian linguists who specialize in each of these areas. They describe tremendous variety and complexity of some 6,000 languages still spoken around the world. For each area the major language families are described briefly along with examples from each language family.



In each of the five areas some of the more spoken and a few of the less spoken languages are described along with how they are grouped into language ‘families’ that share a common ancestral language from which they have developed over time. These language ‘sons and daughters’ share some common characteristics of that ancestral language, but they have also intermixed and drawn vocabulary and other characteristics from neighboring languages. These language descendants are a result of groups breaking off from one another and over time their languages change, eventually to the point that the descendant languages become mutually unintelligible. After several thousand years of separation, not only do these descendant languages become very different, but also it becomes increasingly difficult for linguists to find any commonalities between them. A few language isolates, such as Basque in Spain, have defied grouping by linguists into any language family.

Mother Tongues begins with a sampling of the over 2,000 languages of Africa, which because of its long history of human occupation and the relative isolation of various groups has the most languages of any continent. These languages vary from Arabic, to Swahili, to the ‘click’ languages like Xhosa. Next the film describes briefly the Papuan, Austronesian and Australian language families of Oceania that were spread by seafarers some six thousand years ago over the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans from Easter Island in the Pacific to Madagascar off the coast of Africa. Papua New Guinea alone has some 830 languages. These languages provide an excellent example of how the people who colonized different islands developed unique languages over time because they lost contact with other speakers of the ancestral languages so that today they represent a quarter of the world’s languages but represent only a tenth of a percent of the world’s population

In Asia, the Sino-Tibetan language family includes the various Chinese dialects. Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language of the world; however English is more widespread around the world. Chinese has six dialects and is a tonal language where word meaning changes based on pitch unlike in English. In India, Sanskrit, while like Latin no longer spoken as a day-to-day language, is the ancestor to Hindi and a host of other languages. It is part of the largest language family in the world, the Indo-European languages, with over 2.7 billion speakers living in the Indian sub-continent and across Europe. The origin of Indo-European languages is believe to be located somewhere in Eastern Europe and its daughter languages moved eastward into India and westward as far as the British Isles and in more recent times to the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Its descendants include Latin and the various Romance languages as well as Germanic, Slavic, Uralic, and Celtic languages. Old English dates back seven centuries and earlier to Germanic languages, while Black English only dates back to the importation of African slaves to the new world. If not for the globalization of communication today, these dialects would over time eventually become mutually unintelligible.

In the Americas, linguists estimate that nearly a thousand languages, which can be classified as members of over a hundred language families, were spoken when Europeans colonists first arrived. In Mexico, Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, has over a million speakers today and the various dialects of Quechua, the descendant of the language of the Incas, still has nine million speakers in Peru, Bolivia, Equator and other South American countries, more than the total number of speakers of over 200 indigenous languages of North America. The vast differences among American Indian language families indicate the speakers have lived in the Americas for many thousands of years. The languages of two tribes that live side by side, like the Navajo and Hopi Indians of Arizona are as different as Chinese and English are from one another.

Once thought simpler than the languages of more ‘civilized’ people, especially Europeans, linguists have found that indigenous languages can be very complex in their sound systems and grammar. While none of the information in this film is new to linguists, Mother Tongues provides an excellent introduction for the non-linguist to the world’s tremendous variety of languages.