The origin of language is a widely-discussed topic. Whole doctorates have been based on it, thousands of books have been written on it, and scholars continue to argue about how and why it first emerged. Was Chomsky right when he said it was due to mutation in the genes of one person 100,000 years ago? The psychologists Stephen Pinker says it evolved over time, while Michael Tomasello says it was down to primates moving from gestures to voice.
But who is right? Who knows. What we do know is that language – particularly the written word – has shaped history.
We thought it’d be interesting to have a look at just five top developments in language which have changed our world. So sit back, relax, and enjoy reading our thoughts.
#1 – Hebrew vowels
Around 6,000 years ago, the written language was a system of pictures – animal drawings, cave paintings and the like. The Ancient Egyptians went one step further and added thousands of pictoral symbols and icons to the mix, but it was in the area today known as Isreal where our journey begins. In around 1,000 BC, the time of King David, the Hebrews developed understandable written language. Although far from perfect, they created a system of vowels and consonants to allow people to read, and pronounce written words. This first alphabet spread widely and quickly – the Greeks copied it (using alpha for aleph and beta for bet and so on), then the Romans changed it to A,B,C..
#2 – The printing press
The next big development in language has to be the formation of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. Yes, the Chinese had been doing moveable type since 600AD, you had the Bible, the Torah and Qu’ran…but it has to be said that Gutenberg’s printing press spread literature to the masses for the first time in an efficient, durable way. It shoved Europe headlong into the original information age – the Renaissance.
Just 40 years after Gutenberg invented the first printing machine with movable type, there were presses in 110 cities in six different countries. It’s estimated that 50 years after the press was invented, more than eight million books had been printed, almost all of them filled with information that had previously been unavailable to the average person. There were books on law, agriculture, politics, exploration, metallurgy, botany, linguistics, pediatrics, even good manners! There were also assorted guides and manuals; the world of commerce rapidly became a world of printed paper through the widespread use of contracts, deeds, promissory notes, and maps.
#3 – The dictionary
Ahh, the humble dictionary. Many of us take for granted the fact that we can have our written words spell-checked at the click of a button. However, back in the 1700s they didn’t have this luxury. Yet the first comprehensive English dictionary, first published in April 1755 changed the course of history because it allowed people to finally place meanings to words. International politics was transformed.
Compiled by Samuel Johnson, an eminent English author, “A Dictionary of the English Language” took nearly 9 years to complete. He was given the sum of 1,500 guineas (or around $500,000 in today’s money) to do it, and he did – with the Dictionary having been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship in history”.
#4 – The enigma machine
Codes and ciphers have been around for centuries, but perhaps the biggest change to history was the capture of the German Enigma coding machine in 1941. In the early years of WW2, German U-Boats caused heavy losses to both the Royal and Merchant Navy as Hitler attempted to starve Britain into submission. The German Navy communicated with each other through Enigma – If the Allies could find out in advance where U-boats were hunting, they could direct their ships, carrying crucial supplies from North America, away from these danger zones.
Two gentlemen, Alan Turing and Alfred Knox, were instrumental in the final breakdown of the Enigma. The created a gigantic machine called Colossus, which helped decipher complex intercepted Enigma messages. Colossus performed thousands of mathematical calculations at unheard-of-speed, at least for that time. Combined with the team of codebreakers at Bletchley Park, the breaking of Enigma saved thousands of lives. It kept Rommel out of Egypt in 1942 by preventing him exploiting his victory at Gazala. The loss of Egypt in 1942 would have set back the re-conquest of North Africa and upset the timetable for the invasion of France in 1944. D-Day would have had to have been deferred until 1946 – just think how many more lives would have been lost!
#5 – Home computing and Apple
We finish our rundown of how language shaped history with the rise of home computing – particularly Apple. We could have picked any number of computers, but love it or hate it, Apple – and Steve Jobs – has changed the world. Jobs helped popularize the very idea of the personal computer with the Apple II, a mass-produced 8-bit computer encased in plastic that became one of the most successful PCs of the 1980s. It revolutionized the way people work today. He also ushered what many now dub the “post-PC” era thanks to the iPad – a slick slab of glass and aluminum.
He transformed how we communicate vocally with the iPhone (Siri, anyone?), and he changed the way we listen to music with the iPod. You have to agree, Apple has probably had the greatest effect on how many of us live and work today.
So there we have it, there’s our top five – but we could have come up with 50. What do you think? Would you say the Bible has had more of an impact on the world than the home computer? It’s difficult – all we know is that we love language!
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