What’s the Newest Language?

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Illustration: Vicky Leta/Gizmodo

When the world’s languages get together for formal dinners, who sits at the kids’ table? While Arabic and Chinese settle heavily into their seats, burdened by the weight of millennia, which languages are still outside, on the swing set, savoring the summer night before Tamil tells them once more to get inside? Put less nonsensically, what is the newest language? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out.

Recent PhD in linguistics from The Graduate Center, CUNY, now based in Malmö, Sweden. His research focuses on prosody, intonation, and endangered language documentation. He has previously contributed to Gizmodo.

Even excluding conlangs (deliberately constructed languages like Esperanto or Klingon), new languages form organically all the time, often in one of two situations. The first is when a deaf child is raised in an all-hearing environment. In this situation, a signed language called a ‘homesign’ develops between the child and hearing members of the community. These homesigns may not be as grammatically complex or stable as established sign languages, but can become so. A very well-documented case is Nicaraguan Sign Language, which has its origin in a group of deaf students who entered school together in 1980 and some of the structures of the homesigns they had developed. NSL is now used by thousands of people, including its original users, who are likely still alive. Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language is also less than a century old, and developed in the Negev region of Israel, which has a high incidence of deafness. This language is used by both deaf and hearing people in the community.

The other situation that leads to new languages forming organically is having twins. When twins (or siblings close in age) spend a lot of time together they often develop what’s called ‘autonomous languages’. Unlike homesigns, these languages do not generally get the chance to develop and stabilize, as the children who use them usually integrate into the language environment of their family/community. One of the longer-surviving autonomous languages was spoken by June and Jennifer Gibbons, a pair of twins born in 1963 and raised in Wales. The twins were the only Black members of their community and were ostracized by their peers. While the twins did also speak English, as they became increasingly socially isolated they stopped speaking to most people altogether, speaking only to each other in their language. They reportedly had a pact to continue only speaking their autonomous language until one twin had died. Despite institutionalization and repeated attempts to separate the twins and integrate them into English-speaking society, their pact was held until Jennifer Gibbons’ death in 1993, upon which June began speaking English again. While their story has seen coverage in entertainment and true crime media, their autonomous language has not seen any linguistic description.

Aside from these de novo languages, there are also cases where ‘standardized’ forms of languages are created and imposed by governments. For example, the languages we know as ‘Italian’ and ‘German’ are spoken in areas that were not always politically or linguistically unified. While based loosely on existing dialects of Italic and Germanic languages, the Italian or German you might learn in a textbook is a form that is in some sense ‘constructed’ and imposed on areas with existing regional languages, a situation called ‘diglossia’. A recent example is Bahasa Indonesia, which gained widespread use in Indonesia in 1945. This language is Malayic, like many regional languages of Indonesia, and there is still diglossia between Bahasa Indonesia and the regional Malayic languages today.

Other languages are generally impossible to categorize as ‘new’ vs. ‘old’ given that all languages undergo gradual changes over the course of generations, and thus it is difficult to pick one point in time as their ‘origin.’ One often-cited ‘new language’ is Afrikaans, which diverged significantly from Dutch starting in the 18th century. But all dialects diverge, and the line where enough divergence has occurred to warrant calling one variety a ‘new language’ is unclear. Sometimes this line is cited as when the two varieties no longer are ‘mutually intelligible’, although Dutch/Afrikaans speakers can still understand each other to some extent. Then there are cases like Danish, which Norwegian/Swedish speakers struggle to understand, but whose speakers can easily understand Norwegian/Swedish. Given the rapid changes Danish has undergone even in the last 100 years, perhaps modern Danish is also a ‘new’ language. If you’re looking for a ‘new language’ you can get a textbook for, your best bets are probably Indonesian, Afrikaans and Danish.

Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Linguistics, UCLA

In a way, trying to identify the newest language is like trying to identify the newest animal—they’re constantly evolving, and precisely demarcate one iteration from another. Add to that the fact that language is a social phenomenon and the task becomes even harder.

That said, two examples do come to mind.

The first involves constructed languages, or conlags. These involve massive linguistic nerds getting together and inventing new languages. One popular recent example would be the Na’vi language, created by a USC linguist named Paul Frommer for the movie Avatar. Klingon is another example. The people who do this are massive, massive dorks, and they really get into it. The languages are very complete.

But for better or worse, there are a few less-than-ideal situations in which new languages have sprung up on their own, and this brings me to my second example: Nicaraguan Sign Language (Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua).

Basically, life for deaf children in Nicaragua around the middle of the last century was not ideal—there was no community, no shared language, and you were typically kept at home. You might develop a sort of slapdash series of signs with your immediate family, but you would have no way of communicating outside it.

That changed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with the Sandinista revolution. The Sandinistas prioritized deaf education for deaf children, and started busing deaf children into newly founded deaf schools. And these children—who’d been denied language their entire lives—spontaneously created NSL. Pretty quickly, the language went from a kind of pidgin or baby language into a fully-fledged language. It’s one of the most fascinating stories in linguistic history.

PhD student, Linguistics, UCLA

Trying to identify the ‘age’ of a language is a difficult task because most languages evolve naturally, and so you can go back and back and back and watch the language change little by little without pinpointing an exact start date. For example, modern English came from Old English, which came from Proto-Germanic, which came from Proto-Indo-European, and so on.

But every once in a while, a language does seem to come about at a very particular moment in time. One such kind of language that does this is a constructed language; that is, a language that was intentionally created. We see constructed languages in the media all the time, and most of the ones we are familiar with are modern and therefore easily dateable: Klingon was created in the ‘80s for one of the Star Trek films, and Dothraki was created more recently for Game of Thrones. Since anyone can create their own language at any time (in fact, there is a large community of ‘conlangers’), new constructed languages are born all the time. But, if we want to speak solely about natural languages, there are a few other examples of languages being ‘born.’

A contact language is one that is born through contact between two or more languages. Languages come into contact all the time, and we can see the effect even in English, which has lots of words borrowed from other words: taco from Spanish, tsunami from Japanese, and coffee, ultimately from Arabic. In modern English, contact has resulted mostly in individual words being borrowed, but sometimes the languages in contact each make such significant contributions, not only in vocabulary but also in grammar, that the resulting language is unrecognizable to speakers of the source languages. An example is Michif, a Mixed Language spoken by some Métis people in Western Canada and North Dakota. Michif is mixed in that its nouns and their structure come primarily from French, while its verbs and their structure come primarily from Cree. When such a language is born, we can estimate its time origin somewhat straightforwardly if the mixing of the two languages is well documented; for Michif, it likely developed its characteristic French/Cree split sometime in the early 1800s, placing it amongst the world’s ‘newest’ languages…

if we wanted to identify the language that came about most recently without being intentionally constructed and without evolving from other languages, Nicaraguan Sign Language best fits the bill, to my knowledge.

Executive Director of the Canadian Language Museum

Conlangers seem to be creating new languages all the time, but not all of them take root and spread. I’m going to put my vote in for Toki Pona, which is new and seems to be growing. It was created by Canadian linguist Sona Lang in 2001 and then was expanded in her 2014 book Toki Pona: The Language of Good. The Toki Pona dictionary was released this past July.

A conlanger is someone who creates a conlanguage—that is, a constructed language, a language created for a specific purpose. The most widely used conlanguage is probably Esperanto, a language created in 1887 to facilitate communication between speakers from around the world. Many conlanguages are created as part of an imaginary world, such as the Klingon language developed for Star Trek, and Elvish, one of the many languages created by J. R. R. Tolkien. These languages differ from natural languages which develop organically over centuries from the interactions between a great many speakers.

Toki Pona is best described by the creator Sonja Lang: ‘Toki Pona is a human language I invented in 2001. It was my attempt to understand the meaning of life in 120 words. There are now thousands of speakers and 137 essential words.’ So not only is Toki Pona arguably the newest language, but it is likely the language with the smallest vocabulary. It is a language that forces constant creativity, to express your meaning with the simplest of tools. We can think of it as the opposite of English, which has by far the largest vocabulary of any language in the world.

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