History’s “Global Languages”

"The Blue Marble"
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With nearly one-third of the world's population capable of communicating in English, it might be tempting to think that English is the world's first "global language."

In fact, the idea of a "global language" is older than English itself.

"Latin was the world's first recorded global language, or lingua franca, carried across Western Europe by soldiers and traders in the days of the Roman Empire," says Salikoko Mufwene, a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago. Even after the Empire dissolved, Mufwene says, Latin persisted as the main language in many Western European cities. By the 18th century, each city had added words and phrases to it, leading to a handful of "vulgar Latins." Eventually, these vulgar Latins became modern-day Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

But linguistic researchers believe that Latin, along with Sanskrit, Greek, Slavic and other modern language groups, evolved from a single, older proto-Indo-European language. While there's no written record of this language, scholars suspect it existed around 5000 B.C. in modern-day Turkey or Poland. As the tribe that spoke proto-Indo-European grew, small groups split off and migrated all over Asia and Europe. As they lost touch with one another, these splinter families' languages began to change, and eventually became modern-day Russian, Dutch, Farsi, German, Greek and English, among others.

Several attempts have been made to link the world again through a global language. In the late 19th century, the Polish doctor L. L. Zamenhof coined Esperanto. With its regular structure and common Indo-European vocabulary, Esperanto was meant to be the world's "international language." Although it never caught on as an official language, it has approximately 2 million speakers internationally, as well as conferences and exchange programs.

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