Human beings had already spread far and wide by the time speech as we know it developed (certain precursors are even present in apes), which means several distant groups of humans developed their own languages independently.
After the initial development of speech, whenever one social group of humans split permanently into two each faction would continue to develop unique vocabulary and grammar, first creating separate dialects and eventually diversifying into entirely different languages.
We see some of this today in remote areas, for instance in Africa, where the farther apart two tribes are or the longer they’ve been separated, the more different their language is.
The primary effect today is the exact opposite, thanks to vastly improved communication across any distances. Diversity is being lost as people communicate with each other worldwide and are forced to break down the language barriers. In many cases languages are maintained out of sheer national pride, not pragmatism.
An early example was the Roman Empire. Latin was forced upon the people of many occupied European countries. Whereas the original languages of the Gauls, Picts, Celts, Iberians and so forth were very different, the Latin-based languages we now know as French, English and Spanish are very similar.
Nowadays the effect is even more pronounced as language is consolidated. Elders of cultures all over the world are regularly going to their graves without having passed on the old languages, because younger people are mostly using their countries’ national languages instead. It’s an unfortunate loss of culture. The new languages emerging today are deliberately constructed languages like Esperanto, Elvish and Klingon.
Language develops, word by word, to better suit their environment as you say. Diverse environments created diverse languages; this was hardly a barrier in day-to-day life before long-range communication existed and when other cultures were often fought or conquered. In the modern world it’s a huge barrier, which is why languages are now merging and dying at a tremendous rate.
In short, you don’t need to change people’s speech deliberately to rob them of the ability to communicate, like in the Tower of Babel story. You just need to separate them absolutely for a period of centuries, or millenia, then bring them back together so that they notice their linguistic differences.
Posted: September 8th 2009
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