Do all languages have a common ancestor?

If you’re crazy enough to want to create languages for your fantasy fiction world then this is an inportant question. Where do your languages come from. Could there be a common ancestor for all your languages. If so there will be similarities between them. Many people will have heard of the phrase Indo-European languages, which describes most of the languages of Europe and Asia as having common routes – all except Turkish, Basque and Finnish of course – where these came from who knows. Aliens?

This talk on TED suggests that all languages may have come from a common ancestor. I’m not sure if I can accept this. It suggests that man began to talk before he spread out of his homeland and settled other parts of Europe and Asia. Is this possible? It also suggests that different groups of men would have developed the same language at the same time. Again this sounds unlikely and frankly I’m a bit surprised at this conjecture – there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for it.

Going back to the implications for a fantasy world setting, it really depends on how you see the origin of the world. Being quite pedantic about this, these things actually matter to me. I don’t feel comfortable not knowing roughly why my characters inhabit a world that isn’t like the Earth we know. So therefore there needs to be an origin explanation for me. Alternate reality like Moorcock’s Eternal Champion maybe, an older version of Earth like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Howard’s Hyboria? It’s seems a shame that often modern fantasy writers often don’t consider these origins. For me this means that the reason for their writing hasn’t really been truly thought through. Rather the aim is to build on a tradition where a standard fantasy setting is acceptable because that’s what readers have come to accept. So in a way a pretty non-fantastic, non-speculative fictional genre has been established where we all know the rules already. This can be OK if the writing is good, but in the end its going to become tired.

Science-fiction can perhaps offer more.

What I’m hoping to do in my writing is to offer a development of this by giving a reason for my fantasy world existing, this means breaking out of some of the traditions of fantasy writing worlds though and starting with a clean slate of a world. But, I must admit its difficult not to rely on what we know of human history or previous fantasy writing. Something like Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia series is a benchmark for what I’m hoping to do.

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