Reading some dialogues from Socrates, it struck me how eloquently the people seemed to speak from those times thousands of years ago. (Although this might be a result of the translation.)

And yet this was a time when philosophy, logic and science was being invented.

It would stand to reason that a language could not just appear fully formed. But gradually grow over time. (e.g. the word "eloquently" is quite a specific concept which is unlikely to have existed in the first proto-languages).

So do we know what time periods correlate to the sophistication of a language. i.e. did Ancient Greeks have a vocubulary similar to modern humans. What about before that?

Or are there any examples of historic languages with far fewer words and being much more basic?

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    Latin & Greek were well developed for purposes of philosophical discourse. Primitive languages could get by with declaratives, questions, and commands; but advanced languages require explanations, conditionals, qualifications, statements of purpose, etc. Take a look at the oldest hymns in the Rigveda. I find them primitive, but the Upanišads very sophisticated. Sanskrit syntax seems clumsy compared to L&G. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 13:46
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    Probably not "embellished", but certainly rendered in a fashion to make the reasoning clear to the modern reader, ie, in "sophisticated" language. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 21:20
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    Does this answer your question? Are some languages more advanced than others? Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 11:54
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    I feel like it must be said that Plato's dialogues are probably not representative of how eloquently people spoke in Ancient Greece.
    – Mason
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 1:38
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    As Mason pointed out, Plato's dialogues are not recordings of how people spoke. They are representations of conversations that Socrates had, written after Socrates was executed. The rhetoric of someone writing and editing and carefully choosing their words is probably going to seem more refined than a spontaneous conversation. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 6:35

4 Answers 4


Or are there any examples of historic languages with far fewer words and being much more basic?

Interestingly enough, there are not! Nor are there any examples of "more basic" modern languages (*).

In fact, there's a sort of axiom in modern linguistics that all languages with native speakers are equally expressive. Anything that can be expressed in English can also be expressed in Arapaho or Cantonese or Swahili—or Ancient Greek or Ancient Egyptian or Classical Nahuatl, for that matter. You might have to invent new words for concepts like "computers", since the Ancient Egyptians didn't have those, but you can work around that with, say, "a machine that does calculations".

Now, there are some languages that are more basic: "pidgins", which arise naturally when speakers of different languages need to make basic communication work between them. These tend to have extremely simple grammar without much expressiveness. But, even more interestingly, when children grow up speaking these languages, things change—the result is a creole, with full-fledged morphosyntax and as much expressiveness as any other natural language!

This is one of the big pieces of evidence in favor of a "language mechanism" in the human brain. Different theories then go in different directions from there, arguing about how much exactly is innate. But it seems clear that some underpinning of language is, in fact, intrinsic to humans.

So, where did language come from in the first place? Good question—nobody really knows! There are quite a lot of different hypotheses, but very little evidence to test them against. So for now, it remains one of the big unsolved mysteries of linguistics.

(*) There's a very controversial claim that the Pirahã language spoken in South America is actually simpler and more basic than any other. Some linguists support it; others disagree with it. Personally, I think such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, and there simply isn't enough evidence to back this one up.

P.S. If you want to investigate this further, John McWhorter's research on creoles would be a good place to start. Some other sources are mentioned in the comments.

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    @zooby Possibly, though the idea of "words" is not as well-defined as you might think! Languages also split up the huge space of concepts in various different ways, which don't always align with each other.
    – Draconis
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 2:48
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    @jlawler Interesting; I've seen creoles presented as an argument for some sort of language mechanism in the brain, since they show that humans can create these grammatical structures without being taught them (with some particular examples of features arising in creoles that the parent languages didn't have). And I've definitely seen claims that Pirahã is theoretically finite, unlike all other human languages, because it lacks recursion. That's mainly what I'm referring to in the last paragraph.
    – Draconis
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 2:51
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    Have similar investigations been conducted based on Nicaraguan Sign Language?
    – Nardog
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 5:44
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    fun note, computers as a word predates computers as we know them today, rather than a machine that computed though, they were people who computed, so computers was a job role, one requiring math skills. Pythagoras may well have been a computer, just as calculators are named after the job of calculating things. NASA employed computers to calculate things prior to the introduction of IBM machines Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:25
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    @dotancohen Sure, but that doesn't make Hebrew less expressive than, it just means that wordplay doesn't translate easily. I don't know Hebrew but I think I'm safe in guessing that it has plenty of wordplay that doesn't translate easily into English. Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 19:24

Disclaimer: I'm not a linguist, I'm an evolutionary biologist. But I think there are some parallels.

The languages we have now haven't been around that long. I mean, the English that I write right now is already noticeably different from that of a century ago and even more so as we go further back. The trajectory that English, or any language, has been going through is not one of refinement or improvement (is my English "better" than Shakespeare's? Surely not) but simply of change.

In evolutionary biology it is more or less taken as a given that life forms don't somehow get better and better (or more and more fit, or more and more complex) over time. They just change, as do their surroundings. This is referred to as the Red Queen hypothesis, with reference to the part in Through the Looking Glass where the red queen says:

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

I suspect something similar is the case in the evolution of languages: they keep changing to keep up with the changes around them (and changes in the circumstances of the speakers) without getting more or less expressive, or complex, or sophisticated.

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    I think you're position would actually support the claim that languages would get more complex (or maybe more simple), because of increased specialization, the need for technical language, etc. Obviously, if there's evidence that there isn't any change, then that hypothesis is wrong, but I think your perspective could be used to argue a different conclusion.
    – awe lotta
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 23:33
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    @awelotta Evolution doesn't work that way. It's a way to create complexity out of simple things, but not an undisturbed climb towards complexity. The thing you're glossing over is that dropping things that aren't all that useful is also part of evolution. For example, English used to have "formal" and "informal" you (just like most languages), but it isn't used anymore (the "Thou" in the Bible is the informal). Czech used to have many different tenses, but today is mostly left with three or so. English used to be very much like German (of the day), but dropped many of the complexities.
    – Luaan
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 9:11
  • As perhaps an interesting corollary, ask yourself if Danish is better than Icelandic, considering that Icelandic has preserved a lot more of the features of Old Norse: or if English is better than German, considering the information in the preceding comment.
    – tripleee
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 9:24

There are badly-written documents that have been preserved, but no indication that any attested language was "simple." One amusing early paper talking about bad speakers of complex languages is Bloomfield, Leonard (1927), "Literate and Illiterate Speech".

Some ancient fragments are just lists of things, but we presume that they had a complicated syntax. You may appreciate Deacon's The Symbolic Species, which presents some research on human and animal communication systems, along with theories about when/why complex languages came about in humans.


Languages use words to mark the distinctions that the speakers care about. Present-day English speakers usually don't care about the difference between maternal and paternal aunts while Latin used to have different words.

On the other hand if you look into the sciences English is able to distinguish credence, odds, probability, likelihood with different words. A term like statistically significant that has a clear meaning in the scientific discourse won't have an equivalent in older languages that aren't used to talk about such concepts.

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