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Why Are There So Many Different Languages?

Chloe Effron/iStock
Chloe Effron/iStock

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

Did you know there are about 7000 languages in the world today? That’s a lot! Scientists who study languages are called linguists (LIN-gwists). They don’t know exactly when people began inventing words instead of just using a few sounds or body movements, like many animals do. But they know that human migration (my-GRAY-shun), moving from one place to another, played a big role in making so many languages. 

Over thousands of years, humans split off into groups that migrated in different directions. As that happened, one language could turn into many. People had to learn to live in very different places: hot deserts, freezing mountains, steamy rainforests. Each place had different kinds of weather, plants, and animals. Having new words to talk about these new things helped people adapt (change) to their new home and survive (live). After a while, new words and ways of living helped lead to totally new languages.

Once a group of people settled in a place, they were often isolated (apart) from other groups. When people didn’t mix much, their words didn’t either. On the other hand, people did sometimes learn and borrow some words from other groups. For example, people speaking different languages might meet to trade, or were forced to leave home and move closer to another group because of war. Over long periods of time, then, both things—isolation and a little mixing—helped create so many languages. 

Languages are related, just like family members are. Learn more in this video from TED-Ed. Watch with a grownup who can help you with some of the bigger words!


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How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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How Often Is 'Once in a Blue Moon'? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain
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From “lit” to “I can’t even,” lots of colloquialisms make no sense. But not all confusing phrases stem from Millennial mouths. Take, for example, “once in a blue moon”—an expression you’ve likely heard uttered by teachers, parents, newscasters, and even scientists. This term is often used to describe a rare phenomenon—but why?

Even StarTalk Radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know for sure. “I have no idea why a blue moon is called a blue moon,” he tells Mashable. “There is nothing blue about it at all.”

A blue moon is the second full moon to appear in a single calendar month. Astronomy dictates that two full moons can technically occur in one month, so long as the first moon rises early in the month and the second appears around the 30th or 31st. This type of phenomenon occurs every couple years or so. So taken literally, “Once in a blue moon” must mean "every few years"—even if the term itself is often used to describe something that’s even more rare.

[h/t Mashable]

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