Every now and then I come across and article or a documentary which claims to reveal insights into an “ancient” language or culture. This video takes modern camera equipment to the the Khoisan people of Namibia, who are said to be an ancient tribe, with ancient ways of speaking and an ancient culture. This video takes out-of-context quotes to argue that Basque is an ancient and superior language and culture.

Here’s the thing: in biology, all organisms are constantly evolving from one generation to the next. Perhaps some evolve slower than others: sharks and alligators seem to have found a niche at the top of the food chain and haven’t changed too much in tens of millions of years. They haven’t needed to (much). Some evolve rather fast: we breed fruit flies and rats and influenza viruses in laboratories precisely because they breed so quickly and readily adapt to new environments from one generation to the next.

Are modern sharks, born today, “pre-historic”? If we look on the family tree of great apes, are humans really “further along” than chimps? No, not at all! Modern sharks are modern. Chimps are superior to us in many things, like strength, so if we use that as a criteria for how “evolved” a species is, we lose.

The same is true in languages and cultures. An ancient language or culture would be one that was around in ancient times: say, 5,000 years ago. So, Ancient Egyptian would be an ancient language and culture. But over time cultures and languages change. Sounds and grammars and word meanings change, which is how we got from Latin to modern languages like Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian. We encounter new ideas, borrow tools and words from other groups (the word and dish known as guacamole was borrowed into English from the Nahuatl).

The San Bushman are just as modern as the Basque and the English and the Japanese. They’re all living today, in modern times. Did ancient languages have clicks? Maybe. Probably, actually. Prehistoric man had an appendix and wisdom teeth. Does that mean the fact that I still have my appendix and wisdom teeth means I’m “ancient”? No. So does that mean still having clicks makes Khoisan “ancient”? Of course not. Their language didn’t evolve in such a way that they lost clicks, just as I didn’t evolve in such a way that I lost my appendix.

So, please, just please stop calling modern languages and cultures “ancient” or “primitive”. Yes, Basque and Khoisan are interesting and may even seem exotic to an English speaker who is unfamiliar with some of the sounds and sentence structures used in those languages. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t modern people living in modern times.

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