Back To Our Roots: The East Melbourne Language Centre Time Machine

If you’ve been inside the East Melbourne Language Centre, you’ll know it’s a grand old building with many nooks and crannies. Everyone knows the front room full of language books, the classrooms and the cosy kitchenette.

However, there is a special room out the back that no one ever sees. A room with strange and wonderful instruments; part library and part mad scientist’s laboratory. The hidden room that allows the language centre to travel through space and time. Yes, that’s right, the East Melbourne Language Centre is not just a school, it’s also a time machine.

Let’s walk down the corridor and enter that strange room at the back. If you have sunglasses, put them on – some of those colourful flashing lights can be very bright at first. Do you see that desk in the — WATCH OUT! Don’t touch that lever! Phew! That was close. Don’t worry, it’s all good. Now, let’s set the dials for 4000 BCE. We’re heading to a very different time and a very different place.

As the fog clears, we step outside. We’ve travelled 6,000 years into the past. The location? Just a little west of the Caspian Sea, in the neighbourhood of modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran.

What kind of people might we encounter at this point in time? Well, many people’s lives are based around farming. Far to the east, rice has already been domesticated in China. And to the south, the Sumerians have already been living in villages for 2,000 years. Who are they? A sophisticated civilisation living in today’s southern Iraq. In about 500 years (3500 BCE), they will develop the first known writing system in the world (except for Egyptian hieroglyphics, but come on, we all know those are just emojis).

In 4000 BCE, some people are farming, but not everyone. Others find it more efficient or just preferable to move around hunting, fishing, gathering and herding. And some people are living something in between.

So let’s get back to the topic of languages. In 2021, there are eight languages available at the East Melbourne Language Centre: Arabic, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish. Is anyone speaking them in 4000 BCE?

The answer is no. These languages as we know them will take thousands of years to evolve. But their ancestors are alive and well.

First, let’s talk about French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. These languages are all part of the Indo-European language family, which means they all descended from a language called ‘proto-Indo-European. Of course, this language has been reconstructed – as far as we know, there was never anyone walking around saying “hi, my name is Tony and I speak Indo-European.”

It makes sense that proto-Indo-European evolved from an earlier language as well, but linguists have a hard time identifying what it was. There are debates about this but the bottom line is we really don’t know how Indo-European may have been connected to other languages in the past.

So why did we choose to come to the western shore of the Caspian Sea in the year 4000 BCE? Well, some linguists think this is where the Indo-European language family originated. And, this is about the time when the Indo-European languages started to diverge.

Some Indo-European speakers seem to have migrated north through the Caucasus. From there, one group headed west into the European continent, around the top of the Black Sea. As they moved, their languages kept evolving. One branch evolved into Celto-Italo-Tocharian, which in turn split off into proto-Celtic and Italic. From Italic, came Latin, which later gave us the Romance languages: French, Italian and Spanish.

Another branch evolved into Baltic–Slavic, which eventually gave us Russian, while yet another branch split off into Germanic, from which German and English descended.

Not all Indo-European speakers headed west. Many went east into modern-day Iran, Pakistan and India, where the languages continued to evolve. Urdu, Hindi, Farsi and Panjabi are all related to English, German, Russian, French, Italian and Spanish.

And what about Arabic, Mandarin and Indonesian? Their language families are equally intriguing, but there is no demonstrated ancestral link to Indo-European.

Arabic is a Semitic language, which puts it in the same family as Maltese. Although it is unrelated to the Into-European languages (as far as we can tell), it has had a significant impact on various European languages, particularly Spanish. In fact, there are over 1000 Arabic words in Spanish. Semitic language speakers abound throughout West Asia and northern Africa. In Africa, most are Arabic speakers. However, Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, is one example of a modern African Semitic language.

Meanwhile, Mandarin is a Sinitic language. Before the Indo-European languages began to diverge, Sinitic languages had already begun splitting off from their broader Sino-Tibetan, or Trans-Himalayan language family. The proposed homeland of proto-Sino-Tibetan is the modern-day Sichuan province, specifically in the area where the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers begin. It’s fitting that the wellspring of such iconic East Asian waterways is also the font of its most widely spoken language, Mandarin.

Finally, Indonesian is part of the Austronesian language group, which most likely originated in modern-day Taiwan. These languages go hand-in-hand with one of the greatest stories known to humanity – the remarkable spread of Austronesian speakers spread across the Indian Ocean and Pacific Oceans. Stupefyingly brilliant navigators, Austronesian speakers voyaged without timekeepers to modern-day Madagascar, all across the Indonesian archipelago, throughout the Pacific to Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and as far as Rapanui, otherwise known as Easter Island.

Without doubt, the story of the Indo-European, Semitic, Trans-Himalayan and Austronesian language families is really just a subplot of the broader story of human movement across planet Earth. For as long as humans have existed, they have moved into previously unfamiliar territories and there is no reason to believe this will or should ever stop. Who knows how these languages will continue to evolve and where they will end up?

Due to the pandemic, the East Melbourne Language Centre is not conducting its usual time travelling activities. The risk of spreading COVID to earlier periods of history is just too great.

However, English speakers who want to come face to face with another strand of the Indo-European language family can simply take up French, German, Italian, Spanish or Russian. Alternatively, reaching even further back into our collective human story, English speakers can reunite their Indo-European language with a Semitic, Trans-Himalayan or Austronesian language by taking up Arabic, Mandarin or Indonesian. Were these languages ever united as one Semitic language tradition – Hebrew – suggests? Since homo-sapiens all ultimately come from the same place, these languages were possibly connected at some point. To bring these strands back together, start your journey in East Melbourne today.