Across the United States a single dominant language is spoken. New Guinea, by contrast, has some 1,200 languages, a fifth of the world's total, jammed into an area a quarter the size of the continental United States. Why should the linguistic situations be so different? Linguists call a large area dominated by a single language a spread zone. An area parceled into many small regions, each of which has its own language, is a mosaic zone. Most of the world's language zones fall into one or other of these two patterns, and throughout history there seem to have been occasional alternations between them. The forces that generate mosaic zones and spread zones are significant shapers of history and culture.
Mosaic zones arise in part because language mutates so rapidly, even from one generation to another, that in only a few centuries it passes beyond easy recognition. Just six hundred years later, the English of Chaucer seems half way toward a foreign language. Within a language there are dialects, that often change from village to village and were probably even more distinctive in days when people seldom traveled far from home. Even in England, up until the late 1970s, speakers could be located by their accent to an area as small as 35 miles in diameter. This variability is extremely puzzling given that a universal, unchanging language would seem to be the most useful form of communication. That language has evolved to be parochial, not universal, is surely no accident. Security would have been far more important to early human societies than ease of communication with outsiders. Given the incessant warfare between early human groups, a highly variable language would have served to exclude outsiders and to identify strangers the moment they opened their mouths. Dialects, writes the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, are "particularly well designed to act as badges of group membership that allow everyone to identify members of their exchange group; dialects are difficult to learn well, generally have to be learned young, and change sufficiently rapidly that it is possible to identify an individual not just within a locality but also within a generation within that locality."253
In warfare, dialect may serve to distinguish friend from foe. When Jeph thah and the men of Gilead defeated the Ephraimites, guards were posted to prevent the survivors escaping back across the Jordan. "And it was so," the bible recounts in chilling detail, "that when these Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand"254
On Easter Monday in 1282, the people of Sicily rose up against the occupying French troops of Charles of Anjou. "Every stranger whose accent betrayed him was slaughtered, and several thousand Frenchmen were said to have been killed in a few hours," the historian Denis Mack
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