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Language is a universal characteristic of the human species. Of all the creatures on earth, humans are the only ones that communicate with a true language. Every known group or society of people throughout history has had its own language, and even the earliest languages we know of were complex systems of words and meanings. They certainly weren't primitive in the ways we might think, and they were no less precise than the languages people use today.

Around the world, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 different speech communities, or groups of people using a specific, unique language. These speech communities are divided still further by dialects. In America, people from various regions may speak with an accent, but many languages contain dialects that are so different from each other that it is often very difficult for one group of speakers to understand another.

The comparative study of languages began in the late 18th century when scholars first began to study the similarities that existed between the ancient languages of Greek, Sanskrit, and Persian. In the 19th century, much work was accomplished in identifying and classifying languages into families, or groups of related languages. At that time, the Indo-European family of languages was first classified and studied.

In the 20th century, linguists began to study the structures on which languages are built. While this structure includes grammar and semantics, it also involves the way words change, compound, and sound to carry different meanings. In many ways, a language reflects the beliefs, values, and social interactions of the societies that speak it. Many linguists today are examining exactly how this works.