Culture Evolution

Question about languages (for Piotr)

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Piotr is a professor of linguistics. I was curious to hear his view on the phylogeny of human languages. It is clear many human languages evolve and split off into dialects and maybe form their own new language from a common ancestor language.

However, I’m of the opinion despite some language phylogeny, there is not one universal common ancestor language. In Harold Morowitz’s book Emergence he points out the general belief language appeared suddenly on the scene in human history in several widely dispersed geographical regions at around the same time. Even he found such a coincidence astonishing.

Many people of faith accept the Tower of Babel account which essentially says there are independent language lines that emerged suddenly by a miraculous act of design.

Beyond that, I would definitely accept the hypothesis of human intelligent design of novel languages. For example, the Korean written language has a date affixed to the official sponsoring of its alphabet. And there is language design and some independent origin in cryptographic “languages”. And in the world of modern communication and computers, there are definitely times when a language or “dialect” was considered invented.

Many of the languages in the world of computation first have layers that are driven by the hardware (machine language) and then a layer put on top (assembly language) and then higher language (compiled and interpreted language) on top of that, and even language layers above that.

I’ve been studying the grammars of DNA, and it seems also there are DNA grammars that seem to have independent origin and design. For example there seems a clear divide in the grammars of a Eukaryote and a Prokaryote. They seem to have independent linguistic origin if one is willing to look simply at the linguistic constructs and the necessary hardware needed to implement each language.

DNA grammars of Eukaryotes and Prokaryotes may have some commonality (like the 64 codon to amino acid table), but definitely have distinct differences that suggest independent origin of the grammars. To change the low-level language of each, one has to change the hardware, but the gradual physical transition from one mode of language to the other seem implausible.

Human written and spoken languages do not have such hardware barriers as found between cellular architectures. A child can be brought up to learn any of the existing human languages on the planet. But it still seems to me that human written (and likely spoken languages) have at least of few lines of independent, intelligently designed origin.

49 Replies to “Question about languages (for Piotr)

  1. 1
    Piotr says:

    I’ll be very happy to answer your question, Sal, but what is it? 🙂

  2. 2
    scordova says:

    Apologies for my lack of clarity and confusing prose.

    The question:

    “Are there several independent origins of human language?”

    It seems this is in evidence particularly for written language. It doesn’t seem that all spoken and written languages evolved from one single language.

    If there are several ancestral languages that began independently, any estimate on how many?

    Thanks for your reply.

    PS
    I have an interest in linguistics because of my computer background and current exploration in DNA grammars, but I have a passing interest in human languages as well.

    I spoke Tagalog when very young, and then was forced to speak English when my mother said, “no presents for Christmas if you don’t speak English.” Oddly, my memory of this confrontation at age 4 got translated into English in my memory, I can no longer recall the exchange in my native language and I can no longer pronounce Tagalog words without a heavy American accent.

  3. 3
    Piotr says:

    Sal,

    The truth is that we simply don’t know if all languages go back to a single common ancestor. Writing was developed several times independently (though not too many times — many commonly used writing system can be reduced to a common ancestor), but writing is very recent compared to speech. I wouldn’t be surprised if spoken language turned out to be older than 500,000 years, while the oldest written texts (linguistic “fossils”) known so far (from Mesopotamia and Egypt) are barely older than 5000 years.

    Common descent (both in biology and in linguistics) cannot be simply assumed — it has to be argued for. There is very good molecular evidence of common descent in biology. In historical linguistics, we use the so-called comparative method, which has its limitations, given the the high rate of horizontal diffusion (borrowing), imperfect replication, and complex recombination patterns (you don’t simply learn your language from your parents — lots of other people contribute to your linguistic development, and of course a single speaker can be multilingual). As a result, linguistic evolution is fast and quite messy.

    With our best current methods, we are able to detect shared ancestry (and reconstruct some features of the common ancestor) at a time depth of maybe about 10 thousand years (for well-documented language families). Most of linguistic prehistory is simply invisible to us. I am deeply sceptical of methods such as “mass comparison”, and most “long range” work in historical linguistics is either obviously flawed or very tentative.

  4. 4
  5. 5
    jw777 says:

    Interesting discussion. I’m not sure if the fundamental question is being addressed here about “language” in the broadest sense versus languages.

    Like Piotr noted, we can only take comparative analysis of languages back so far (although it is really exciting and entertaining to reconstruct proto roots). Once you reach language families, going beyond gets very speculative. It’s still fun. It’s just no longer remotely science.

    What I would be more interested in is a discussion about how the concepts underlying language came about: tense, mood, person, gender, number, subject, object, parts of speech. Languages are just collections of sounds and/or symbols which minds correlate to the concepts. How did such precision of conception come about? Then why bother codifying sounds and symbols connected?

    The inception of the sounds or characters themselves are completely arbitrary.

  6. 6
    mahuna says:

    There are any number of completely lost languages, including the “Atlantean” (people living along the European coast of the Atlantic Ocean) that preceded the arrival of the Indo-Europeans (aka Ayrans). On the other hand we have the living language of the Bushmen, which consists of clicks and whistles and is probably very old.

    But more interestingly, baby humans form thoughts before they are able to speak. In fact, they clearly form thoughts before they are born. So in what language do baby humans think? Since they begin thinking before they have heard any language spoken, it seems reasonable that the language is programmed in, and that all humans for the entire history of our species start out using the same language. And then they learn the language of their parents as their second language.

  7. 7
    Robert Byers says:

    The bible says there was and only would be one original language.
    it probabbly was a pure representation of thoughts into sounds. At babel this was suddenly distorted into, i think, 70 languages.
    Language is just segregated combinations of sounds.
    Bushmen etc simply because of primitiveness LOST their original language abilities.They are not signs of a older language but a dumbed down one from their original.
    Babies are case in point that we don’t think in language but only in thoughts.
    language is a clumsy way to describe our thoughts. Thats why tones of voice are more important and so the origin of music.
    language is just sounds to express thoughts.

  8. 8
    scordova says:

    Writing was developed several times independently (though not too many times — many commonly used writing system can be reduced to a common ancestor), but writing is very recent compared to speech.

    Thank you very much for your response.

    When I look at the various writing systems (some read left to right, other right to left, and then others top to bottom), and the various writing styles, it is hard to imagine that all came from a singe writing system. Independent origins seems the more reasonable interpretation.

    It is truly amazing to glimpse at the various writing systems throughout known history.

    Here is the alphabet of one writing system.

    http://ocala-chc.wikispaces.co.....phabet.jpg

    With respect to the sounds of spoken language, actors in old movies have very slight accents that no longer seem common in the USA, certainly not accents that are heard in modern movies. And these changes happened in less than 100 years.

    The way words are pronounced seems very changeable indeed.

  9. 9
    Piotr says:

    When I look at the various writing systems (some read left to right, other right to left, and then others top to bottom), and the various writing styles, it is hard to imagine that all came from a singe writing system. Independent origins seems the more reasonable interpretation.

    Things like direction change easily, and may be used inconsistently even for one and the same language. For example, archaic (pre-Classical) Greek was written sometimes right-to-left, sometimes left-to-right, and sometimes in a manner known as boustrophedon (= ‘ox-turning’, as in ploughing): alternate lines were written in opposite directions, with the letters reversed after every turn.

    We know that the earliest version of the Greek alphabet was an adaptation of the Phoenician consonantal script (the Greek themselves were aware of that). The Etruscans learnt to write from the Greek colonists in Italy, and the Romans took the idea from the Etruscans. The Cyryllic script, as used for Russian, Bulgarian or Serbian, was also a development of the Greek alphabet. The Runic script of the early Germanic peoples was an imitation of one of the North Italic alphabets of Etruscan origin, etc. And so, a number of alphabets (Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Runic, Cyrillic, plus a few others) can be traced back to Phoenician (which itself developed from still older writing systems used in the Middle East in the 2nd millennium BC). All the transitions are pretty well documented.

  10. 10
    Piotr says:

    Robert Byers:

    Bushmen etc simply because of primitiveness LOST their original language abilities.They are not signs of a older language but a dumbed down one from their original.

    Robert, everybody knows you are an out-of-the-closet racist; no need to remind us of it all the time. I don’t think someone who can’t figure out when to use a or an as the indefinite article in his own mother tongue should talk about “dumbed down” languages.

  11. 11
    kevnick says:

    Piotr @10,

    I disagree with you quite often. However, your last comment about Robert Byers is right on. He is a product of religious discrimination and racism so prevalent amongst MOST religions today. I was raised as Catholic, so I was a witness of that first hand.

    BTW: I doubt very much “English” is Roberts’ mother tongue. He is likely of “Pilipino” descent.

  12. 12
    Joe says:

    Piotr:

    There is very good molecular evidence of common descent in biology.

    And that same evidence points to a common design. Go figure…

  13. 13
    scordova says:

    Piotr,

    Many thanks for you informative comments and links to your blog.

    A special thanks for your devotion to your discipline. Without understanding of languages and ancient languages in particular, we would know so little of our rich past.

    I love learning about ancient history and decoding the ancient writings is very important to our ability to reconstruct what happened in the past.

    Most of my exposure to linguistics was from Computer Science and Chomsky’s influence on computer languages. But also because of my interest in ancient history (especially as it relates to the Old Testament), I gained a deep appreciation for the enormous labor in decoding ancient writings.

    Thank you again!

  14. 14
    jw777 says:

    The comment about Bushmen does seem to be off. In general, however, languages don’t necessarily improve in precision but ubiquitously “dumb down” as time goes on.

    Classical Greek can have up to 60,000 forms for a single verb, in order to indicate all of the different breadths of meaning. Modern Greek only in theory holds about a hundred and that’s including all of the clunky auxiliary constructions. Even in English, where we try to make up for lost declensions, the “dumbing down” is obvious with examples of us trying to reestablished precision where we’ve naturally given it up (I.e. – ye to you to ya’ll to ya’lls to ya’llses).

    Piotr failed to mention that the same language is represented with different characters without necessarily any fundamental underlying changes. Greek again is a great example, wherein the earliest written Greek was not an alphabetically based system pulled from the Phoenicians at all, but rather a syllabary, namely Linear B.

    Add to that Hieroglyphs have been used both pictographically and alphabetically. The pre-French Vietnamese did not use Latin characters. And do not forget that “Chinese” doesn’t just mean different dialects, but arguably some separate spoken languages which use the same writing system. Japanese uses its own syllabary AND Chinese characters. And you can transliterate any foreign word into “English” script without any alteration of meaning.

    That being said, our transliterations tend to miss the boat because Americans don’t make or hear certain sounds as part of a language, which does lead some ignorant people to believe that unfamiliar sounds in another language (like clicks) are somehow indicative of inferiority, which is absolutely not the case. A native English speaker cannot hear the difference between a non-aspirated initial “p” and a “b” and thus Peiking and Beijing are our attempts as approximating a written representation which nears best the same word for the same city.

    Another interesting example of how native speakers develop a lack of awareness about breadth of sound is that no American English speaker pronounces an intervocalic “t” correctly; and no one but a linguist or linguist wannabe like me would ever notice. Check yourself and naturally pronounce the following: little, fitter, fatter, bitter, batter, butter, liter, mitre, etc. You will have spoken each “t” as a very low soft “d”. Cockneys pronounce the same letter as a glottal stop in the back of the throat. And an Oxford professor might pronounce each one as a very heartily clear crisp “t.” But somehow we would all understand each other, not just in writing, but in speech, and never be the wiser.

  15. 15
    Piotr says:

    Classical Greek can have up to 60,000 forms for a single verb, in order to indicate all of the different breadths of meaning.

    Up to 60,000? Where did you take it from? Classical Greek had up to 230 finite forms for a given verb stem (plus 66 duals, if you want to include them, but the dual was already obsolete in late Classical times). If you add complex modal forms (perfect subjunctives and optatives), the total count will exceed 300, but not by much. You can increase it artificially by adding non-finite forms (infinitives and all the possible declined forms of participles), but even so I’d put the total at a few hundred max, not tens of thousands.

    As for dumbing down, languages have existed for tens if not hundreds of millennia and somehow have not degenerated. “Total complexity” is hard to measure, but there is no universal law causing languages to become either simpler and simpler or more and more complex. What is lost in one part of the grammatical system may be made up for by gains elsewhere. For example, English has radically simplified its finite verb forms, but complex verbs (practically unknown in Old English) have meanwhile developed into a neatly symmetrical system with sixteen “tenses” and two voices for each (at least in theory).

  16. 16
    Querius says:

    One of my favorites . . .

    Professor: “In English, a double-negative in a statement can mean a positive or an intensifier, but a double-positive never means a negative.”

    Student in back of class: “Yeah, right.”

    -Q

  17. 17
    Piotr says:

    Another interesting example of how native speakers develop a lack of awareness about breadth of sound is that no American English speaker pronounces an intervocalic “t” correctly…

    Since intervocalic T-voicing is a perfectly normal, regular feature of North American English, there’s no reason to call it incorrect. In fact, it would be a bad idea not to use it if you want to sound like an American or a Canadian. In my department, in Practical English courses, students learn to speak English with a native-like mainstream British or General American accent (they are divided into “British” and “American” groups). Of course those whose target accent is American have to master T-voicing; otherwise an important feature of American English would be missing from their pronunciation. Likewise, those whose target accent is British are encouraged to glottalise at least some of their /t/’s, use intrusive /r/’s, etc.

  18. 18
    Robert Byers says:

    Piotr
    your accusation is false and unthoughtful. You must have other reasons for it and not from what I said.
    thewre are racists but simply opinions about others that are right or wrong and done with truth or malice.
    anyways i will repeat my point so you can;t so easily get off the racist shot at me.
    i’m not saying bushman are inferior races. i’m saying they are of ORIGINALLY regular language groups that were no different then any others.
    YET upon becoming obscure in the bush they dumbed down including their language. so they replaced a normal language with hoots and hollers.
    Yes they can be so defined as primitive by the time they were discovered.
    THEREFORE they are not evidence of a very old people group who didn’t get a better language. just a segregated people who got more primitive.
    Its true and fair. Not a reflection on race or genetics. just being out in the boonies too long.
    You shouldn’t use these forums for attacks on peoples character when you fail, I presume, to simply understand simple points. your just jumping at words and not paying attention to the concept.
    Just like evolutionists do in failing to understand biological concepts.

  19. 19
    Piotr says:

    YET upon becoming obscure in the bush they dumbed down including their language. so they replaced a normal language with hoots and hollers.

    The people you call “bushmen” are speakers of the Khoisan languages in southern Africa. Khoisan is a collective term for at least three different language families with many members. They are no more “dumbed down” than any other language on the planet. They have big vocabularies, large (sometimes even extremely large) phoneme inventories, rich inflectional and derivational morphology, and complex syntax. To say that their speakers have “replaced normal language with hoots and hollers” is unbelievably stupid, and racist to boot, no matter if you understand it yourself. It’s a simple matter-of-fact statement about your offensive comments, not an attack on your character.

  20. 20
    Piotr says:

    Sorry for my messy editing: in #19 the first paragraph is a quote, and the second, my comment.

  21. 21
    scordova says:

    Piotr,

    Vocabularies by typical English speakers seem to be shrinking, although I say that with qualification. If we include all the new terms introduced by technology (pharmaceutical names, chemical names, etc.) one could argue it is growing.

    Anyway, here is one viewpoint:

    http://latenightparents.com/20.....-students/

    From the standpoint of highly exacting languages like those in computers and electronic communication systems, simplicity has always been a virtue. At the root of modern Information Technology language is an alphabet of only two symbols, “0” and “1”.

    It seems simplicity facilitates standardization and ease of understanding among very large groups of interacting parties. So as technology advances and as societies become integrated over larger and larger geographical regions, it seems simple vocabularies are a matter of necessity.

    I for one like communication with simple vocabularies. There are certainly many literary nuances lost, but for communication in a high tech world, losing connotations and nuances of languages doesn’t seem all bad.

    I like communications which add no more or no less than what is said. That is why I like computer and mathematical languages. Here is a simple statement in the C and Java computer language:

    i++;

    There is not much wiggle room for trying to interpret what it means. And in math:

    f(x) = x + 2

    Even with advanced physics, at the root are basic math operations:

    addition
    subtraction
    multiplication
    division

    and some will argue it is just

    addition
    multiplication

    there are some calculus extensions

    integration
    differentiation

    and then some conceptual extension

    matricies
    tensors
    operators

    But symbol “alphabet” is surprisingly small. It is often said, the major equations of physics will fit on one page! So the search for underlying simplicity (unification) is a great driving force in physics.

    I’ve often been frustrated that discussions about biological evolution do not have the same level of precision. Many of my discussion of evolution and design at UD have tried to use minimal vocabulary, but the resulting prose would start to read like a computer program. It becomes challenging to make it readable and interesting but also precise like math.

    I was able to matriculate in an academic environment hostile to ID largely because there was little room for disagreement over what is right and wrong in certain realms of thought. I can hardly think of one instance where I disagreed with a math professor, and maybe only two where I thought a physics teacher made a conceptual error from an assumed premise (it doesn’t mean the premise are right, i.e. the Big Bang).

    One of the biggest problem in the ID and evolution debate is over the word “complexity”. There is no resolution over the matter. I have my opinions, but they are not necessarily popular even among my associates.

    The word “entropy” is another sticking point. So are the words “organization” and “order”. 🙂

  22. 22
    Mapou says:

    Joe @12:

    Piotr:

    There is very good molecular evidence of common descent in biology.

    And that same evidence points to a common design. Go figure…

    This should be repeated over and over ad nauseam until they get it.

  23. 23
    Piotr says:

    This should be repeated over and over ad nauseam until they get it.

    Until we get what? The nausea? Then you can stop repeating.

    There is very good evidence of (1) common origin of groups of species (most importantly, the phylogenetic pattern of selectively neutral mutations, which rules both convergence and design), and (2) universal common origin (obvious to most biologists, given e.g. the unity of the genetic code, but, just in case, formally tested by Theobald 2010 [plus the discussion that ensued] against the hypothesis of multiple origins).

    In linguistics we have demonstrated the common origin of certain large groups of languages, for example Austronesian, with 1000+ extant members (e.g. Tagalog, Indonesian, Maori, Hawaiian), Indo-European with 400+ members (e.g. English, Russian, Hindi, Armenian), Bantu with 500+ members (e.g. Swahili, Rwanda, Zulu, Shona), and several others; a still larger number of middle-sized families, such as Uralic with about 30 languages (e.g. Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian), Na-Dene with about 50 members (e.g. Tlingit, Navajo, Mescalero), etc.; and a number of tiny families of linguistic isolates which have not been demonstrably assigned to any larger grouping (e.g. Basque, Zuni, Korean).

    There are also more ambitious (and more controversial) classifications, trying to lump together several well-established families. For example, Bantu may be a subgroup od a still larger Niger-Congo “superfamily” (with 1400+ members), and the Turkic, Mongolich and Manchu-Tungusic families (plus, according to some researchers, Japanese and Korean) may form a larger unit called Altaic. But these groupings are not regarded as valid by all experts, so the jury is still out on their status.

    What we lack at present is a demonstration of universal common descent. We can’t rule out the possibility that the living languages go back to a number of unrelated common ancestors rather than one common “Proto-World” language. This should be distinguished from the biological unity of “the language faculty”, i.e. the universal human ability to acquire at least one language as a tool of social communication. This ability is (roughly) the same in all humans, and the genomic features responsible for it must have been fixed early in the prehistory of humans.

  24. 24
    Piotr says:

    Self-correction:

    and a number of tiny families of linguistic isolates

    or linguistic isolates…

  25. 25
    Dionisio says:

    Piotr,
    Thank you for the very interesting information you have shared in this thread. Most of it was unknown to me.
    I still keep my “zaproszenie na kawe albo herbate” active. It would be a pleasure to meet you personally and chat amicably in Gdansk or Poznan. If in Poznan, would you mind to take us on a tour of the university?
    Serdecznie pozdrawiam.

  26. 26
    Querius says:

    Piotr@25 noted

    There are also more ambitious (and more controversial) classifications, trying to lump together several well-established families. For example, Bantu may be a subgroup od a still larger Niger-Congo “superfamily” (with 1400+ members), and the Turkic, Mongolich and Manchu-Tungusic families (plus, according to some researchers, Japanese and Korean) may form a larger unit called Altaic. But these groupings are not regarded as valid by all experts, so the jury is still out on their status.

    I’m just curious. How would you identify families of languages (and where are the controversies you mentioned)?

    – By enunciations of similar words

    – By geographical and cultural proximity

    – By grammatical structure?

    – Something else or in combination?

    Would you be able to tell the difference between a modern and an ancient language outside of their lexicons (i.e. “cell phone,” “jet plane,” “internet”)? Does one language provide a richer, more complete range of tenses, moods, and perhaps other constructions of meanings than another?

    Do you believe that all languages ultimately originated from a single proto-language similar to Darwin’s tree of life?

    Thanks!

    -Q

  27. 27
    scordova says:

    Sorry for my messy editing: in #19 the first paragraph is a quote, and the second, my comment.

    I fixed it.

  28. 28
    Piotr says:

    Querius:

    The most important part of comparative analysis is the detection of regular correspondences in the vocabularies and inflectional systems of languages. Not similarities (which may be due to borrowing, onomatopoeia, or just chance), but systematic patterns produced by sound change, which is mostly regular (that is, sounds change in the same way depending on the phonetic context, but independently of the meaning of the words in which they are found).

    For example, when English (together with other Germanic languages) shows word-initial /f/ in words inherited from Proto-Germanic, this sound matches /p/ (not /f/!) in Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and most other languages of the family, while Armenian has /h/ in the same position, and Celtic has zero (the sound disappears there). We find the same pattern in word after word. Thus, Latin pater corresponds to Greek πατηρ and Sanskrit pitar-, but English has father, Armenian has hayr, and Irish has athair (all these words mean ‘father’).

    These correspondences reflect the history of language groups: the Proto-Indo-European phoneme /p/ retained its pronunciation in most of the descendent languages, but in Germanic it changed into /f/ (as part of a more general change known as Grimm’s Law). In Armenian it was further transformed into a weak glottal aspirate; in Celtic the development was similar, but followed by further weakening and eventual aitch-loss. /p/ is clearly the original state, whereas /f/, /h/ and zero represent characteristic innovations of particular language groups.

    Note that any /p/-initial word borrowed from Greek or Latin into English retains its original pronunciation. That’s because Grimm’s Law was an active sound change some 2300 years ago and could not affect any words borrowed more recently. Loanwords like pine, pilgrim, pentagram, period, etc. don’t show this transformation. The /f/’s in form, function, future etc. are instances of borrowed Latin /f/, not the result of Grimm’s Law. However, common Germanic words like fish, feather, foot (and many others) have corresponding non-Germanic equivalents that follow the regular pattern: compare Latin piscis, penna (assimilated from earlier *pet-na), pes (the stem is ped-, as in pedem, pedis…). In this way we can distinguish borrowing, secondary convergence, and accidental similarity, from true historical relationships.

    As for your last question, I just don’t know. The common descent of the Indo-European family was suspected in the late 18th century and securely established in the course of the 19th. It was possible to demonstrate it thanks to the fact that the family has lots of members, and many of them have a good textual record (Greek, and the extinct Anatolian languages, such as Hittite and Luwian, were preserved in written form already in the second millennium BC). We haven’t got enough data to continue our reconstruction beyond Proto-Indo-European. Many linguists suspect that certain other families (notably Uralic) may be related to Indo-European via a more distant common ancestor, but the support for such a hypothesis is still too weak to be generally accepted.

  29. 29
    Piotr says:

    Dionisio:

    No problem, just let me know if you are around.

  30. 30
    Piotr says:

    Querius:

    Would you be able to tell the difference between a modern and an ancient language outside of their lexicons

    No, not really. Modern languages represent the full spectrum of phonological, morphological and syntactic types (of varying complexity), and the same is true of any period for which we have evidence. Modern analytic languages (short words, functions of inflections taken over by syntax) often derive from inflecting ancestors (with rich conjugational and declensional systems), but it’s also possible for an analytic languages to evolve into an inflecting one via the agglutinative stage (when strings of function words get appended to lexical stems, lose their independence and turn into inflections).

    Most of the earlier Indo-European languages belonged to the inflecting type simply because their common ancestor was like that. Some have shifted to other types, others haven’t. My first language, Polish, still has seven cases (singular and plural) in nouns (more than Latin or Greek, and almost as many as Sanskrit), and one of its relatives, Slovene, still keeps the dual number beside the singular and plural. The latter feature is extremely archaic. Sanskrit had a full set of dual forms, but Ancient Greek was already in the process of losing them, and Classical Latin had no productive dual inflections whatsoever. You can say that Slovene (a modern language) is more conservative than Latin (an ancient language) in this particular respect (though not necessarily in others).

  31. 31
    Piotr says:

    Querius:

    Do you believe that all languages ultimately originated from a single proto-language similar to Darwin’s tree of life?

    By the way, Darwin himself was not quite sure that there was a single universal “tree of life”, though he certainly favoured such a view. In The Origin (Ch. XV) he wrote:

    I believe that animals are descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step farther, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants are descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their cellular structure, their laws of growth, and their liability to injurious influences.

    The question remained more or less open until the 1960’s.

  32. 32
    Robert Byers says:

    Piotr
    there you again with racist attack on my character. Sure it is.
    Even if I was wrong there would be nothing racist about my statement. You are not the moral judge.
    you are the ones saying these bushman language is OLD because its more PRIMITIVE. YOU guys were saying this.
    You said this was because it was older etc.
    i said NO> it was not older but simply a original language people MOVING to the bush DUMBED down some of it. So using sounds insteads of words was just because of becoming primitive back in the day.
    Thats my opinion. i’m sure I’m right, and its not about race or genetics.
    today I’m sure they are not dumb but still living with the old problem.
    nothing to do with thier complexity in their language.
    The hoots and toots are the evidence of a primitive people atrophying in language and NOT evidence of being a separate and older original language.

  33. 33
    Querius says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful responses to my questions. I’ve always been fascinated by languages—primarily their “architecture” (grammar, syntax, etc.).

    When I was a teenager, I was exposed to the Navajo language which seemed to turn nouns into verbs. Their pronunciations were also difficult to hear:

    Navajo: Say Clay Hozhoni (this is sorta phonetic)
    Querius: Clay Hozhoni
    Navajo: No, I said Tlay Hozhoni
    Querius: Tlay Hozhoni
    Navajo: No, watch my lips—Tclay Hozhoni

    Etc. 😛

    -Q

  34. 34
    Andre says:

    I hate correcting an expert, in this case Piotr had mislead you. Firstly calling black people Bantu’s is utterly distasteful and racist and as an African, I’m asking him to please retract that statement. Zulu is part of the nguni languages and does not Form part of the Shona group of languages. There are 2 subgroups of the nguni language, zunda and teleka. All nguni speaking people, swazi, Zulu, ndebele, phuti and hlubi are mutually intelligible.

  35. 35
    Andre says:

    To say these languages have a common ancestor is pure conjecture and actually started with Charles Darwin, which Piotr is a very big fan of as you know……

    So the average Darwinist will find a common ancestor in everything and anything they turn their attention to…. because you know forcing a common ancestor down our throat sure beats the fact of common design……

  36. 36
    Eric Anderson says:

    Piotr:

    I haven’t gone through all the comments, but your points @3 are well said. Good overall perspective and good limitations to keep in mind when considering languages.

  37. 37
    Piotr says:

    I hate correcting an expert, in this case Piotr had mislead you. Firstly calling black people Bantu’s is utterly distasteful and racist

    Andre, a piece of advice: don’t correct an expert unless you are sure you know the subject better. Otherwise you’ll end up looking silly.

    I do not “call black people Bantu”. Bantu (technically often “Narrow Bantu”) is the official name of one of the numerous language families spoken in Africa. It’s a linguistic, not an ethnic unit. There may be about 2000 extant languages of Africa (a few hundred in Nigeria alone, for example), and approximately a quarter of them are classified as Bantu.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_languages
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Africa
    http://www.ethnologue.com/subgroups/narrow-bantu

    There’s abolutely nothing offensive about the name. All specialists use it, including many African experts who happen to be black themselves.

    and as an African, I’m asking him to please retract that statement. Zulu is part of the nguni languages and does not Form part of the Shona group of languages. There are 2 subgroups of the nguni language, zunda and teleka. All nguni speaking people, swazi, Zulu, ndebele, phuti and hlubi are mutually intelligible.

    Zulu is indeed part of the Nguni branch of the Bantu languages. I never said it was part of the Shona group, but the Shona languages are Bantu as well. According to the most popular classification of the Bantu languages (Guthrie/Maho), Shona and Nguni are rather closely related:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guthrie_classification_of_Bantu_languages
    http://goto.glocalnet.net/maho.....online.pdf

    To be sure, the Guthrie classification is more geographical than cladistic. The structure of relationships in such a vast family of languages (many of them understudied) is extremely difficult to sort out. But an army of linguists is working on the problem.

    Mutual intelligibility is greater between closely related languages but drops to zero as historical distance increases. An English speaker will not understand spoken Dutch (though the relationship is pretty close), let alone Albanian, Welsh or Hindi (more distant relatives), but Swedish and Norwegian are at least partly intelligible to each other’s speakers.

  38. 38
    Piotr says:

    Oops, I must have made a mistake with one of the tags. The first paragraph above quotes Andre.

  39. 39
    Piotr says:

    @35

    Andre,

    Leave Darwin out of this business. It was linguists, not biologists, who established those family relationships. They were not “Darwinian” in any sense, and I don’t think they knew much about biology. They examined the linguistic data and drew linguistic conclusions from them. Actually, some genetic groupings of languages (such as Indo-European, Finno-Ugric and Semitic) were recognised before Darwin was born.

  40. 40
    Piotr says:

    Navajo: Say Clay Hozhoni (this is sorta phonetic)
    Querius: Clay Hozhoni
    Navajo: No, I said Tlay Hozhoni
    Querius: Tlay Hozhoni
    Navajo: No, watch my lips—Tclay Hozhoni

    Yeah, Navajo has quite a few “lateral” (l-like) phonemes where English has only /l/. In addition to voiced /l/, Navajo has a voiceless lateral fricative identical with Welsh ll (as in Llandudno or Penrhyn Ll?n), and it can be combined with a dental stop to form an affricate (in the same way as “t” + “sh” form “ch”). Watching the speaker’s lips won’t help much, since these sounds are articulated with the tongue tip.

  41. 41
    Piotr says:

    Robert Byers:

    you are the ones saying these bushman language is OLD because its more PRIMITIVE. YOU guys were saying this.

    I’m not “you guys”, and I don’t say any such things. You are putting them in my mouth. Do you want to be called a liar as well?

  42. 42
    Andre says:

    Piotr

    Just because Shona and Mguni have 10 words that have the same meaning does not indicate that, as a language it had a common ancestor. The word Bantu whether used in the cultural or linguistic framework is utterly repulsive and in Europe might still be used but this is Africa and here we denounce the word. As a professor in Linguistics you should now we frown upon the use of that word regardless of it’s context.

    Lastly and this is important its was Darwin that came up with this nonsense that you follow blindly…..

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1136

  43. 43
    Piotr says:

    Andre,

    For political and cultural reasons there is a taboo value attached to the term “Bantu” in South Africa when it’s used to mean (incorrectly, from the scientific perspective) “black South Africans”. The official usage of the apartheid regime is to blame for this taboo, but it’s a local South African problem. Elsewhere in Africa the word has no pejorative conotations. Anyway, I haven’t used it like that. In linguistics, it’s a completely neutral, technical term, referring to a family of languages. There’s nothing European about this use. It’s used in the New World, Asia, Australia, and also by my African colleagues when they study their own native languages.

    Words don’t have to be similar to be related. Believe me or not, English five and ten are regularly related to Greek pente and deka, as well as Latin quinque and decem; the relationship is quite obvious if you have studied the reconstructed history of both languages and are familiar with the sound changes they have been affected by. Likewise, there are hundreds of regular lexical correspondences (as opposed to mere similarities) between any Nguni and Shona languages; check up any etymological dictionary of Bantu for details. If I find the time, and if you are interested, I can show you a few typical examples with a detailed explanation.

    The blog discussing Darwin’s views on the origin of language (as a phenomenon, not the origin of individual languages) is interesting but has nothing to do with the existence of language families. As such, it’s completely irrelevant.

  44. 44
    Andre says:

    Piotr

    I’ll refrain from repeating myself about the word Bantu, but you tell a Ndebele he has anything in common with a Shona and you will be met with a spear in your heart. The idea that these languages stem from a common ancestor is again pure CONJECTURE and Darwin is the guy that told this fanciful evolutionary story of language in the Descent of man……

    You are of course smitten with old Darwin and thus believe the tripe he’s cooked up with your whole heart. I can’t help you to see past ole Darwin that is your journey……

  45. 45
    Piotr says:

    Self correction: “both languages” => “the three languages”

  46. 46
    Piotr says:

    Andre:

    I’ll refrain from repeating myself about the word Bantu, but you tell a Ndebele he has anything in common with a Shona and you will be met with a spear in your heart.

    Congratulations: a perfect argument! If I tell a Frenchman his language is related to German, will he gouge my eyes out with an oyster knife?

    The idea that these languages stem from a common ancestor is again pure CONJECTURE and Darwin is the guy that told this fanciful evolutionary story of language in the Descent of man……

    First, you continue to confuse the origin of language with the origin of language families. It’s like confusing the origin of life with the derivation of different bat cat, or butterfly species from a common ancestor. Secondly, the genetic unity of Bantu is of course a hypothesis (like everything in science), but it’s a hypothesis so well supported by the evidence that we regard it as a well-established fact. The relationships among the member languages can’t be convincingly accounted for in any other way.

    You are of course smitten with old Darwin and thus believe the tripe he’s cooked up with your whole heart. I can’t help you to see past ole Darwin that is your journey……

    So far, you have used three arguments, none of which has any validity:

    (1) The term “Bantu” is politically incorrect in South Africa.

    OK, labels are only labels. Let’s label the same family “Ruritanian”, if the B-word scares you. The evidence for its genetic unity remains the same.

    (2) The Ndebele speakers don’t think their language is related to Shona (and they may do harm to anyone who thinks otherwise).

    Being a native speaker doesn’t make you a qualified expert on the history of your mother tongue. No modern English speaker who hasn’t studied Old English as an academic subject will understand a single sentence from Beowulf. A native speaker of French has no idea how (and via what stages) Latin changed into French (and into Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, etc.). If you want to know whether Lithuanian is related to Armenian, will you ask native speakers? How the heck should they know?

    (3) The idea that languages are related goes back to Darwin.

    False. The Hungarian scholar Janos Sajnovics (a Jesuit priest, by the way) compared Hungarian with the Saami (Lapp) language of northern Norway and concluded that they must be derived from a common ancestor. He published his demonstration of their affinity in 1770. A little later, in 1799, another Hungarian linguist, Samuel Gyarmathi, developed this idea further and showed that both Saami and Hungarian were also related to Finnish, Estonian, and a number of other languages.

    Many of the Hungarian intellectuals of the time were enraged, since they preferred more romantic ideas about the descent of the Magyars (usually tracing their ancestry back to Attila the Hun and his nobles). They didn’t stab Gyarmathi with a spear (like an angry Ndebele patriot), but they they did feel deeply offended at the thought that Hungarian might be related to the obscure languages of fishermen from the Middle Volga, or reindeer herders from northwestern Siberia. Later research, however, completely vindicated Sajnovics and Gyarmathi. At about the same time other people made similar observations about the relationship of Sanskrit to Greek, Latin, and some other languages of Europe. Darwin had not yet been born.

  47. 47
    Querius says:

    Piotr@40 indicated

    Watching the speaker’s lips won’t help much, since these sounds are articulated with the tongue tip.

    Right you are! You reminded me that in trying to pronounce “tclay,” I moved my tongue forward and back in my mouth to try to duplicate the sound, but it was never satisfactory to my sharp-eared friend.

    One wonders where and why people come up with such exotic sounds–the guttural trill of the Germans, the raised one of the Czechs, and so on.

    However, I’m fascinated not so much my the lingual and vocal gymnastics as I am the logical (or illogical) structure, grammar, etc. of languages since it will have an effect (or perhaps is a byproduct of) a way of thinking.

    -Q

  48. 48
    Dionisio says:

    Querius

    One wonders where and why people come up with such exotic sounds–the guttural trill of the Germans, the raised one of the Czechs, and so on.

    There are sounds in the Polish language I simply can’t pronounce. Been trying for many years to no avail.
    Perhaps having Spanish as the first language is a disadvantage for learning the phonetic of other languages, because Spanish apparently is not so rich in difficult sounds. My wife say that it was easier for her to learn Spanish than English, at least the pronunciation part.
    A relative of mine, who is a brilliant executive in a Biotech company, once told me that Chinese people are very smart, that’s why their children can learn to speak mandarin or Cantonese fluently, while we can’t even learn to say ‘good morning’ correctly in Chinese, no matter how long we try. I knew that, because my Chinese colleague at work tried hard to teach me to say ‘good morning’ in his language. Every day I came to my office, he was already in his office, so when I passed by, I looked at him and said ‘zaoshang hao’ and he responded the same with a big smile on his face, but then he called me into his office, stood in front of me and asked me to repeat ‘zao’ several times. I could not do it. Actually, at some point I didn’t even hear any difference, so I became very frustrated and thanked him for being so patient with me. I asked him if people in China would understand it the way I said it, and I think he said they wouldn’t. That was it. I gave up. I told him he had to find smarter students. I was too dumb to learn that language or any other language. He laughed out loud. From that moment on I just said to him ‘Ni hao’ and he smiled too. A few years later, when my wife and I visited Shanghai, Dalian, Beijing and Tianjin, it was very interesting, even without knowing the local language, but perhaps knowing it would have made the trip more enjoyable?

  49. 49
    Robert Byers says:

    Piortr
    Your not saying that these bushdudes clicking their sounds makes their language as evidence of being old??? Well if your not someone was. That was what I rightly responded too.
    I was right, or close enough, to insist that these primitive bushguys , back in the day, atrophied in thier language because of backwardness in thier society’s.
    Originally they came from better language abilities but were dumbed down by their isolation and thats obvious to me.
    There was nothing morally wrong about what I said and say.
    In fact it makes a good point about language as very reflective on the intelligence of people groups.
    Not saying its this way today but it was originally after they splitt from the bigger group.
    I think i’m right. I don’t think language is very difficult to understand in humanity.
    Its evolutionists who screw it up and delay accurate analysis.

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