Loren I. Petrich I guess that not many of you people confront this kind of crackpottery ve

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Loren I. Petrich I guess that not many of you people confront this kind of crackpottery very often, but I'm discussing this question just as a starter for anyone interested, and also for the fun of it :-) The question of humanity's oldest language has almost certainly been around every since humanity came into existence; I'm sure the favored solution for most of humanity's existence was the language of one's tribe :-) But in historical times, there were some who tried a broader investigation. Herodotus tells that an Egyptian king tried raising a baby with no words spoken to it to determine humanity's first language; its firs word was interpreted as "bekos", the Phrygian word for bread. Thus, Phrygian was humanity's first language. But there were efforts that went beyond such absurdities. The conquering Romans had an irresistable taste for Greek culture, and some of them started noticing how similar their languages were. Here is a sample vocabulary set: English Latin Greek one unus heis two duo duo three tres treis four quattuor tessares/tettares five quinque pente six sex hex seven septem hepta eight octo okto nine novem ennea ten decem deka hund-red centum he-katon mother mater meter/mater father pater pater that is-tud to I ego ego me me eme/me thou tu su thee te se cow bos/bov- bous/bou- hound can-is kuon/kun- heart cor/cord- kardia foot pes/ped- pous/pod- [Note: Classical Latin "c" and "v" were pronounced "k" and "w"; I have put in dashes to make some of the words clearer] If you are already starting to suspect that English is related to these two, you're ahead of the game :-) But the Roman solution was that Latin was an offshoot of Greek, a position that was to be discredited by modern linguistics. This fit in with their favored belief, expressed in Virgil's _Aeneid_, that Rome's founders were descended from some Trojan War heroes. Linguistics did not get much further than that until modern times; there were those who argued about which language was spoken by all the people of the world before God made them speak different languages after they had tried to build the Tower of Babel. Not surprisingly, Hebrew was the favorite candidate, though there were others, such as Irish and Dutch(!) Implicit in this discussion was the hypothesis that humanity's original language had to be around somewhere. This idea was challenged by Sir William Jones, who proposed that Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and probably Old Persian and the Germanic and Celtic languages all had a common ancestor, but one which may no longer exist. Since his time, the "Indo-European" family, which Sir William Jones had implicitly recognized, has received an abundance of research and reconstruction efforts, and is clear that no existing language matches the reconstructed common ancestor. As a side note, it is very likely that our knowledge of the IE ancestor will forever remain in the realm of reconstruction, since it unlikely that it was ever written anywhere. The reasons are (1) the most plausible archeological candidate for its speakers, the Kurgans of South Russia 6000-5000 years ago, show no evidence of literacy, something also true for other archeological candidates, (2) the writing systems for the written IE languages were all borrowed or invented separately, and (3) all the words for "writing" in the IE languages have origins from different roots, implying that the speakers of the ancestral IE language had no word for this activity. Furthermore, the ubiquity of linguistic change insures that no existing language could possibly be humanity's original language, since it could not have survived unchanged. The Romance languages are noticeably distinct from Latin, Modern English looks different from Old English, Hindi looks different from Sanskrit, etc. etc. Thus, we can consign any attempt to demonstrate that any existing language is an unchanged descendant of humanity's original language (if there is only one such language!) to the realm of crackpottery. By applying the comparative-linguistic tools developed from their Indo-European experience, linguists have been able to classify the vast majority of recorded languages into a couple hundred families of varying size. Beyond that, it is difficult to make progress. I once collected several numeral sets from several languages, and while most of the Indo-European ones were recognizably similar, they resembled none of the non-IE sets. Indeed, the Conventional Wisdom of linguistics is that the process of language change has produced too much change to be able to reconstruct the common ancestors of the ancestors of the well-known language families. Some linguists have disagreed, and have plowed forward with the comparative method. Probably the most successful of such efforts is the effort to work out Nostratic, a proposed family that includes IE, Kartvelian, Afro-Asiatic, Uralic, Altaic, and Dravidian, with Chukchi-Kamchatkan and Eskimo-Aleut added later. However, this work has been pursued in the Soviet Union, and it has been little-known outside of there until recent years. Though their work has received a cool reception from some linguists, some Nostraticists have gone on to find other big families, such as Sino-Caucasian, which includes Sino-Tibetan, North Caucasian, Basque, Burushaski, Yeniseian, and Na-Dene. However, the Nostraticists do not claim to have found humanity's original language, and some of them do not wish to be associated with that question, with all its overtones of crackpottery. Independently of the Soviet Nostratic group, the American linguist Joseph Greenberg has been doing large-scale classifications of his own. However, he has done so by a rather subjective method of finding resemblances by eyeballing word lists, rather than by searching for sound correspondences, as mainstream linguists and even the Nostraticists prefer to do. Examples of these are apparent in my list above, where English "th" corresponds to Latin and Greek "t", and English and Latin initial "s" corresponds to Greek initial "h". Thus, while his classification of the African languages into four big families has been accepted, some of his other classifications, especially that of the Native American languages, remain controversial. Be that as it may, some intrepid macro-linguists have forged forward, comparing essentially all language groups, and hoping to reconstruct the ancestor of them all, which they have named "Proto-World". They claim to have found about 30 word roots for Proto-World, mainly for body parts, fleas and lice, and other commonplaces. This is a _very_ paltry sum compared to the hundreds known for some of the well-studied language families. However, this work is not likely to be taken seriously by the bulk of the linguistic community anytime soon; it certainly will not be taken seriously before Nostratic and Sino-Caucasian are taken seriously, to say the least. And why _one_ language? There might be more than one primordial language, for all we know. But there is an evolutionary argument that suggests that humanity originated from a relatively small population, which would have spoken only one language or closely related group of languages. According to Punctuated Equilibrium, or Punc-Eq, new species arise from rapid evolution in small offshoot populations; large populations seem to have relatively little change in their macroscopic features (molecular evolution, however, is a different story). Punc-Eq was developed to explain the apparent constancy of fossil species over time, and the extreme rarity of transitional forms; results apparent even when fossils are well-sampled. On the genetic side, it is apparent that genes for variations can spread very rapidly in small populations, and can be fixed in a relatively small amount of time; this circumstance supports Punc-Eq. Since all of humanity is equally language-capable, to within individual differences, one concludes that our species' ancestral population had the same linguistic capabilities that present-day people do. Thus even if the genetic programming that enables us to generate and interpret language did not emerge in that population, it was present in that population. And easy gene flow in that population would presumably have been associated with a high degree of mutual intelligibility for all the individuals in that population. I know that this is amateur paleo-anthropology; I haven't seen this discussion elsewhere, however. Conclusions: According to Punc-Eq, humanity had a relatively small ancestral population, which almost certainly had one language or at most a small group of closely related languages. BUT, This language may be forever inaccessible to linguistic-reconstruction techniques, and anything but the most cautious claims concerning it must be regarded with suspicion. ****************************************************************************** * Here are some references on some interesting recent work on Indo-European, Nostratic, and related subjects: Indo-European: Scientific American, March 1990, Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, "The Early History of Indo-European Languages" [A departure from the Kurgan hypothesis; the IE homeland was in the Kura-Araxes area. It also presents some of their revisions of IE phonology.] Scientific American, October 1989, Colin Renfrew, "The Origins of Indo-European Languages" [presenting the hypothesis discussed in more detail in his book, see below] Mallory, J.P., 1989, _In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archeology, and Myth_ [a comprehensive discussion of the Indo-European question, relating linguistics to historical and archeological evidence.] Renfrew, Colin, 1988 _Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins_ [an alternative proposal: a much earlier departure from the Indo-European homeland than the standard (Kurgan) picture would allow. I personally think that the evidence he presents most likely fits an earlier, pre-Indo-European, dispersal; the "Old Europeans" of Marija Gimbutas. His knowledge of linguistics also seems rather weak.] The American Heritage Dictionary [a good intro: it includes about 1500 Indo-European roots (about all those that are ancestral to English words listed in it) and a guide to what can be reconstructed of the culture of the Indo-European speakers, judging from what they had words for, such as their worship of a god named "Father Sky".]. Baldi, Philip, _An Introduction to the Indo-European Languages_ [a good comparative discussion of the older members of the various Indo-European subfamilies.] Gimbutas, Marija, _The Journal of Indo-European Studies_ (several articles over the years) and _The Civilization of the Goddess_ [An abundance of work on the archeology of the Kurgans, whom she proposes as Proto-Indo-European, as well as reconstructions of their culture; she has also done reconstructions of the culture of the pre-IE Europeans, the "Old Europeans".] Macro-linguistics: Nostratic, Sino-Caucasian, Proto-World, and related subjects. Proposed members of Nostratic: Indo-European Kartvelian (S Caucasian) Afro-Asiatic Semitic Egyptian Berber Cushitic Chadic Uralic (with Yukaghir) Dravidian (with Elamite) Altaic Turkic Mongolian Manchu-Tungus Korean Ryukyu Japanese Chukchi-Kamchatkan Eskimo-Aleut Joseph Greenberg's Eurasiatic includes all of Nostratic except Kartvelian, Afro-Asiatic, and Dravidian, but includes: Ainu Gilyak a.k.a. Nivkh NOTE: Afro-Asiatic could well be a group comparable to the rest of Nostratic and to Sino-Caucasian, as some Nostraticists are starting to conclude. Discrepancies in proposed schemes like this are probably not fatal; similar problems have existed for years in well-known language families. Sino-Caucasian (or Dene-Caucasian): North Caucasian NE Caucasian (incl. Hurrian-Urartian and Etruscan) Abkhazo-Adyghian (incl. Hattic) Sino-Tibetan Yeniseian Burushaski Basque Sumerian Na-Dene Some other Native American languages (?) There are other big groupings proposed, such as Amerind (most Native American languages), Austric (Austro-Thai and Austro-Asiatic), and Congo-Saharan (Niger-Congo, Kordofanian, and Nilo-Saharan). The ultimate in large-scale groupings is all of humanity's languages, whose hypothetical ancestor has been named Proto-World. However, this last subject has been a natural magnet for an assortment of enthusiasts and crackpots, and some Nostraticists would prefer not to make too big an issue out of Proto-World for that very reason. Although any current or historically attested language can confidently be ruled out, due to the inevitability of linguistic change, proposed candidates in the past have included Phrygian, Hebrew, Arabic, Irish, Dutch, Sanskrit, Japanese, and Turkish. The New York Times, November 24, 1987, p. C1, "Linguists Dig Deeper into the Origins of Language" Natural History, March 1987, The First Americans series: "Voices from the Past", by Merritt Ruhlen Joseph Greenberg, 1987(?), _Language in the Americas_ [His controversial work on Native American language classification; it also contains attempts to justify his methodology by doing some Indo-European examples.] I.M. Diakonov and S.A. Starostin, 1986, _Hurro_Urartian as an Eastern Caucasian language_ [peripherally mentions other such comparisons, for example, with Hattic, Etruscan, and the non-Indo-European component of the Greek vocabulary]. Brown, R.A., 1985, _Pre-Greek Speech on Crete from Greek Alphabetic Sources_ [attempt to find features of (a) pre-Indo-European language(s) there, using borrowings in Greek, Cretan place names, and Eteo-Cretan inscriptions. Etruscan and various borrowings elsewhere are also discussed in it; the author proposes an "Aegeo-Asianic" family, which survived in the languages discussed.] Sorin Paliga 1989 and Martin Huld 1990, _The Journal of Indo-European Studies_ [two articles on attempts to reconstruct some pre-Indo-European roots from European languages.] Sydney M. Lamb and E. Douglas Mitchell 1991, _Sprung from some Common Source: Investigations into the Prehistory of Language_ [Papers for the 200th anniversary of that famous statement by Sir William Jones about the Indo-European languages; topics include his career as a linguist, Indo-European religious vocabulary and possible connections with other language families, the question of the relatedness of the Altaic languages, Japanese, and Korean, and mathematical methods for constructing family trees and for long-distance comparison.] Annual Reviews of Anthropology, 1988, Mark Kaiser and Vitaly Shevoroshkin, "Nostratic" [A detailed discussion of the results of the Soviet Nostratic school; it includes some vocabulary and a lot of sound correspondences.] Vitaly Shevoroshkin and T.L. Markey, eds., 1986, _Typology, Relationship, and Time; A Collection of Papers on Language Change and Relationship by Soviet Linguists_ [A rather technical collection, but it does feature an interesting statistical study by Dolgopolsky of what words are least replaced in languages over time.] Vitaly Shevoroshkin and M. Kaiser, late 1980's, _The Journal of Indo-European Studies_ (The Journal of Indo-European Studies: v13, n3/4, p377, 1985 and v14, n3/4, p365, 1986) [Some discussions of Indo-European phonology in the light of Nostratic comparisons.] Vitaly Shevoroshkin, ed., 1988, _Reconstructing Languages and Cultures_ [Several papers on Nostratic and other such protolanguages, including Proto-World, most by known advocates. It includes 600 Nostratic roots.] Vitaly Shevoroshkin, ed., 1989, _Explorations in Language Macrofamilies_ [More such papers; though mostly on details of comparison.] Vitaly Shevoroshkin, ed., 1990, _Proto-Languages and Proto-Cultures_ [Still more such papers; presents the hypotheses that Sumerian and Etruscan belong in the Sino-Caucasian group, and also Joseph Greenberg's discussion of "Eurasiatic"] The Sciences (NY Academy of Sciences), May-June 1990, Vitaly Shevoroshkin, "The Mother Tongue". [A good introduction to Nostratic and Proto-World, from the point of view of an advocate.] Scientific American, April 1991 [A rather brief discussion of the controversy that Nostratic and Proto-World have started.] The Atlantic, April 1991 [A more detailed discussion of this controversy.] Here is a poem in reconstructed Nostratic composed by the late Nostraticist Vladislav Illich-Svitych: K'elHa" wet'e-i `aK'u-n ka"hla Tongue time-of water-of path/ford k'ala-i palhV-k'V na wete gone-of dwelling-to us lead(s) s'a da 'a-k'V 'ejV 'a"la" he but there-to come(s) no(t) ja-k'o pele t'uba wete which-who fear(s) deep water Language is a ford through the river of time It leads us to the dwelling of the ancestors But he does not arrive there Who is afraid of deep water Note: V is an uncertain vowel, K is k/q, a" is a with " on top, and s' is s with ' on top. The ' after a stop consonant (t, k, etc.) denotes a glottalized consonant (with a stricture in the throat). Several of these words have Indo-European cognates; I give them both in the traditional transcription and a modified one closer to Nostratic due to Shevoroshkin et al, following a /, when it is different. I will give only the more common offshoots; the Latin and Greek words should be familiar from borrowings. You may have fun looking for other offshoot words. `aK'u IE akwa- / akwha- Latin: aqua, "water" palhV IE pelH- / phelH- Greek: polis, "city" na IE nes, nos English: us; Latin: nos wete IE wedh- / wed(h)- English: wed k'o IE kw(o/i)- / kwh(o/i)- English: who, what, other wh's; Latin: qu- t'uba IE dheub- / d(h)eup- English: deep wete IE wed- / wet- English: water, wet; Greek: hudor, hudr-, "water"; Russian: voda, "water"

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