EHL Linguists try to identify a time where there was only one language

I don’t know why this is the way it is, but linguistic anthropology seems to make it into my RSS headlines far less than any other sub discipline within anthropology. It is a very active field, with a lot of interesting research available for us to digest and learn from.  So I don’t know why it isn’t all over the press and in our blogs… but maybe I can help change that.

New news has come out about the work of a multidisciplinary team of linguists and scientists at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. I’m hoping it may spark some discussion amongst us. Paraphrased from this USA Today article, these people are working toward finding and reconstructing the mother of all languages.

“Headed by Nobel Laureate physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the international Evolution of Human Languages (EHL) project is developing a freely accessible etymological database of the world’s languages. Where possible, EHL linguists are attempting to reconstruct – and then compare – ancestor languages, moving ever closer to the first human language. Viewed by many linguists as a fringe movement, the project has attracted much criticism. Many linguists say that historical languages cannot be studied beyond an 8,000-year threshold; they change too much, they say. Some take issue with the project’s methods: A few words shared among reconstructed languages doesn’t prove a familial relationship, they insist, especially far back in time.”

I’ve bolded what I consider the heavy hitting clauses. Many languages are organized and categorized by the similarities they have with other languages. This shouldn’t be news to you… I hope we all understand that Latin based languages, like Spanish, Italian, and French share more in common than Spanish to Mandarin.

But what the paragraph addresses is that the rate of change in language is pretty phenomenal. Almost too rapid, dynamic, and organic to track effectively. Don’t believe me? Well, take Ebonics for example. This is a form of speaking derived from English. While the exact date Ebonics originated from haven’t been identified, some say it came from Pigdin during the slave trades in the 16th to 19th centuries, many of us recognize Ebonics fully catalyzed after the emergence of hip-hop and other subcultures in the late 1970’s and 80’s. Whatever the date it originated, many non-Ebonics speaking English speakers cannot understand Ebonics. It has come about far too quickly for culture to adapt too. To them it is like another language… so how can one say languages are related when they are by nature so prone to change?

The EHL has devised a way to discern relations between languages despite the overwhelming amount of change,

“Within languages, linguists think that because certain words – including the pronoun “we” and the number “one” – form the basis of a functional language, they are much less likely to change or be lost. EHL linguists begin by comparing this “basic lexicon.” They include “words that are thoroughly essential and must have been in human language before significant cultural advances were made,” writes EHL team member George Starostin, a linguist at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, in an e-mail.

Using this method, EHL has grouped all the world’s languages into 12 linguistic superfamilies. They’ve tentatively grouped four of these superfamilies, which include languages of Eurasia, North Africa, and some Pacific islands (and maybe languages of the Americas as well) into one super-superfamily dubbed “Borean.” An ancestor to a large share of today’s languages, Borean was spoken some 16,000 years ago when glaciers covered much of Europe and North America, they say.

EHL linguists use several methods. One – the most controversial, but not the most widely used, says Starostin – involves matching words and meanings across languages. For example, Ruhlen and Bengtson have noticed that a word roughly corresponding to “water,” which they render in proto-sapiens as “AQWA,” appears in many languages. In Latin it’s “aqua”; in Japanese, “aka” means “bilge water”; in Chechen, meanwhile, “aq” means “to suck”; in an African Kung dialect, “kau” means “to rain”; and in Central American Yucatec, “uk” means “to be thirsty.”

Genetic evidence indicates we originated from a population of humans no larger than 1,000 or so in number about 60,000 years ago. And so, the further one moves back in time, the EHL hypothesizes the more related languages should resemble one another… This small founding population may explain how the capacity for language spread so quickly.

The methodology the EHL has deployed has fired up a lot of debates, many say that it is far too common to find words that are similar to one another across languages, and that the EHL is too,

“loose with meanings and sounds, they say. And too many alternate explanations exist: Maybe the word was borrowed from one language and spread to the others. Perhaps it’s onomatopoetic, a word that sounds like what it is. (“Cock-a-doodle-doo” is an onomatopoetic word that appears in similar form in many languages, but that doesn’t prove relation.) Finally, the shorter the word – in some of the languages, just one syllable rather than two or three – the greater the possibility of a chance match.”

But I can’t think of any other way to study language relations and evolution. Can you?

Regardless of their methodology, I think what the EHL is doing is noble and very astute. Just as important as it is for us to identify the genes, archaeology, and fossils that ‘made us human,’ it is equally important to figure out the roots of our language — one of the primary forms of communication and expressions in humans.

4 thoughts on “EHL Linguists try to identify a time where there was only one language

  1. Very interesting post, Kambiz – very difficult to know for sure how to research exactly what words were being spoken millennia ago.

    But I don’t agree that language evolved with EMH at 60k bp – or that there was one original language that splintered into many as a result of OoA – I think people were speaking for hundreds of thousands of years before that, and that there were many micro languages spoken regionally – transmission of a single language between many isolated groups of archaic humans would have been nigh impossible, but nothing to stop regions having their own languages and dialects etc.

    I also think that language evolved more than once in different parts of the world, such as Asia as well as Africa, back in the Lower Palaeolithic – anyway thanks for the link, something definitely worth looking into in greater detail, imo.


  2. Thanks for sharing your ideas, I’m a bit cautious too about the EHL’s methodology. I tried my best to phrase the sentences with the tone that those are ideas held by the EHL… for all I know they could be wrong or right, but what I appreciate is that they are trying.

    Your thoughts on micro languages are dead on. As it is in Africa right now there are thousands of regional languages and dialects which ultimately spawned off others. It could be very probable that this was the case hundreds of thousands of years ago as well. But one thing the EHL drives home is that throughout human prehistory there have been population bottlenecks. During these times, populations dwindled in size and languages theoretically will become more consolidated as well as other cultural entities, such as technology, art, music, etc.

    What the EHL is doing is trying to find a point where languages were more similar than different. Seems very difficult, even impossible… but again they are trying. I appreciate the effort, furthermore, I appreciate their website and the data they have made public. It’s pretty interesting, well organized, and sets an example for other fields of academics to make their data available. That is very commendable and shows their willingness to be open.

    What I want to ask and open this thread up to, is how can we study languages in any other method than how the EHL is doing it? We’ve addressed some of the pitfalls… so are there other ways of studying language evolution? Is it possible? Any ideas?

  3. “But I can’t think of any other way to study language relations and evolution. Can you?”

    Yes, the EHL linguists are correct in confining themselves to basic vocabulary (pronouns, numbers, function words, body-part names, and so on and so forth), however their methodology is not strict enough and can hardly be called scientific.

    For instance, Greek and Hawaiian are not related. A thorough analysis of their grammar will make this quite clear. However, they do (by shear chance) share a number of common forms: ‘meli’ means honey in both languages and ‘aeto’ and ‘aetos’ each mean ‘eagle’ in Hawaiian and Greek, respectively. There is a great and impressive list of comparable and exact forms like those above and, by EHL’s methods (often called mass comparison, but renamed as “multilateral comparison” by Joseph Greenberg), we might suspect a genetic link between the two.

    What we need to stress, rather than [possibly and often likely chance] resemblances, are systematic correspondences. For instance, examine these correspondences between English, Latin, and Greek:

    father, pater, pater.
    foot, ped-, pod-.
    for, pro, para.

    None of the English forms share a great resemblance to either Latin or Greek, but a larger study of both vocabulary and other Germanic languages reveals what is known as the First Germanic Consonant Shift.

    Among other things, Proto-Indo-European [p] underwent lenition and became Proto-Germanic [f] (probably first via a transition to an aspirated unvoiced bilabial plosive [pʰ] and then to the fricative, but this is in question).

    There is a lack of resemblance, but there is a systematic, statistically proven correspondence. Via this method, commonly known as the comparative method, we can reconstruct languages back 6,000-8,000 years, but beyond that, any semblance of genetic relation becomes clouded by the background noise of chance resemblances.

    To attempt to identify a single linguistic ancestor of all the world’s languages and with that, to ignorantly assume that all of these languages descend from only one proto-language is at best unscientific and is at worst [the more likely candidate] brash foolishness.

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