Proto-World Language

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by sokol, Nov 27, 2007.

  1. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Split off from this thread.
    Frank
    Moderator EHL

    It would be almost impossible to achieve that.

    Anyway, if one would ever want to prove that there was indeed a kind of Proto-World language then the two words 'father' and 'mother' never would suffice: there should be at least a dozen words, or more (as many as possible), to convince any linguist.
    Me, I'm not convinced at all, I'm just discussing the probability and what would have to do to prove something ...

    To prove this, for example, one could take (say) 5 languages geographically and historically very far apart - no linguist ever could manage a comparison on this scale for 20 or even more languages.
    If one were to believe that the Proto-World ever existed then it wouldn't matter too much which languages one would choose, but good choices would be:
    - one Indoeuropean language, if possible an older one which is very good documented and conservative in its syntax and morphology: Old Church Slavonic, Sanskrit or Greek would be candidates, Baltic languages too (as they are very archaic, even if we haven't got very much medieval texts)
    - another one could be a Khoisan-language, one of those with click sounds, spoken in the Kalahari; it's speakers supposedly are the oldest people of the african continent
    - if there exists a proper description of one of the Australian languages before the impact of the English colonisation hit, this would be a preferable candidate, too; alternatively, an aboriginal language of New Guinea would do as well
    - the best documented American Indian language should be included, too; but not Kechua or Nahuatl as these were already 'imperial' languages in Pre-Colombian times and might already have been the result of a certain language mixing
    - it would be nice to include Chinese, but probably difficult because it is not easy to construct language history if the language is written in sign language; probably a Mongolian or Turkish language would be better

    One, then, only would have to prove that the most basic words, ideas and concepts which do not change with region (fauna & flora) and lifestyle (tribes vs. feudalism vs. modern world), go back to the same roots.
    But even this most certainly would be an almost impossible task.
     
  2. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi,

    Some extra sources:
    - A bit to my surprise, the Wiki-article on Proto-World Language summarises quite well the problems.
    - We can't leave this article, "Deriving Proto-World with tools you probably have at home", unmentioned.

    Groetjes,

    Frank
     
  3. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    The zompist.com-article really is great stuff, nicely written and all, thanks for that one!

    Yes, it is extremely unlikely for a Proto-World ever to be proved ... nevertheless, the first list concerning the 'milk'-'words' at zompist are chosen perfectly.
    Especially interesting are the reconstructed roots:
    - *mlg (Proto-Afro-Asiatic: in Semito-Hamitian languages there are 'roots' of three consonants rather than stems and the vocals determine the exact meaning of a word, so this would fit perfectly with Indoeuropean and others)
    - *melg (Proto-Indoeuropean; but there might be a closer connection between Proto-Afro-Asiatic and Proto-Indoeuropean: quite a number of linguistic elements indicate that these two groups might be really related to each other, although it is extremely difficult to find proof for that)
    - *mälke (Proto-Finno-Ugric: it is rather unlikely for this group to be related to both of the former ones, but it's not impossible as there are geographical connections)
    - melku (Tamil; now this is interesting; a pre-Aryan language of India, but then it could be not connected to Indoaryan languages or, alternatively, a loan)
    - *maliq'a (Proto-Amerind: this now really is interesting, don't mind the vowels, they are the easiest to change if language change is involved ...)

    The semantical range is extremely wide, true, but again this too is something quite common.

    Nevertheless, I am sure that one could find myriads of examples countering this similarities.
    And all in all, I'm still thinking that a Proto-World is just a nice concept on which to reflect from time to time is - well, nice, but I do not think that it's likely ever to prove this theory.

    Cheers, Herman
     
  4. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Another article highly relevant for the topic that I'd warmly recommend is C. Hitchcock, "Exactness and Pseudoexactness in Historical Linguistics", which is unfortunately not available for free online, unless you access the web from a university network that has a subscription to Springer's journals. It's very well written and readable even for a total non-expert like me.

    Among other things, the author provides some interesting analysis of the probability of random emergence of word lists such as the one cited above in unrelated languages. Interestingly, it turns out that some embarrassingly bad statistical arguments about this topic have been published not only by Greenberg and Ruhlen, but also by some of their overzealous critics. Still, the probability that random matches might end up generating highly suggestive lists of false cognates is much higher than one might think intuitively, or even with the help of some "obvious" (but wrong) simple probabilistic calculations.
     
  5. zpoludnia swiata Senior Member

    chile english, spanish, german
    It's a very interesting hypothesis but probable completely unverifiable, so any speculation is just speculation.
    However, when trying to look for roots, connections, making reconstructions, one must look just at sound changes, and vocabulary--i.e. etymology. Grammar and structure are notoriously changeable. It is conceivable that a language, or language along with its ancestral forms go through massive changes to its grammatical structure over a 2,000 or let alone 10,000+ year period. Just look at how much modern Romance languges are different from Latin. We know they are related basically due to etymology, and regular phonetic change. Their grammatical type is quite different.
    An interesting case for setting up parameters as to what is basic to human languages is an Amazonian language called "Piraha". A linguist named Dan Everett beleives that it undermines Noam Chomsky's idea of universal grammar. You can probably get to something via google. His idea is that Piraha's grammar is constrained by its cultural values which constrict it. For example, it seems to have no color terms, numbers above three, the simplest pronoun inventory known (and they are apparently borrowed), no embedding (no dependent clauses), very few words for time, absence of many kinship terms, absence of fiction and myths. What would this mean for the development of human language?
     
  6. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Yes, this most certainly is true.
    Therefore, I think especially the list above of roots very similar to each other is the approach that one would have to make here (meaning *mlg - *melg - *mälke - *maliq'a). But I am completely with you when you say that a Proto-World theory never could pass as 'proofed'. It would be extremely difficult even to attribute 'high probability' to it.

    Really it's more like a linguistic jigsaw puzzle one likes to play with. It's not the solution that counts. :)

    As for Piraha, Google found this of Dan Everett himself.
    Seems to be rather controversial ... however, don't matters to me if Dan Everett's view of the Piraha will ever be accepted (and he no longer seen as victim of a hoax) - me, I'm already convinced that there are certain flaws in Chomskys theories and that the search for a universal grammar will not work out like he and his followers would like. (Which does not necessarily mean that they won't succeed, eventually.)
    Or this (Source: Spiegel Online):
    Meaning: it's not as if they couldn't learn to count or paint or use subordinate clauses, it's just that in their culture this is not needed, therefore their language don't provides for it.
    It's not as if language determines (and limits) culture, but the other way round: culture limits language.

    An interesting point in itself.
     
  7. zpoludnia swiata Senior Member

    chile english, spanish, german
    Yes, of course it wasn't that they couldn't do these various human linguistic atributes, it's just that they chose not to. I read the complete study, and I know it is controversial. There's also a long article about it in the New Yorker, where they also talk to Everett's ex-wife, who also works with the Piraha. She has a few interesting theories of her own. There's a whole complex side to their language that has to do with intonation and prosody. Apparently, as small children their learn their language singing and humming it, entire words can be expressed just through humming, at least in that particular context. Still, it's just a case that shows that any "universal explanation" has to be very, very broad--a big, big tent. And, maybe we should never take certain things that seem intuitively correct to really be so.

    Yes, the whole culture-language debate or dichotomy reminds of the "art imitating life" or "life imitating art" dichotomy. Maybe they are false dichotomies...
     
  8. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    This reminds me: a social anthropologist name of Mary Douglas (if memory serves me right) once did a study on pygmies (? or some other tribal community in or near the upper Kongo region): they had a society living only for the day, they didn't have any family system but rather children stayed with their mother until they were old enough, whereas sexual relationships usually were not permanent - meaning, children usually did not know exactly who their father was; their mothers probably knew but didn't attribute any worth to fatherhood.

    Unfortunately, to my knowledge, she didn't write about their language. They'd certainly be candidates for a similar language.

    However, the case of the Piraha (and possible other tribes like that - if, that is, they're not a hoax, which I don't believe but let's be careful ...) ultimately would make it much more difficult to ever prove a Proto-World.

    I've looked a little bit at a longer article (googled) of the Author with actual sentences, and I don't see how these words ever could be connected to the know stems of great language families: the words contain very little consonants and many vowels - and with vowels it's very difficult to prove anything as they change much more easily than consonants.
    (It would be easier, of course, were there ancient documents of Piraha, for what we cannot hope.)
     
  9. Qcumber Senior Member

    UK English
    Never forget that all the languages spoken today are necessarily modern languages.
     
  10. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Something else concerning the Piraha which I hadn't thought of at first: it could very well be that their language is a creole. In pidginization (which happens before creolization), language structures like the extremely basic ones of Piraha could very well occur.

    (That even would save the Chomskyists, though this wasn't my intention. :D But it certainly would still not help proof Proto-World; this would only mean that one argument against Proto-World would be explained away.)

    It might very well be possible that the Piraha originated as a mixture of people left from a few villages from different language families destroyed through a natural event or intrusion of White People or even warfare between Indio villages, if such things do happen at all in the Amazon region. Such an event could have occured one hundred years ago, or even longer ago, and would have been lost to memory as the Piraha don't tell their children myths of the past - they only live in present tense.
     
  11. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    But creoles, unlike pidgins, don't lack syntactic embedding and other advanced syntactic features that are supposedly missing in Piraha. Creolization of a pidgin fills all of the gaps that separate it from a full-fledged natural language, and it takes place within a single generation. If Piraha came into being by creolization a century ago, it would be as complete as any other creole.

    I'm not a linguist, but common sense tells me that this whole Piraha business is highly suspect. I'm not saying it's a outright hoax, but it might well be a combination of author's self-deception due to his overeagerness to find spectacular results, the Piraha folks themselves pulling his leg, and just plain old misunderstandings, sloppiness, and misinterpretations.
     
  12. Lugubert Senior Member

    Göteborg
    Swedish
    At www.languagelog.com, there are several articles by very competent linguists on Pirahã and misunderstandings about it.
     
  13. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi,

    The digressions about Pirahã were interesting and enlightening, but we really have to focus again to the main topic of this thread, viz. Proto-World Language.

    Groetjes,

    Frank
    Moderator EHL
     

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