Thursday, October 10, 2013

And the Whole Earth Was of One Language, and of One Speech

The study of text ultimately includes the study of language, which in turn will include the study of language's history: how did human language come to be? Reading a text, whether in its original language or in translation, will inevitably engage us in the history of language if we read carefully enough. Even something as familiar as "Fourscore and seven years ago" incites us to consider how numbers are relayed through language, and the history and variety of patterns which languages use to transmit numbers.

Linguists generally agree that all human languages are related, descending from one common ancestor. About the universal family tree of all languages, however, further agreement eludes us. There is little consensus, for example, about where or when that one primordial language was spoken, or about its vocabulary or grammatical features. Most controversially, one group of linguists term that primeval language 'Nostratic' and attempt to trace all, or at least most, known languages back to a proto-Nostratic source.

Even among Nostratic theorists, there is not complete consensus; they are far from monolithic in their understanding of language development, and the more cautious among them restrain their claims.

Far less controversial, and in fact uncontested, are the understanding of the sub-families which claim to be parents, not of all or most human languages, but of defined subgroups. The history of Semitic languages, for example, is accepted among academics and tells us that Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic Ge'ez, Babylonian, Assyrian, and other languages of the Ancient Near East arose from a common root.

Also widely recognized is the understanding of a group of languages known as Indo-European. Scientists have shown that languages from Sanskrit to English, from Russian to Persian, and from Latin to Greek, are all related in a family which includes German, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Dutch, Flemish, and others. Linguist William Bennett writes:

Indo-European, the common ancestor of most European and some Asiatic languages, has left no written records, nor have its first descendants. At an early period, probably before 2500 B.C., the speech of the Indo-European tribal communities had already become divergent, subsequently developing into parent forms of Indo-Iranian, Greek, Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Armenian, etc.; these in turn were to break up in preliterate times, leaving groups and subgroups of descendant Indo-European languages.

Of special interest to speakers of English is the Germanic group, from which English descended. Both the grammar and the vocabulary of English are largely Germanic, as can be seen by a list of common German/English pairs: Apfel/Apple, Bäckerei/Bakery, Trink/Drink, Tür/Door, Kuh/Cow, Kalb/Calf, Bulle/Bull, Bring/Bring, Brust/Breast, Brot/Bread, Buch/Book, Blau/Blue, Blut/Blood, Band/Band, Ellbogen/Elbow, Finger/Finger, Feuer/Fire, Fisch/Fish, Faust/Fist, Flasche/Flask, Flotte/Fleet, Fleisch/Flesh, and Flur/Floor. Hundreds of other examples can be listed.

Proto-Germanic, the common parent of the Germanic group, had broken up into several dialects before the beginning of our era. Among these was Pre-Gothic, the immediate ancestor of the Gothic language. The essential features of Pre-Gothic, like those of Proto-Germanic and Indo-European, can be determined only through reconstruction.

With painstaking linguistic research, scientists can reconstruct those languages of which we have no written evidence. Knowing, for example, that Danish, Icelandic, Swedish, and Norwegian have a common ancestor, the common features of those languages guide linguists as they work backward to the unattested source language.

As mentioned, while Indo-European linguistic history is relatively undisputed, Nostratic theory is quite contested. According to Robert Wright,

A basic tenet of Nostratics is that Western comparative linguists, in classifying the world's languages and thus tracing their historical lineage, have been too timid. Western linguists, by virtual consensus, consider the largest language family in Eurasia to be Indo-European, which encompasses the languages native to most of Europe and to a stretch of land extending southeast through Iran and India. What this means in historical terms is that all these languages, from English to Bengali, are descended from a single language, "proto-Indo-European," thought to have been spoken at least 5,000 years ago. So far so good, the Nostraticists say. But they then go further and ask the next logical questions: From what language did proto-Indo-European descend, and what other modern language families, if any, are also descended from the proto-proto-language? Most Indo-Europeanists shy away from these questions, citing a lack of evidence.

Just as Indo-European gave birth to several daughter groups - Germanic, Slavic, etc. - so Nostratic had several daughter groups, of which Indo-European is one. The other linguistic children, according to Nostratic theory, were an Afro-Asiatic group which included Semitic, Berber, and Cush; a Kartvelian group which includes Georgian; a Dravidian group which includes Tamil; a Uralic group including Finnish and Hungarian; and an Altaic group including Turkish. In some versions of the hypothesis, the Altaic group includes Japanese or Korean.

Nostraticists are not known for shying away from questions. According to classic Nostratic doctrine, the Indo-European language family is only one of six branches of a much larger family. This "superfamily" - the Nostratic family - extends to the south, covering languages of northern Africa and the Middle East (and languages of India unaccounted for by Indo-European), and well to the north and east, covering scores of languages from Finland through Siberia all the way to Korea and Japan. The idea is that all these languages are offshoots of the proto-Nostratic tongue, spoken by a people who lived more than 10,000 years ago. Nostraticists, through the arcane detective work that is a primary pastime of comparative linguists, have reconstructed this language. They have compiled a dictionary containing hundreds of proto-Nostratic words, modeled after the proto-Indo-European dictionaries that have long been accepted in the West as standard reference works.

In addition to being controversial, some aspects of the Nostratic hypothesis are still undergoing refinement in light of ongoing research. Bringing all known human languages, including those of the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, into a single family tree of linguistic development is a daunting task. Persuading skeptical colleagues about the accuracy of such reconstructions is even more difficult. The debate, in any case, rages and will continue for decades.