Tracing the origin of languange

I’m fascinated by language.  Today’s New York Times discusses an article published in Science on the evolutionary starting point of language and the scientific methods employed to resolve the debate. The postulated precursor-language (“proto-Indo-European”) is the foundation from which Romance languages, English, Persian, and Hindi derived.

Hypothesis 1: The common precursor developed 4,000 years ago and spread across Eurasia as conquerors radiated outward as conquerors on chariots.  The evidence: there are common words for such things as “wheel,” “axle,” “harness-pole” and “to go or convey in a vehicle.”  Therefore, these things must have existed prior to the formation of the common language.

Hypothesis 2: The precursor’s origin traces back 9,000 years ago to an agricultural society from the area that is now Turkey.  The evidence (newly presented in “Science”): researchers looked at words (such as derivatives of ‘mother’) that are resistant to change.  Such words are similar across different languages.  Linguists looked at the subtle changes that occurred around 270 AD as Romance languages diverged from Latin.  They used this to extrapolate change rates for language and then used a computer algorithm to predict the migratory evolution of language and estimate the common language’s geographical and chronological origin.  The results supported this second hypothesis.

In my opinion (as a non-expert dilettante linguist, mind you), the evidence discussed for ‘hypothesis # 1’ is potentially explainable in that technology is often transported and introduced into a culture (as opposed to being developed de novo), in which case it tends to retain its nomenclature.  For example, the word for ‘television’ is preserved globally.  It seems plausible to me that upon the ‘invention’ of technologies that permitted easy mobility, the names of these inventions ‘stuck’ as they physically migrated and were introduced introduced into other cultures.

sources: Science 24 August 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6097 pp. 957-960 , DOI: 10.1126/science.1219669.   NY Times

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