What was Grand-dad like? Or how much do we actually know about extinct parent languages?

November 3, 2011 by admin

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We know a surprising amount of detail about some languages that are extinct, and for which there are no written records. How is that possible, and how far can we push this reconstruction of extinct languages?

Reconstructing languages for which there is no record is made possible by the fact that languages (generally) do not simply disappear. They rather change gradually, and eventually become so different that they have to be considered separate languages. An obvious example is Latin, which is clearly still ‘alive’ in some way in its descendent languages, Italian, French, Spanish, etc.

When linguists started studying how languages change, initially mainly on the well-documented example of Latin and its derived languages, they realised that there are quite a lot of regularities in the changes. These changes include for example direction in which sounds (phonemes) change over time, but also the speed with which changes occur.

Armed with this knowledge, historical linguists then proceeded to try and extrapolate further back, beyond where written records started. Luckily, for Indo-European languages (a family that includes almost all languages of modern Europe, plus many Indian languages such as Punjabi and Urdu, as well as Persian), records go back at least 3500 years (for Mycenaean Greek and some Indo-Aryan languages). This, along with the substantial number of written historical languages, has allowed a fairly precise reconstruction of ‘Proto-Indo-European’, the common ancestor language, thought to have been spoken about seven to ten thousand years ago. This includes grammatical structure, core vocabulary and more.

Inter-disciplinary research has shown great promise in this area, suggesting for example the types of vegetation that must have been important in the ‘Urheimat’ (the original home) of that ancestor language.

Having thus found out all about Dad, the next logical was to try and learn about Grand-dad. The most ambitious form of this has been the quest for ‘Proto-World’ or ‘Proto-Human’, the ancestor language that all others may have derived from. This drive has been much encouraged by the much-discussed and still controversial work of Joseph Greenberg, who attempted to classify all the world’s languages into a small number of super-families.

Using a variety of techniques, such as mass comparison, linguists like Merritt Ruhlen have attempted to reconstruct ‘Proto-World’. The results have sharply divided linguists, with accusations ranging from populism to sloppiness.

What makes this work so controversial is closely related to the factors that helped with reconstructing Proto-Indo-European, or rather the absence of these factors. The reconstruction is done on the basis of, well, reconstructions of later ancestor-languages, many of which were done on much slimmer and more tentative historical evidence than Proto-Indo-European.  Going back even further from there, the signal-to-noise ratio is bound to deteriorate more and more, and it is at least questionable whether the results can be trusted.

Some of this incertitude can already be gauged from the estimates that are given in the different studies of the time when Proto-Human was supposed to have been spoken, which range from 50,000 to 200,000 years ago. However attractive therefore the idea of finding out about Grand-dad may be, it may well prove to be too ambitious a task.

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