Kiitos, Kalevi!
June 15, 2004 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Europe's oldest language? Kalevi Wiik makes the argument that most of Europe may have spoken a proto Finno-Ugric language before the appearance of Indo-European speakers in the region. It's still controversial a few years after the paper was published (and likely always will be).

Modern European derivitives of the language in question are Hungarian, the Ugric branch's sole representative in Europe, (although it has relatives in central Asia), as well as the Finnic Finnish, Estonian, Karelian (which is considered by some to be a dialect of Finnish and not a separate language), Izhora and Veps (which are both disputed in language v. dialect and are nearly dead), Vod (which is dead), Liv (which is dead and doesn't Google well), and the Saami languages, which have about 10 dialects and a sufficiently different grammar and lexicon that it gets the "strange cousin" title.
posted by Mayor Curley (58 comments total)

 


This is a great post!
posted by homunculus at 3:30 PM on June 15, 2004


As they interact with different cultures, many languages tend to simplify their grammar and creolize, decomplexifying and collapsing inflexions and tenses, becoming less agglutinative and more prepositional. This has happened with both English (partially) and Chinese (almost totally). This has most definitely not happened with Finnish grammar, and in fact even the meaning of the term "Finn" is a source of much debate.
Sweden Finns (Ruotsinsuomalaiset in Finnish, Sverigefinnarna in Swedish) are a Finnish speaking minority in Sweden. The Sweden Finns are not to be confused with the Swedish speaking Finland-Swedes in Finland.
Some estimates put the core Finno-Ugric vocabulary surviving in Finnish at only around 300 word roots! Some investigators believe that at extreme time-depth there is evidence of contact with the Dravidian language group.
posted by meehawl at 3:35 PM on June 15, 2004


I'd like to take a moment to mention how kickass the Wikipedia is; I went from wondering what "Dravidian" is/ was to knowing in a few seconds. And now I'll lose about three hours following the links in there. Thanks.
posted by yerfatma at 3:55 PM on June 15, 2004


But how do you say, in this ancient tongue, "There's an axe in my head" ?
posted by troutfishing at 3:55 PM on June 15, 2004


A delightful post! My only quibble:

Liv (which is dead and doesn't Google well)

It may or may not be dead (there were 15 to 20 active speakers in 1995), but it doesn't google well because you're using a variant of the usual name, Livonian (the Livonians)—but you could have found Liv if you'd searched Ethnologue, which I recommend to anyone interested in a language.
*smites Da Mayah with google-fu*

But:

Korean is a Ural-Altaic language and is related to Japanese and remotely related to Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and Mongolian.

This is an extremely dubious hypothesis and should be presented as such.
*smites meehawl with Occam's Razor*
posted by languagehat at 4:04 PM on June 15, 2004


This is an extremely dubious hypothesis and should be presented as such

This is Metafilter:

Nothing is true, everything is permissible.

Actually, pretty much everything about theories concerning ancient proto languages is up for debate.
The Uralic languages are a family of about 20 related languages spoken by circa 20 million people in eastern and northern Europe and in northwestern Asia. The best known members belong to the Finno-Ugric subfamily. The other subfamily is called Samoyedic ... There is some debate about a possible relationship between the family as a whole and the Altaic languages; a few scholars also consider the Uralic languages to be related to the Indo-European languages, see also Nostratic language.
I think that language research undertaken in isolation and comparing similarities between spoken languages as they exist in current forms or recently recorded forms is open to as much falsehood and ahistorical fabulation as, say, evaluating evolutionary patterns in biology using morphology was before cladistics fused genetics, biochemistry, and morphology to provide a "360-degree" view of the evolution of an organism.

Much work needs to be done to unify language studies, evolutionary genetics, ethnographic research, and archeology to provide more definitive theories of early human migration.

I think in particular that near-ocean archeology has a lot to offer. Much human migration occurred millenia ago along now-submerged coastlines when the sea level in some places was up to several hundred metres lower than today. Thus many, many, many of the best potential sites to learn about early human migrations are submerged, undiscovered, and unexplored.
posted by meehawl at 4:41 PM on June 15, 2004


I am currently reading The Journey Of Man: A Genetic Odyssey by Spencer Wells which is one of the best books I have read in years. It basically is a survey of the current state of the art in our knowledge of human dispersal around the globe using DNA. There is a chapter on Language and how combining tracing Language with what we know about DNA we can come to some conclusions about how and when people migrated into Europe and the dispersal of language.

There are two ways for languages to disperse. Either an entire people moves bringing the language with them, or the language becomes native but the people don't change. In Europe the people have been there since day 1 (about 30,000 years ago) so there was no displacement. The opposite thing happened in Asia but thats another story.

The PIE language is one based heavily on farming. And we know Europeans did not take up farming until recently so what were they speaking before that in the Hunter/Gatherer period? The prevailing theory is it was a language that originated with the original people who came out of Africa 60,000 years ago and went north into the Caucuses and then from there dispersed both east and later to the west. This would explain the connections between Korea and Finland for example, it was the same people who came out of Central Russia. Through DNA evidence we know for certain this is how people migrated into Europe and Asia (there were two migrations into Asia the northern Russia route being the later one).

What is amazing is, we know for certain now so many things that 20 years ago we had no idea and was all theory. DNA provides the hard evidence. Highly recommend the book it is a short read but will change your perspective with a conceptual map of when and where people populated the planet.

The other thing this books shows is how Climate change has been the number one factor (other than intelligence) in human evolution and global dispersal over the past 60,000 years. It determined when and where people left Africa, the routes they took, the forced cultural changes, everything. Climate change is at the root of it all and we have the DNA evidence backed up with the climatic evidence to piece it all together.
posted by stbalbach at 4:43 PM on June 15, 2004


From a review of your book:
Around 60,000 years ago, a man--identical to us in all important respects--lived in Africa. Every person alive today is descended from him. How did this real-life Adam wind up father of us all?
Stand aside, Ron Jeremy!

In Europe the people have been there since day 1 (about 30,000 years ago) so there was no displacement.

It is a curious thing that because today through mechanization we see extra humans as "surplus" to requirements, we have become so efficient at genocide.

In earlier agricultural and pre-agricultural cultures without the benefits of fossil fuel economies, human labour was valuable. People were a resource. The idea of genocide and population replacement, even if possible to implement, just made very bad business sense. So indeed, while cultural migration seems to have taken place incredibly quickly (probably through the imposition of new rulers, priests, and storytellers), population transfer seems not to have taken place but instead only the replacement or co-option of old ruling elites by new elites.

And of course there's also the ineffable horndoginess of people. Even within extremely endogamous, monogamous cultures genetic testing reveals that a great many people possess male-derived DNA from ancestors that are not "officially" in their family tree.
posted by meehawl at 5:34 PM on June 15, 2004


The PIE language is one based heavily on farming. And we know Europeans did not take up farming until recently so what were they speaking before that in the Hunter/Gatherer period?

This is a non sequitur. You might as well say "The English language is one based heavily on electronics. And we know English speakers did not take up electronics until recently so what were they speaking before that in the Mechanical period?" Obviously, as whoever was speaking PIE learned farming, they could perfectly well have borrowed or invented the necessary terminology. This is why attempts to localize PIE by drawing maps of where birch trees are found are pointless; they could have had the word with a different meaning before they moved to an area with birch trees.

Language is not (necessarily) correlated with anything else: DNA, culture, anything. But people get frustrated with the available evidence, so they squeeze it harder than it warrants. I sympathize, but I don't agree.
posted by languagehat at 5:41 PM on June 15, 2004


Small, pedantic point: the Ugric branch's sole representative in Europe...in my understanding, Finland - and indeed all of Scandinavia - are a part of Europe.
posted by dash_slot- at 5:58 PM on June 15, 2004


Excellent post, and right up my amateur-linguist alley. [/cheerleader]

Although dialects exist, the Korean spoken throughout the peninsula is mutually comprehensible.

This is true, but just barely in the case of Jeju-do, the large island off the southeast coast. The structural similarities between Japanese and Korean (and the structural differences between those languages and Chinese, even though it is estimated that over 60% of Korean nouns are in fact Chinese loanwords (although there are often little-used native Korean equivalents)) is very interesting stuff.

I'll dig in more to this post later. Gotta run, but thanks.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:00 PM on June 15, 2004


Small, pedantic point: the Ugric branch's sole representative in Europe...in my understanding, Finland - and indeed all of Scandinavia - are a part of Europe.

The distinction, dash_slot, is that the Finno-Ugric family is broken into two distinct sub-families. The Ugric sub-family contains Hungarian, Mordvin, and a few other languages, but it doesn't contain Finnish, Estonian, et. al. They're the "Finno" in "Finno-Ugric."

Yeah, I know-- the sentences in the post are hard to parse. That's my fault. I couldn't afford to spend any more time on it.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:23 PM on June 15, 2004


Thanks for the update, languagehat! I knew that I should have dug deeper.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:27 PM on June 15, 2004


Languagehat, re: the relationship between DNA trees and language trees Luca Cavalli-Sforza in 1988 decided to test the hypothesis directly. He examined genetic data from 42 populations and drew a tree of their relationships. This tree corresponded with linguistic relationships. For example speakers of Indo-European languages grouped together in the genetic tree while speakers of Bantu in Africa grouped together. One can indeed make correlations between DNA and language the more interesting details of which (in relation to the spread of PIE in Europe) are too much to get into here but can be found in the book referenced above.
posted by stbalbach at 6:55 PM on June 15, 2004


Thanks for the update, languagehat!

Don't kiss his ass, have some sort of linguistic battle. Two for tongue twisting, perhaps?
posted by yerfatma at 6:56 PM on June 15, 2004


Love posts like this. Thanks, thanks, thanks.
posted by blucevalo at 7:25 PM on June 15, 2004


now to determine the origin of Sino-Tibetan
posted by firestorm at 7:56 PM on June 15, 2004


language v. dialect

This is an entirely artificial distinction.

A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un a flot.
posted by oaf at 8:27 PM on June 15, 2004


Whoops, forgot to attribute that quote to Max Weinreich.
posted by oaf at 8:30 PM on June 15, 2004


Europe's oldest language?

So, what is Basque--chopped liver? This is all very interesting, nonetheless. And languagehat--I'm shocked! shocked! to see you here!
posted by y2karl at 11:15 PM on June 15, 2004


Does anyone know for sure about Basque? I mean, it might be chopped liver for all anyone knows for certain. I've heard that it's related to Berber (and also that it isn't.)
posted by jfuller at 5:15 AM on June 16, 2004


I feel edified. Plus, I have a book to add to my (must!) reading list. The Journey Of Man: A Genetic Odyssey.
posted by troutfishing at 6:13 AM on June 16, 2004


In other words - a great post and discussion, everyone.
posted by troutfishing at 6:14 AM on June 16, 2004


Does anyone know for sure about Basque?

No one does. It seems to be a true isolate. Every once in a while, someone comes up with a wild theory about relatives of Basque that owe their similarities purely to coincidence and innate structure of language. The craziest one I ever heard expounded was Georgian as a distant relative.

A few folks maintain that Basque is the language of the cro-magnons, and I like it just for the romantic notions because it's pretty much unprovable.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:27 AM on June 16, 2004


stbalbach: I've read Cavalli-Sforza, and he's done remarkable work. But you can only correlate DNA and languages when you already know the history. You cannot use DNA to replace language comparison. Its evidence is suggestive but doesn't prove anything.

Does anyone know for sure about Basque?

No, but they sure love speculating. People often try to relate it to Sumerian because, hey, they're both unrelated to other languages, so they must be related to each other! Basque is almost certainly the only remaining member of a family of languages of unknown extent that was displaced by the arrival of the Celts, and that's all you can say about its history.

As for the "oldest language," ain't no such thing. All languages are equally old (not counting creoles and artificial languages); they all go back in unbroken lines to Proto-World (assuming for the sake of argument there was only one original language). The chronological divisions are purely arbitrary: "English" and "Middle English" and "Old English" and "Proto-Germanic" and "Proto-Indo-European" are just labels we give to different slices of the same developing language. The difference between English and Old English is precisely comparable to that between French and Vulgar Latin; we think of the former as "closer" than the latter because we use the same word, "English," for both; the Greeks are able to tell themselves they speak the same language as Sophocles and those guys because it's all called "Greek." But each has changed at more or less the same rate as the centuries pass.

Each generation speaks the same language as the ones before and after it; no one ever said "I speak Latin, but my kids speak French." So if you follow each chain back (English through Germanic to PIE and on back, Arabic through South Semitic to Proto-Semitic, Hawaiian through Polynesian to Austronesian, &c) it's continuous and leads back to the same original tongue. The fact that we lose track of them, that some only appear in the record at one point (Elamite, say), that we can't trace relations in many cases, is irrelevant. Basque is no older than English; they just took different routes to get where they are today.

(There's a Wordorigins thread on the topic, with some interesting links.)
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on June 16, 2004


But each [language] has changed at more or less the same rate as the centuries pass.—languagehat
That rate of change for all languages is very close to a constant is a crucial assumption for the "no language is older than any other" argument. I'm not a linguist, and I don't even pretend to be a lay enthusiast, but I've not seen a convincing defense of this assumption. In particular, it would need to prove either that a) there is no viable cultural process of language conservation; or b) if there is, no culture where an extent contemporary language has ever been indigenous has exhibited such a process. Also, I'd like a (more) complete description of the mechanism for the assumed constant rate of language change.

Intuition tells me that, as is the case with several things in linguistics, "no language is older than another" is an overcorrection to a prior, certainly false, ideology and has itself become something of an ideology not supported by empiricism.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:33 AM on June 16, 2004


The difference between English and Old English is precisely comparable to that between French and Vulgar Latin

I think the jump from Vulgar Latin and Old French happened more quickly than, say, Old English->Middle English.

It semes that in the blink of an eye (well, a couple of generations) the Gallo-Romans of Southern France hybridized with the Franks from the north. When the 7th century begins the Gallo-Romans are speaking VL and thinking/speaking in Latin cultures and norms. Then by 675 they are suddenly all speaking and thinking in Old French. It's an amazingly rapid transformation.

Which goes back to an earlier point. Language change is sometimes so rapid, ephemeral, and unpredictable. Except for minor admixture, the populations of Franks and Gallo-Romans hardly mixed except along a borderline. Howere, both their languages changed rapidly, and for the Gallo-Romans this change was profound.

So it would be difficult to correlate DNA records with language change in this case. Languages are unfixed, and fleeting, and their rate of change is punctuated and far from constant but exquisitely sensitive to external events, many of which become opaque or hidden to later obervers.
posted by meehawl at 8:57 AM on June 16, 2004


It semes that in the blink of an eye (well, a couple of generations) the Gallo-Romans of Southern France hybridized with the Franks from the north. When the 7th century begins the Gallo-Romans are speaking VL and thinking/speaking in Latin cultures and norms. Then by 675 they are suddenly all speaking and thinking in Old French. It's an amazingly rapid transformation.

Wow, is that so?
Other than conquest, what events and/or mechanisms can explain that?
posted by dash_slot- at 9:46 AM on June 16, 2004


But how do you say, in this ancient tongue, "There's an axe in my head" ?

Miulla on kirves päässäin...
posted by hoskala at 9:59 AM on June 16, 2004


That rate of change for all languages is very close to a constant is a crucial assumption for the "no language is older than any other" argument.

No it's not; in fact, it's completely irrelevant to it. Languages could change at wildly different rates and none would be any older than the others. Isn't that obvious?

However, my "very close to a constant" is probably either overstatement or taking the very long view. Over a few centuries, the rate of change will slow and speed up depending on various much-debated factors.
posted by languagehat at 10:25 AM on June 16, 2004


"No it's not; in fact, it's completely irrelevant to it. Languages could change at wildly different rates and none would be any older than the others. Isn't that obvious?"—languagehat
Not to me, I must be missing something.

If the rate of change for a language could be halted entirely for a thousand years, while for others it is not, then how could one deny that that language is older than the others in exactly the sense that people are assuming when they wonder if one language is older than another?

Ah, I suppose that your argument is that languages don't have a birthdate; so, since you can't calculate their age from birth, one cannot be compared to another in terms of age. Oddly enough, we actually have this problem with people, too, since the argument about when someone came to be is, in our society, in contention. Nevertheless, we don't have much trouble picking some arbitrary dividing line to use as a marker for determining relative ages which describe, without a doubt, real distinctions. Some people, whether we can exactly determine their "birth date" or not, are older than others.

And, at any rate, there are exceptions to the rule. ASL has (relatively speaking, of course) a birth date in exactly the sense you are denying all other languages. It's younger than English in a meaningful, demonstrable sense.

This assertion that no language is or can be "older" or "younger" than another is reflexive dogma, intended to defuse a once-common folk linguistics that fueled cultural chauvinism and other smelly beasts. I understand that. It's also a strong overstatement that asserts a principle that doesn't exist and a fact about reality that isn't nearly that true.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:29 AM on June 16, 2004


No it's not; in fact, it's completely irrelevant to it. Languages could change at wildly different rates and none would be any older than the others. Isn't that obvious?

I think it's pretty clear that a language like Icelandic — according to the Icelandic government's travel guide, "a twelfth-century text is still easy to read for a modern Icelander" — is "older," in a meaningful sense, than English, where a highly literate native speaker can only really read back to the 15th century or so.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 12:35 PM on June 16, 2004


And, at any rate, there are exceptions to the rule. ASL has (relatively speaking, of course) a birth date in exactly the sense you are denying all other languages. It's younger than English in a meaningful, demonstrable sense.

languagehat covered that when he said "not counting ... artifical languages." Way to nitpick (and I expect you'll do some more and dispute the unique quality of modern sign languages versus oral language).

Anyway, the point that you're not getting is that all oral languages come from a common source. The pharangeal structure of all modern humans are capable of making the same sounds because our ancestors all made the same sounds. If you accept that homo sapiens came to be in one place and dispersed across the globe, then you by default accept that all human languages have one common ancestor as well. Because we had evolved to accomodate speech and were doing it before we left the valley in africa.

If you're "not a linguist, and don't even pretend to be a lay enthusiast," then why are you arguing anyway?
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:08 PM on June 16, 2004


The pharangeal structure of all modern humans are capable of making the same sounds because our ancestors all made the same sounds. If you accept that homo sapiens came to be in one place and dispersed across the globe, then you by default accept that all human languages have one common ancestor as well.

Nope. Doesn't necessarily follow.

You're right, I will: ASL is not an "artificial language". That doesn't mean that it's not different than oral languages in some sense, but it's not different the way that artificial languages are different. And no one disputes that it's a language; while, in fact, pretty much everyone agrees that an "artificial language" isn't really (or fully) a "language" in the technical, linguistic sense.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:46 PM on June 16, 2004


Nope. Doesn't necessarily follow.

So you're suggesting that the first humans dispersed without language despite the physiological evidence to the contrary, or are you saying that humans somehow spontaneously evolved in several different areas of the world despite the genetic evidence to the contrary?

ASL is not an "artificial language"

Tell that to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who created the first grammar for it and taught it to deaf children. Certainly, it had origins in a natural French sign language, but Esperanto has roots in the IE languages of Europe.

Whatever you do, don't admit that you're wrong. Pick another small point of contention and run off with that, because eventually I'll get bored and you'll feel like you won.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:16 PM on June 16, 2004


To the first, I'm saying neither. There's a logical fallacy in your argument. Some primal languages could have arisen independently.

To the second, I say that ASL is not equivalent to Galludet's "language". And Esperanto is not fully a language in the sense that ASL is. Esperanto is artificial, ASL is not. There has never been a native speaking Esperanto culture.

Whatever. We're wasting each other's time and you're trying to bait me. It's not a dick-swinging opportunity for me, but it seems to be for you.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:46 PM on June 16, 2004


Some primal languages could have arisen independently.

Would you frigging elaborate? How? (Leprechauns stole the perfectly good language that a group had and they made a new one from scratch? Anything. Just tell me why bodily structures specific to the facilitation of language would develop and not be used for a few thousand years.)

To the second, I say that ASL is not equivalent to Galludet's "language" ... and Esperanto is not fully a language in the sense that ASL is. Esperanto is artificial, ASL is not. There has never been a native speaking Esperanto culture.

You're welcome to say it. Just tell me why. You seem to be saying (despite the fact that you're not even an interested layman) that if an artificial language was adopted to the level of having native speakers that it ceases to be artificial in origin.

We're wasting each other's time and you're trying to bait me.

I'm trying to get you to substantiate the arguments that you made for the sake of arguing. And if a real-life Cliff Claven saunters into a discussion and takes an opposing view to show how he can take on something that he admits to not caring about, of course I'm going to bait him.

You're not substantiating, you're just contradicting. I've offered constructive opposition, but if we're going to argue your way, then "YES IT IS! INFINITY!"
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:19 PM on June 16, 2004


Other than conquest, what events and/or mechanisms can explain that?

The coolness factor.

During the last couple of centuries of the Western Roman Empire all things Germanic became increasingly "cool". Instead of Latinate patronymics, Romans in the 5th century began to increasingly add Latinised versions of Germanic names such as Bertram ("Shining Crow" I believe) and Bernard ("Strong Bear"). German fashion even became cool, with less of the classic togas and more of the German leather clothing. As a reaction, many Roman polities passed laws mandating compulsory toga and classical garb wearing during political debates or civic activity.

Plus there was the increasing economic decay within Rome. Small holdings became increasingly collectivised into large slave-farmed holdings, and the profits extracted fromthe local border communities and sent Eastwards, to the urban centres in Byzantium and the economic heart of the Empire.

The ex-small ROman citizen landowners, seeing for themselves and their children a future of peonage and welfare subsidies, seemed to have begun to prefer the more localised, Germanic village systems. Basically, they felt out of the loop and divorced from the "benefits" of the Roman system. There was a widespread rejection of the economics of forced urbanism which characterised Roman society.

By comparison the Frankish people seemed to enjoy themselves a lot more. They rejected classic Roman euergetism and tax levies in favour of a more communal, shared existence. It seems to have proved very seductive to large numbers of Romans in the West, who "defected" en masse, refusing to serve in the military levies or to pay tribute to Rome.

Although it is true there were some large defeats for the ROman armies around the middle of the first millenium, Rome had suffered other, worse defeats and crappy times many times in its history. The Celts sacked Rome but it recovered. During its war with Carthage it came close to collapse, but it recovered. During the 3rd century CE it almost collapsed, but it recovered. In the 5th Century Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, but later co-opted them and made them into Roman allies/foederati after several engagements. With the help of the foederati Rome later defeated Atilla. I think it's easy for a lot of military-minded historians to attribute a cause for the "Fall" of Rome to military defeats, but the evidence seems to show that there wa sthe potential for a continued confederation of tribal and political alliances in Rome's favour. Indeed, in the East this is exactly what happened under Justinian and beyond.

However it's my contention that not enough attention has been paid to the coolness factor. In the end an Empire is an idea and especially with Rome, which was built on a very specific and reproducing culture of assimilation and economic exchange. In the West, with the increase in anti-tax sentiment by the Franks/Saxons, the idea of the Empire became uncool and people opted out en masse. They declined to fight to preserve a political and economic system to which they felt little attachment.

And so for the Gallo-Romans, those Romanized Celts of what is now Southern France, simple inertia persisted in their Romanised cultures in terms of teaching the young Latinate Rhetoric and Law and maintaining a stand-offishness regarding Frankish culture. Until as the 6th century progressed, it must have become increasingly apparent that the centre and purpose of Rome was now in the East, that nobody much around them wanted that to change, and that maybe they should find a new "post-colonial" identity as "French".

When I think of offshoring in terms of a hollowing out of the productive heart of an Empire in favour of the centralisation of productive capacity within an effectively externalised wage slave class (ie, China), I am often struck by a comparison to Rome's economic decay.
posted by meehawl at 3:25 PM on June 16, 2004 [1 favorite]


I really shouldn't need to elaborate these points as you should be able to, via my questions, discover just how much your certainties are built upon a mountain of uncertain assumptions. And my task is easier than yours: I'm challenging certainty, you're asserting it.

Argh. I've written and erased paragraphs. I keep stumbling over the fact that I find both assumptions and explicit portions of your arguments are necessarily contradictory. I don't know how to answer that, it's too much of a morass. For example, if an artificial language (which, by definition, has no antecedent) were able to make the transition to be functionally equivalent to natural language, then it would violate your assertion that there is, and can only be, one proto-language! So we're forced to assume that that cannot be possible. Well then, that would mean that either ASL is not an artificial language, or that ASL is not a real language. Which do you prefer? The latter contradicts the majority linguistic opinion you typically hold to. Okay then, ASL isn't artifical. That means that it can't be the language that Galludet created. And, in fact, it's not. ASL came to be itself within the second generation of so of speakers who spoke the preceding artificial language natively. But if it's a "real" language, and it's not an "artificial" language, then what's its antecedent besides the artificial language from which it sprang? Now we've violated our "only one proto language" dictum again.

Basically, we have to do some strange contortions and seriously undermine the idea that ASL is a true language in order to assert the only one proto language hypothesis.

And why? Because for some completely unexplained reason it's assumed that, while so much of human language is genetically determined (remember all that "structures specific to language" talk of yours? which certainly included the brain?), what is determined genetically is nevertheless necessarily just shy of whatever threshold of facility would make possible a sui generis language—thus conveniently forcing the hypothesis that all human languages, past and present, have one ultimate ancestor.

The human brain's ability to perform mathematics is both unique in the animal kindgom (as far as we know) and universal. And surely we could only evolve the ability to do math because we needed to do math, right? So then, all cultural expressions of mathematics must necessarily be historically related! For that matter, tool use, too!
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:18 PM on June 16, 2004


For example, if an artificial language (which, by definition, has no antecedent) ...

You're making some leaps here. First, an artifical language has antecedents; it just didn't form in the way that a natural language does. Esperanto owes its grammar and usage to the languages of Europe-- Zamenhof took what he liked from a bunch of languages, standardized the parts of speech, and he had a totally new language with a bunch of ancestors.

were able to make the transition to be functionally equivalent to natural language, then it would violate your assertion that there is, and can only be, one proto-language!

There can only be one proto-language not (NOT!) because of any innate quality of this proto-language, but because there was originally only a small group of homo sapiens and we know that they spoke to each other.

what is determined genetically is nevertheless necessarily just shy of whatever threshold of facility would make possible a sui generis language

So why, then, did survival put an emphasis on developing a mouth, throat, and larynx and language areas of the brain? As I stated above, the evolutionary record says that the first humans spoke. Whether or not they spoke a highly-structured language or a fractured one that just barely served, they spoke a language to each other before they split apart. This language, whatever it was, is the ancestor of all spoken languages.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:46 PM on June 16, 2004


"There can only be one proto-language...because there was originally only a small group of homo sapiens and we know that they spoke to each other."
I'm completely at a loss to understand why you don't see that this is plainly a non sequitor. It's true, there was originally a small group of homo sapiens, and they spoke to each other. So?

There can only be one earliest language. But that doesn't mean that all languages are historically related to it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:16 PM on June 16, 2004


It's true, there was originally a small group of homo sapiens, and they spoke to each other. So? There can only be one earliest language. But that doesn't mean that all languages are historically related to it.

I'm sick of explaining this! You agree "there was originally a small group of homo sapiens" and "they all spoke to each other". So why would subsequent generations lose language and start from scratch? They wouldn't. So all subsequent languages are built off of this first one and are historically related to it.

You've lost. Anyone who's still unlucky enough to be reading this thread knows that ypu were talking out your ass. Slink away, please. Find another topic to admit a lack of knowledge and subsequently insist that you understand it better than those who have studied it. I didn't have an opinion before this thread, but the folks that were clamoring to ostracize you in MeTa were completely right. You're a megalomaniac.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:58 PM on June 16, 2004


I'm not in a contest, Mayor. That's your choice of words, not mine.

Why wouldn't some population lose language and start from scratch? Why are you assuming that could not have happened? There's no reason to make that assumption. That it's unlikely? Maybe. That it couldn't have happened? No.

Just to be clear, you wrote: "So why would subsequent generations lose language and start from scratch? They wouldn't." It's you, really, who's eliding an indispensable portion of your argument. There's something missing between the first and second sentences.

Let me rephrase my earlier disclaimer: I am an interested layperson with regard to linguistics. By lay standards, I know a lot about linguistics. I was being polite.

But, again, as it happens, I don't have to know anything at all about linguistics in order to be qualified to have this very particular argument with you. You are asserting someting, over and over, as if that's sufficient. "That's a tree. Over there, that's a rock. Therefore, the tree is related to the rock."

"Why?"

"Are you insane? Because that's a tree, and over there is the rock? How many times do I need to explain this to you?"

Your contention that all languages, ever, can be traced back in a lineage to the first language is almost exactly equivalent to the claim that all tool use can be traced back in lineage to the first tool use. But there's absolutely no reason, based upon the assumptions you've set out, that this must be so. You're not making an argument from authority. You're not making some sort of empircal or inductive argument. You're making a deductive argument. You say, given premises a and b, x must be true, right? Well, no, it's not right. There's no logical proof. You just keep pointing at things saying, "There! Look!"
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:06 PM on June 16, 2004


This lecture (warning : pdf) from Umberto Eco, and more significantly, the book upon which it is based, may be of interest to you both, if you have not in fact read it already.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:16 PM on June 16, 2004


Let me rephrase my earlier disclaimer: I am an interested layperson with regard to linguistics. By lay standards, I know a lot about linguistics. I was being polite.

You know lots about everything. And you love to talk. In my personal version of Hell, I'm stuck sitting next to you on an airplane. But it's neat that you're brazen enough to upgrade from "I'm not an expert or even an interested layperson" to "I know a lot about linguistics."

I am asserting the same thing over and over because you consistently ignore it. You just say "that doesn't prove anything." I've given you the dumbed-down version of proto Nostratic theory, because I'm not really qualified to defend it as someone who never read more than a few paragraphs about it in college.

However, my guess is that any social science assertion, should it not fit your designs, falls into "you can't prove that," because technically one can't. But I've learned something new-- on issues like this, the best way to make myself feel smart is to just take the negative position and say "Nope! Nope! Can't PROVE it!" and I'll always be right.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:26 AM on June 17, 2004


But I love you so much, Mayor. Let's talk about that. Or the weather. Or, hey, the Red Sox!
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:39 AM on June 17, 2004


Also, note that proto-world ~= proto-nostratic. Maybe this is where you're confused. I dunno. It probably doesn't matter at this point.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:59 AM on June 17, 2004


No, proto-world follows in nicely with proto-Nostratic. Narrow down the sources, and it appears more and more likely that there's a single source. Especially given that we both agree that the earliest group of homo sapiens had language.

And don't tell me that I'm confused over terms that you Googled a minute before you used them.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:02 AM on June 17, 2004


We're completely and totally not communicating at all, and you're focused on psychoanalyzing me. That makes for a very, very unproductive discussion.

For whatever you offense you've taken, I apologize. I will wipe this exchange from my memory and approach future discussions with you with a clean slate, as best I can.

This isn't an admission that I'm wrong on any point in contention, including the personal ones; but you seem so focused on a you're right/you're wrong denoument for this that I can't help but disclaim that any way in which I bow out is a concession.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:17 PM on June 17, 2004


Especially given that we both agree that the earliest group of homo sapiens had language.

That depends on whether you consider physical language ability as primary and directed by evolution as an essential, emergent property of humanness, or a secondary, latent phenomenon, an epiphenomena if you will.

It's entirely possible that the ability to make words evolved physically in humans as a byproduct of some other beneficial or deleterious mutation. Thus, this physical ability could have been widely dispersed for an indeterminate period of time until one or several or many people or groups made a breakthrough and developed a reproducing culture that propagated and complexified spoken language.

Therefore, you could have two distinct groups of homo sapiens with identical genotypes with the only determinant being the presence or absence of a culture that caused the expression of language ability.

I note in the literature of feral children, or humans raised without normal socialization, that a failure to exercise spoken language ability by age 8 or so leads to a profound neural dissimilarity with socialized humans. Linguistic functions in the brain seem to atrophy or become impossible to develop after a certain age and the poor individuals are stuck with sub-optimal, non-grammatical language abilities despite decades of therapy or intervention.

Therefore it seems that the ability to perform language is indeed coded within humans, but the window for expression of these genes within a developing brain is narrow.
posted by meehawl at 4:03 PM on June 17, 2004


It seems an unlikely coincidence that the relevant physical and mental structures for language would evolve and then not be used for several generations.

That said, I thank you for coming along and taking a cogent, opposing viewpoint.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:32 PM on June 17, 2004


I had been skeptical of monogenesis as soon as I heard of it, but I really haven't come across any critiques of it. But a few months I did. Not remembering anything about the web site or author, it took me some to time to track it back down. It's by Mark Rosenfelder, maintainer of the sci.lang FAQ, linguist by training (I assume only an undergraduate degree), programmer by profession. Here's his article on his site: Proto-World and the Language Instinct.

Also, in tracking this down, I found a good number of discussions on s.l on these issues, many participants were professional linguists, and most of your indisputable points are under contention.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:52 AM on June 18, 2004


Note that he makes the same points I do (from which this argument evolved, when I mentioned ASL):
"As evidence, some point to the observed historical development of sign languages by the deaf; the usual cited case is Nicaraguan Sign Language, developed in two stages after the first schools for the deaf were established in 1979 (Pinker, p. 36f). (Of course, isn’t the development of a language from scratch evidence against monogenesis?)"—Rosenfelder
(emphasis mine)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:57 AM on June 18, 2004


It seems an unlikely coincidence that the relevant physical and mental structures for language would evolve and then not be used for several generations.

That's because you are linking the two, and that linkage may not be as firm as you feel it should be. Evolutionary theory shows us that many mutations recur within populations, only to die out, or benign mutations with no immediate effect spread through a population. Sometimes these mutations express only when the environment changes, or some precipitating event forces the population to a new equilibrium, or the population density reaches some critical threshold. The sometimes unpredictable lag time between mutation and population-wide expression leads to the impression of a "punctuated equilibrium".

Consider feathers: an adaptive development in dinosaurs to provide insulation, plumage, and mating signals. Only after many millions of years did a secondary use - flight - establish itself.

It is my position that homo sapiens is a product of both genetics and culture. A synthesis. With only one singly you don't get a very recognizably "human" person. Culture is not generated ex cathedra by genetic imperatives - it has been evolving itself through many thousands of generations to shape us.

I also like thinking about current human faculty for language making compared to an earlier hominid adaptation for flint blade making. Earlier hominids possessed physical adaptations that enabled them to create flint blades, but nobody could have expected a simple physical dexterity or genetic imperative to compel them to produce the quite consistent, staggering quantity of blades extant from many eras. Many of these blades appear to never have been used, indicating that they must have been made, then discarded immediately.

So it seems there was a culture of flint blade production that reproduced the urge to produce in addition to a genetic component that reproduced the ability to produce.

I note today that most books produced by humans will be published once, perhaps read, then never republished.

Here is one of my favourite M Foucault quotes:
The body is also directly invested in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body.
posted by meehawl at 10:21 AM on June 18, 2004


The important question is: how old is porn?
posted by homunculus at 1:42 PM on June 18, 2004


The important question is: how old is porn?

Who knows, but I've been reading a lot recently about late-Enlightenment pornography. De Sade was just the tip of the iceberg - by some estimates one-third to one-half of all lit consumed in the last half of the 18th century was pornography.

I was particularly struck by one of Rousseau's asides where he spoke of the feverish "one-handed reading" of his teens. I think he would have liked chatrooms.
posted by meehawl at 3:23 PM on June 18, 2004


I'd have to check, but this brings to my mind a dim memory that this interpretation of that bit of Rousseau is a sort of false folk-wisdom. But I have no more than a hint. Hmm.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:45 AM on June 22, 2004


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