Click, Pop and Whistle
March 24, 2003 6:33 AM   Subscribe

Khoisan languages of southern Africa [NY Times link]
Do some of today's languages still hold a whisper of an ancient ancestral tongue spoken by the first modern humans? [more inside]
posted by Irontom (11 comments total)
A new genetic study has raised the possibility that the distinctive features of the so-called "click languages" of southern Africa are the last echoes of the voices of our ancestors. IMO, it's poorly written, trying to make much more out of the study than it directly supports, but it's still interesting material.

On a tangent, I recently saw a television commercial that relied on a click language gag. I can remember nothing else about the commercial, and can't find anything on the web. Anyone have more information? (note - it wouldn't be hard)
posted by Irontom at 6:34 AM on March 24, 2003

Our own languagehat has this to say about that.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:17 AM on March 24, 2003

While Khoisan is sadly a language on the decline, the South African government used the language on the South African Coat of Arms.
posted by PenDevil at 7:53 AM on March 24, 2003

I think that languagehat articulates my concerns with the article far more clearly than I did, but I am automatically suspicious of anyone in any discipline that states that observable trends now (language change) have to have been the same for all of time (100,000+ years ago).

That's dogmatic thinking, and to me, dogmatic thinking is the opposite of scientific thinking (or rather, the ideal thereof). It also leads to all sorts of embarassing situations: h. pylori anyone?
posted by Irontom at 8:08 AM on March 24, 2003

This seems like a good place to draw attention to the plight of the Khoisan of Botswana, who are steadily being evicted from their traditional lands in the Kalahari in the interests of the diamond trade... Survival International has a page on how we got here, dealing with the plight of these people; you can also follow Survival International's campaign here. No blood for diamonds.

The article seems interesting, but seems somewhat unlikely from my own layman perspective (Languagehat is very knowledgeable on this subject!).... All cultures and languages change over time, even pre-literate ones; there is no such thing as a static culture, because of contact with other groups, etc. And genetics does not correlate with language (just look at all the different groups who speak English, for example).
posted by plep at 8:11 AM on March 24, 2003

Thanks, mcwetboy, you saved me the trouble of having to figure out how to summarize my (probably overlong) rebuttal in a comment box here. Actually, for those who don't want to wade through my version, plep summarizes it quite well in his last two sentences!
posted by languagehat at 9:03 AM on March 24, 2003

Wow, this is fantastic. Great link, languagehat.
posted by homunculus at 5:33 PM on March 25, 2003

It would seem to me that a language would change faster if it were spoken by fewer people in a less advanced place.
posted by delmoi at 10:14 PM on March 25, 2003

And genetics does not correlate with language (just look at all the different groups who speak English, for example).

Genetics evidently have something to do with the ability to speak one, for what it's worth:

Language problems run in the 'KE' family. Members of several generations speak "as if each sound is costing them their soul", one researcher has said. They struggle to control their lips and tongue, to form words, and to use and understand grammar. "To the naive listener, their speech is almost unintelligible," says geneticist Anthony Monaco, of the University of Oxford in England.

I am curious, by the way, as to the languagehat opinion on whether gray parrots are speaking or parroting.
posted by y2karl at 10:48 PM on March 25, 2003

Re the "KE" family: the fact that a gene can screw up language ability does not, to me, indicate that language is genetically controlled anymore than a tack giving you a flat tire means that your car is controlled by tacks. But I Am Not a Geneticist, and I have my prejudices, so take with a grain of salt. The same goes for my opinion on parrots, which is that they're parroting. I have seen no convincing (to me) evidence that any animals use language as I understand it, but I prefer to believe that language is a unique and defining human phenomenon, so I'd be hard to convince. Not impossible, though; show me a parrot that can discuss this question and I'll accept him as a fellow sentient and support his right to drink in my bar.
posted by languagehat at 12:21 PM on March 26, 2003 [1 favorite]

I'll accept him as a fellow sentient and support his right to drink in my bar.

Eloquently and beautifully put, languagehat, and excellent link Irontom.

Many happy hours lie ahead; thanks.
posted by hama7 at 3:44 AM on March 27, 2003

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