Thursday, July 19, 2012

Conversations about the Beginnings of Spoken Language

Priscilla Long has written, Linguist Noam Chomsky argues that grammar is not learned, that it somehow comes with our DNA. People in any language recognize grammatical structures, apart from the sounds or meanings of words. Grammar is innate, whereas diction and meanings are cultural and, over the slow centuries, in flux. Others argue that what is inherited isn’t grammar, it’s a propensity to search for patterns in speech. We move from “Mama!” to “Mama get ball!” to “I think Johnny went to the store to get milk, at least that’s what he said he was going to do before he found out he won the lottery”—a construction that will forever elude the most brilliant chimps taught to “speak.”

Did language evolve out of primate vocalizations? Or did it evolve out of an entirely different part of the brain, the part that can practice throwing to improve one’s aim, the part that can plan to marry off one’s unborn daughter to the as-yet unconceived son of the future king.

Our first mother had no words to speak. Our earliest Homo sapiens ancestors were anatomically identical to ourselves, but had no cognition. They had no symbols. They had our vocal chords, but no language. They were osteologically modern but neurologically archaic. They had our bones, but not our wits. About 50,000 years ago something changed. After that, there were bone flutes and symbolic marks and cave paintings. The Homo sapiens who painted on cave walls with charcoal and red ochre had metaphor, symbol, language. The change had to do with the brain growing, not larger, but more complex. (From here.)

Priscilla Long is a writer, not a scientist. In this award-winning essay she does not attempt to explain the beginnings of spoken language, but she raises many interesting questions. She points to 50,000 years ago as a turning point in human development, but anthropologists and linguists assume that humans were exercising spoken communication at least as early as 100,000 BC. This is when humans lived in rock shelter communities and were able to articulate the sounds that characterize the the "Proto" languages from which modern languages have developed. Anthropologists speculate that oral communication developed earlier, but there is no consensus about this. The disciplines of Comparative Linguistics and Molecular Genetics provide additional information about the dawn of spoken communication.

In the following article, Glenn R. Morton from Scotland reviews a discussion about the Khoisan languages as possibly representative of the beginnings of oral communication. The "Click" or Khoisan language family is very old. Genetic data show that the Sandawe and southern African click speakers share rare mtDNA and Y chromosome haplogroups. The common ancestry of the 2 populations dates back 35,000 years. The DNA studies also indicate common ancestry of the Hadza and Sandawe populations dating back to15,000 years. These findings suggest that at the time of the spread of agriculture and pastoralism, the Click-speaking populations were already isolated from one another which explains linguistic divergence among the respective Click languages.

Language at the Dawn of Humanity

Glenn R. Morton
Member American Scientific Affiliation

A paper presented at the 51st Annual Meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in San Diego, California, in October 2001 suggests that language was in existence when Homo sapiens first appeared on earth 120200,000 years ago. An abstract of the paper by Knight, Underhill, Mortensen, Lin, Louis, Ruhlen, and Mountain is on the web.

This team studied the genetics of African groups who speak in click languages, formally known as members of the Khoisan language family. (Click languages incorporate up to forty-eight click sounds and other unique vocal sounds not found in most of the world's other languages.) They then compared the genetics of the Khoisan with the linguistic separation of the languages. Reasoning that, in general, genetics and language follow each other quite closely, they expected to find that people with similar genetics would speak languages that have descended from each other, because we learn our language from our parents, who share 50% of our genes with us.[2]

Despite the fact that both the Hadza and !Kung use unusual consonants and clicks, many linguists believe that the languages are totally unrelated. One linguist was cited:

"Linguistically, we don't think they are one group, and we don't believe they have a common ancestor," says linguist Bonny Sands of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.[3]

And Merritt Ruhlen notes:

Two isolated languages found in East Africa not far from Lake Victoria— Sandawe and Hadza—use clicks like those in the other Khoisan languages, and have been linked by Greenberg to the rest of the Khoisan family, though they are clearly the most divergent (that is, most distinctive) members of the family. Surprisingly, since they are located quite close to each other, they show little similarity to one another.[4]

(Read it all here.)

Morton's article raises an interesting question: What was the earliest verbal communication? Did it involve clicking sounds or was it more like the early languages of the Proto-Saharan and Nilotic river peoples? The Khoisan language family is very old, but it may not represent the earliest verbal communication. It is possible that the Proto-Semitic and Khoisan coincided among distinct archaic populations. The biradical character of the Proto-Semitic as reflected in Ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Ge’ez, Sabaean, Mandaic, Ugaritic, and Syriac may represent early spoken languages. Examples of ancient biconsonantal or biradical nouns are dm/blood and human; yd/hand; ym/sea and day; gr/sell, trade or collect; and ls/tongue.

If the oldest human fossils are at least 3 million years and humans were created fully human from the beginning, language has been around for a very long time. Given the changing nature of language, it is not likely that we will know what form oral communication took among our earlier ancestors.

There is also the problem of determining whether the oldest known languages represent an original homeland, or migrations, or language shift. It is likely that such determination is not possible given the great antiquity of human speech. Language groups can be identified as likely descendants of the earliest spoken languages, but language grouping is complex. Roger Blench writes that "the only convincing evidence for a genetic grouping is a cluster of features. This may seem to be a reversion to "mass-comparison" -however, the significant difference is that for a proposed innovation to define a subgrouping, it should not occur outside that subgrouping." (From here.)

Contact between peoples also complicates the picture and words are often borrowed. Blench suggests that this took place between Bantu and Chadic speaking peoples. He writes, "there may have been an early interface between Chadic languages and Bantoid... This would explain a number of apparent coincidences between Bantua and Chadic roots, e.g. the word for 'ten' and 'wild pig' (Hausa gaduu /PB *gudu)."

My guess, given the evidence for the Volta-Niger linkage and the relationship of the Gur-Adamawe languages, is that the Gur languages deserve closer examination as candidates for descendance from the earliest spoken communication.

Related reading: Biblical Hebrew Nominal Patterns by John Huehnergard; Phoneme Study Pinpoints Origin of Modern Languages; Is Hebrew and African Language?; Symbols of Archaic Rock Shelters

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