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Linguists seek a time when we spoke as one

A controversial research project is trying to trace all human language to a common root.

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 19, 2007

Around 50,000 years ago, something happened to our ancestors in Africa. Anatomically modern humans, who had existed for at least 150,000 years prior, suddenly began behaving differently. Until then, their conduct scarcely differed from that of their hominid cousins, the Neanderthals. Both buried their dead; both used stone tools; and as social apes, both had some form of communication, which some think was gestural.

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But then, "almost overnight, everything changes very rapidly," says Merritt Ruhlen, a lecturer in the Anthropological Sciences Department at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Humans began making much better stone tools. They started burying their dead with accouterments that suggested religion. And perhaps most telling, Homo sapiens, the "wise" apes, began creating art.

"People started having imagination at this time much more than they had earlier," says Dr. Ruhlen.

Many scientists think that fully modern human language enabled this "great leap forward." Language enabled abstract thought, the deciding factor in archaic humans becoming – well, us. And because scientists surmise that language arose only once, they believe that before leaving Africa to colonize the world, all humankind spoke one language. Linguists have dubbed it "proto-world" or "proto-sapiens."

A multidisciplinary team of scientists at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico is working toward reconstructing that mother of all languages. Headed by Nobel Laureate physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the international Evolution of Human Languages (EHL) project is developing a freely accessible etymological database of the world's languages ( Where possible, EHL linguists are attempting to reconstruct – and then compare – ancestor languages, moving ever closer to the first human language. Viewed by many linguists as a fringe movement, the project has attracted much criticism. Many linguists say that historical languages cannot be studied beyond an 8,000-year threshold; they change too much, they say. Some take issue with the project's methods: A few words shared among reconstructed languages doesn't prove a familial relationship, they insist, especially far back in time.

Languages change constantly. Speakers invent or borrow words to suit their needs. But for reasons not completely understood, some languages change more than others. Italian, for example, has remained much closer to ancestral Latin than French. Lithuanian has many words that almost exactly match Sanskrit, which was spoken 3,500 years ago. And some language "families" like Afroasiatic retain words in common even after more than 10,000 years of divergent evolution.

"That time limit is totally wrong," says John Bengtson, vice president of the Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory in Cambridge, Mass. "Languages that have been separated 8,000 years get down to a low percentage of common words. However, that low percentage seems to be very stable."

And there begins EHL's approach. Within languages, linguists think that because certain words – including the pronoun "we" and the number "one" – form the basis of a functional language, they are much less likely to change or be lost. EHL linguists begin by comparing this "basic lexicon." They include "words that are thoroughly essential and must have been in human language before significant cultural advances were made," writes EHL team member George Starostin, a linguist at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, in an e-mail.

Using this method, EHL has grouped all the world's languages into 12 linguistic superfamilies. They've tentatively grouped four of these superfamilies, which include languages of Eurasia, North Africa, and some Pacific islands (and maybe languages of the Americas as well) into one super-superfamily dubbed "Borean." An ancestor to a large share of today's languages, Borean was spoken some 16,000 years ago when glaciers covered much of Europe and North America, they say.