Linguists seek a time when we spoke as one
A controversial research project is trying to trace all human language to a common root.
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EHL linguists use several methods. One – the most controversial, but not the most widely used, says Starostin – involves matching words and meanings across languages. For example, Ruhlen and Bengtson have noticed that a word roughly corresponding to "water," which they render in proto-sapiens as "AQWA," appears in many languages. In Latin it's "aqua"; in Japanese, "aka" means "bilge water"; in Chechen, meanwhile, "aq" means "to suck"; in an African Kung dialect, "kau" means "to rain"; and in Central American Yucatec, "uk" means "to be thirsty."Skip to next paragraph
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But critics look at etymologies like these and see only problems. They're too loose with meanings and sounds, they say. And too many alternate explanations exist: Maybe the word was borrowed from one language and spread to the others. Perhaps it's onomatopoetic, a word that sounds like what it is. ("Cock-a-doodle-doo" is an onomatopoetic word that appears in similar form in many languages, but that doesn't prove relation.) Finally, the shorter the word – in some of the languages, just one syllable rather than two or three – the greater the possibility of a chance match.
"You've presented this list of words, but it looks like you can explain these lists in several different ways," says Lyle Campbell, a professor of linguistics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "Their data is really easy to challenge, and it's really easy to find words that are similar to one another across languages."
EHL linguists argue that they're only doing exactly what Sir William Jones, who first postulated a common ancestor for classical Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, did in the 18th century. (Indo-European, the eventual result of Jones's initial observations, is perhaps the most widely accepted language family.) Historical linguistics begins by observing similarities that occur more frequently than dictated by chance, they say – and they're just starting.
The comparison to Jones also underscores another argument central to EHL's endeavor. The further one moves back in time, the more related languages should resemble one another, they believe. "It is more risky because you're comparing two or more hypotheticals to arrive at an even more hypothetical construction," says Mr. Bengtson, "but we think it's still a valid thing to try to do."
Human genetic evidence appears to support EHL's basic assumptions. The human genome indicates that all humanity traces its ancestry to as few as 1,000 individuals who lived between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. This small founding population may explain how the capacity for language spread so quickly. "Bottlenecks play a very important part in human evolution," says Ruhlen. "This was the first major bottleneck."
Genetics also suggests two separate migrations out of Africa. One followed the south coast of Asia, ending up in Australia at least 45,000 years ago. The other took the land route through the Middle East into Central Asia, where they went both west into Europe and east, eventually reaching the Americas.
Very tentatively, EHL has grouped the world's languages into three super-superfamilies corresponding to these migrations: those that correspond with the coastal route, which include Papuan languages; those that correspond with the land route out of Africa, descendants of Borean, the best reconstructed; and the "click" languages spoken by the San, or "Bushmen," of southern Africa. Scientists think that the San most resemble the first modern humans. Their language, almost unique in its use of click sounds that perhaps other early languages lost, may best conserve traces of proto-sapiens.
Recently, EHL further refined its hypothesis. How could the 16,000-year-old Borean have engendered the lion's share of Eurasian, North African, and American languages? Some 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last ice age, the world lost much of its linguistic diversity, they argue. Advancing glaciers pushed humanity south, mashing linguistic groups together. As in later periods of human history – like now – only a few languages emerged from that mixing. Borean, they say, was one of them.