Languages change over time - every part of language, from phonology to word usage to syntax and semantics evolves over generations of speakers. So how can we work back to figure out where languages came from? Well, first, we look for cognates, words have similar pronunciations and meanings between the languages we're concerned with. From there, we can work back to the words in the original language by using the comparative method: looking at the sounds that make up the different cognates, and then examining the differences between pronunciations across different words to work out what the underlying phonemic inventory, as well as the vocabulary, would have looked like.
So by using these methods, we can work into the past with a good sense of accuracy. And from there, we can build up language families. There are over a hundred we've identified, and some are quite large: the two largest, Niger-Congo and Austronesian, have over 1000 languages each! At the trunk of each family tree lies some progenitor language. For example, the Indo-European language family has an ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, and we've reconstructed a bunch of its vocabulary.
What about an ancestral language for every language in the world - like, some kind of Proto-Human language? Well, if we want to be careful, we can't really go any further back than we have- it's already hard enough to work back to ancestors of given language families. Even if there may have been elements further back, we'd basically be guessing about it. We're better off sticking to the things that we can reconstruct with more confidence. That's an interesting enough challenge!
As we talked about in the episode, we've learned a lot about PIE. And it’s not just the sounds of PIE that we have a pretty good idea of. We can work out the verbal system too, looking at ancient languages like Ancient Greek and Vedic Sanskrit. Those two ancient languages closely correspond in nearly all aspects of their verbal systems, and they're two of the best understood of the early daughter languages of PIE.
But it’s actually been very difficult, even controversial, to try and reconstruct anything like a sentence. It’s like imagining what dinosaurs really looked like - you have the bones, and maybe a little imprint of some skin or feathers, but there’s still a lot of room for interpretation. So even if you know they were around, all the evidence is there, there’s still guesswork involved in deciding what they must have looked like.
And beyond that, it’s important to point out that languages all being derived from the same proto-language doesn’t mean that the people who speak them all descend from the same people. Just like people can play on the same team together and be from anywhere from Toronto to Georgia, you can end up speaking the same language and be from all over the place. People get influenced by the people around them, and languages can get passed around, particularly if you’re trying to speak a language for trade or to fit in with a powerful empire - just look at what happened with Latin and the Romance languages. So this adds another challenge to the process of working back to exactly where the language was spoken, how, and when.
Still, some people have tried to write whole passages in PIE, like August Schleicher in 1868. His fable, “The Sheep and the Horses”, has actually seen a whole bunch of adaptations and modifications over time, as linguists figure out new theories about what PIE looked like. Because when we encounter new languages, or come up with new theories of how language works, we need to revise what we think about the scholarship that came before, which means changing up the story. And it's not just linguists who have had fun with this. Spoken renditions of Proto-Indo-European have also shown up in movies where a sort of early human language wanted to be hinted at, from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to Disney’s Atlantis.
So even if we have challenges in working with the language, and figuring out all the nuts and bolts, it's still a system that's caught in people's imaginations. If we keep refining it, we can see how far we can get it to go. ^_^
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about the history of languages and how we can dig deeper into it. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!
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