SCIENCE

The mother tongue

Scholars search for the origins of language

DIANE BRADY May 20 1991
SCIENCE

The mother tongue

Scholars search for the origins of language

DIANE BRADY May 20 1991

The mother tongue

SCIENCE

Scholars search for the origins of language

After Sir William Jones, an English scholar and jurist, went to India during the latter part of the 18th century, he began studying the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit as a diversion from his duties as a judge. Soon, Jones noticed striking similarities between Sanskrit and the other ancient languages of Greek and Latin. He was convinced, wrote Jones, that all three had “sprung from some common source.” Indeed, Jones and subsequent generations of linguists contended that Sanskrit and other ancient languages as diverse as Gothic, Old Irish and Persian had flowed from a common parent tongue. By comparing consonant and vowel changes and word endings, scholars were able to piece together an ancestral tongue, called Proto-Indo-European, which they say people spoke about 6,000 years ago in southern Russia or eastern Anatolia, near the modern Turkish-Iranian border. Now, in an action that has provoked controversy among academics, a handful of scholars claim that it may eventually be possible to trace all the languages spoken by the world’s five billion people back to a single root—the mother tongue of all humanity.

Soviet linguists have advanced the quest by attempting to work out the vocabulary of a language that they say Stone Age people may have spoken about 14,000 years ago. By comparing the sounds and meanings of basic words in modern and ancient languages, Vladislav Illych-Svitych and Aaron Dolgopolsky independently constructed during the 1960s a language known as Nostratic (from the Latin word noster, meaning “our”). Other scholars have in turn used the controversial Nostratic base to re-create words of an even earlier protolanguage, or parent language, that could be just steps away from the primordial tongue. Vitaly Shevoroshkin, a Soviet-born professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and other experts have reconstructed words from an ancestral language, including kujan (wolf) and haku (water). Shevoroshkin says that people may have spoken such a language about 100,000 years ago in Africa and the Near East.

Still, many North American scholars say that attempts to find such early ancestral languages may be based on faulty scholarship. Said Ingrida Brenzinger, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of British Columbia: “They can claim anything they want, but the proof isn’t there.” Other scholars, including Joseph Greenberg, professor emeritus of anthropology at California’s Stanford University, say that the quest to find ancestral languages could yield a rich fund of knowledge. Said Greenberg: “Ultimately, this can tell us how the human mind works.”

Although many scholars dismiss the prospect of finding a common root for all of the estimated 6,000 languages now spoken, experts agree that modem languages descend from parent tongues. John Hewson, a linguistics professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., has completed a 4,000-word dictionary of a Proto-Algonkian language that he says people spoke 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, and that was the precursor of the Cree, Fox, Menominee, Ojibwa and several other tongues that still survive. The work of a linguist, says Hewson, resembles that of “an archeologist, who can reconstruct an ancient building from key marks in the ground.”

For his part, Greenberg, who has grouped the indigenous languages of Africa into four major families, set off a stormy debate about four years ago when he claimed to have traced every native language in North and South America to three parent languages. Some critics said that he used slipshod methods to find links between the different languages. He now maintains that every word spoken in the world probably stems from one of about 15 ancestral languages. Said Greenberg: “It could well turn out that they all related to one language.”

The search for a common ancestor to modern languages received a major impetus 28 years ago, when Illych-Svitych and Dolgopolsky, who both worked as linguists in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, began comparing the evolution of a number of ancient tongues. They discovered resemblances in certain words that are basic to nearly all languages, including the words for fire, water and body parts. Illych-Svitych died in a 1966 car accident, while Dolgopolsky left the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s and now teaches linguistics at the University of Haifa in Israel. Soviet researchers have continued to work on the theory that the two men initiated, and they have developed a Nostratic dictionary that contains more than 700 words. But critics contend that the Nostratic theory is based on speculation and coincidence. “There is so much missing,” said Nicole Domingue, a professor of linguistics at McGill University in Montreal. “Beyond a certain point, there is truly nothing left to analyse.”

Still, a growing number of linguists say that the search for the origins of human language is valid. According to Vyacheslav Ivanov, a professor of linguistics and Slavic languages at the Institute of Slavic and Balkan Studies in Moscow, a next step should be translating the Nostratic dictionary into English. “It’s shocking how few North American linguists know Russian,” said Ivanov, who was at the University of Toronto last month. “They can’t dispute what they have not read.” Edward Burstynsky, an associate professor of linguistics at U of T, agrees that the idea of a common ancestor of all human languages is an exciting one. “We should be looking at it more closely,” said Burstynsky, “instead of letting the new ideas come from abroad.” Clearly, the chance of discovering the actual words spoken by the oldest ancestors of the human race is a powerful lure for scholars already caught up in the quest.

DIANE BRADY