23 January 2013

The Meaning of ‘Language Evolution’ (2): Macroevolution, or the Rise and Fall of Languages


We may speak of ‘language evolution’ ignoring the origins question. Note that while language (uncountable), meaning a type od communication system (and the human ability to use it), is part of our biological endowment and works in a similar way in all human groups, there are thousands of very different individual languages (countable), most of them subdivided into regional or social dialects. What is the source of this variety? Has it always been there, or was there a time when all humans spoke one language?

Languages are transmitted from generation to generation of users. The transmission is cultural, not biological. Infants acquire or pick up their first language from their social environment (starting with their close family and caretakers, then drawing upon other sources of linguistic input). As opposed to formal learning, acquisition happens naturally and involves no explicit teaching. Children learn the vocabulary of their native tongue, work out its grammatical rules and master all the subtle ‘language-games’ connected with the social uses and functions of language.

Every language has its population of users – a historically continuous ‘speech community’ which maintains its code of communication through generations. We know that languages change in the process. The change is slow but inevitable. If a speech community splits in two or more parts, e.g. as a result of migration, different changes accumulate in the resulting groups of speakers, making communication between them increasingly difficult. Thus an originally common language produces different ‘daughters’, separated by communicative barriers.

As we examine the living or historically attested languages, we discover that many of them can be grouped into families – sets displaying structural correspondences that point to shared descent (a common ancestor in the past). For example, French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian and other Romance languages derive historically from the colloquial varieties of Latin once spoken across the Roman Empire. As the Empire collapsed and broke down into smaller and relatively isolated political units, spoken Latin was geographically fragmented, giving rise to numerous local languages.

The offspring of Latin (somewhat idealised and simplified)


While new languages emerge in this way, other, less lucky ones (and even whole families) die out – sometimes because a speech community is wiped out by a natural disaster or by inter-ethnic violence; more usually, because their original speakers have abandoned their old code, adopting instead one imposed by some other group. It is easy to see that the rise and fall of languages depends crucially on external (non-linguistic) factors: the history of human migrations, conquests, accidents of political and cultural history, vagaries of social prestige, etc. Let’s call those long-term and large-scale processes linguistic macroevolution. It is the story of language differentiation and extinction, the origin of linguistic families, results of contact between different speech communities, etc.

17 comments:

  1. Romance languages aren't exclusively the product of dialectal fragmentation of spoken (i.e. Vulgar) Latin, but also of replacement of the indigenous languages by Latin itself. Unfortunately, the role of substrate languages has been largely neglected in historical linguistics,

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Octavià. Every language is a "mixed" in the sense that it contains material borrowed from other languages, whatever their relative status (substrates, adstrates or superstrates). Actually, if you go beyond the core lexicon of virtually any language, most of the peripheral stuff turns out to have been borrowed from various sources. I have no problem with that, or with the limited applicability of the "family tree" model. In fact, I'm planning to discuss those limitations here soon. I have to disagree with the opinion that the role of substrates is neglected by historical linguists. It's a lively field of research, and there are conferences, workshops and monographs devoted specifically to substrate studies.

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    1. Sure, substrate languages are gaining more attention among historical linguists in recent times, but you must recognize research on them is still much behind from those on "well-stablished" language families such as IE.

      From my discussions in cybalist and other fora I gather this is primarily an problem of attitude toward them, as most historical linguists seek explanations on what is know rather than searching into the unknown. This can be exemplified by this joke: A drunken man was searching in vain for his lost key under the only lit lamp in a elsewhere dark street. When a passer-by asked him why he did so, his answer was: I'm searching for the key under the lamp not because I'd lost it here, but because it's the only lighted up spot.

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    2. Well-established families are well established precisely because there is a lot of solid evidence for reconstructing a common ancestor and a family tree. There's little doubt that Proto-Indo-European did not exist in a vacuum, but there's little reason to explain a linguistic form in terms of vague, largely "unknown" external relationships if it can be decomposed into familiar IE elements without any difficulty. Even if a reconstructible word is not derivable from IE roots and looks strange enough to be a potential loanword, it's still PIE in the sense that, say, uncle is English despite the fact that it was borrowed from French about 800 years ago. As I have written in another post, most vocabulary in any language is alien stuff acquired through language contact and added to a largely inherited lexical and morphological core. Words are, and have always been, like viruses.

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    3. In my own opinion, the proto-language reconstructed by IE-ists by applying the comparative method isn't a real a real language such as e.g. Latin, but more like a cross-section through the last development stages of the IE family. And although the ortodox model works with a reasonable degree of accuracy with regards to Kurganic (i.e. the language of the Steppe People), it does far worse with the older lexicon layers embedded in traditional "PIE". One example are the weird consonant clusters such as tk´ or pH3 that we can find respectively in the words 'bear' and 'apple'. From a multi-layer and macro-comparative point of view (as opposed to the monolithic and isolacionist characteristics of the ortodox model), these are mere artifacts.

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    4. In other words, although *abVl- 'apple' isn't from Kurganic (hence not "PIE-native" in the traditional sense) but a Paleo-European substrate loanword, I agree with you it's still an IE word.

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    5. Nobody says that PIE is "a real language" like Classical Latin. It's quite obvious that it's a mixture of features not necessarily coexisting at the same time and perhaps distributed in a network of dialects. It's also incomplete and not always consistent: we can reconstruct the phonological system, phonotactic rules, some vocabulary and the rough meaning of words, some derivational and inflectional morphology, and very little of anything elso, including syntax. But why regard clusters like *tk´ weird? I speak Polish, an Indo-European language where /tk/ can occur even at the beginning of a word, as in tkać 'weave' and no substrate is needed to explain this oddity: quite simply, reduced vowels were lost between consonants, turning a CVCVCV type of language into one with quite monstrous clusters.

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    6. That's right. But in the case of the IE word for 'bear', I don't think this cluster actually existed, as external data points to an alveolo-palatal affricate or a similar consonant.

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  3. German Language:
    "The history of the language begins with the High German consonant shift during the migration period, separating Old High German dialects from Old Saxon. The earliest evidence of Old High German is from scattered Elder Futhark inscriptions, especially in Alemannic, from the 6th century AD; the earliest glosses (Abrogans) date to the 8th; and the oldest coherent texts (the Hildebrandslied, the Muspilli and the Merseburg Incantations) to the 9th century. "

    Evidence points to the existence of German in centuries after Christ. What language did the German speakers converse in before they spoke German?


    Mathias

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  4. Hi, Mathias.

    German is a West Germanic language. In the first centuries CE (before the Great Migrations) the dialects ancestral to High German were part of a West Germanic continuum which also included the ancestors of Low German, Dutch, Frisian, and English. It makes no sense to speak of distinct West Germanic languages at that time; they were not yet sufficiently differentiated. The characteristic sound changes that define German as a separate language had not yet occurred.

    When Julius Caesar encountered the West Germanic Suebi in northern Gaul in 58 BC, he referred to them as Germani (realising that their language was not Celtic), but we have no evidence that the name was ever used by any Germanic tribe for self-reference. It would be completely anachronistic to equate it with the modern term "German". By the way, Deutsch reflects the common Germanic adjective *þiudiska-, which simply means 'spoken by the people, vernacular'. It began to be applied to German in (approximately) the modern sense about the 10th century.

    About 300 BC all Germanic languages (including Gothic and the Scandinavian group) had a common ancestor which we call Proto-Germanic. We can reconstruct many of its aspects, but we have only a very rough idea where it was spoken. Its users had no writing system, and the Mediterranean civilisations of the time were ignorant of the ethnic and linguistic structure of Northern Europe.

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  5. Thanks Piotr! Your response begs the question: Who were the ancestors of Germanic languages spoken in 300 BC?

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  6. Are you asking about languages or the people who spoke them?

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  7. I am interested in knowing about the people.

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  8. We have more information about the Proto-Germanic language than about the location of its speakers in space and time, but most specialists favour placing the Germanic "homeland" in southern Sweden, Denmark, and northeastern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg). It's often identified with areas dominated by the archeological Iron Age complex known as the Jastorf Culture. In the last centuries BC the Germanic-speaking areas began to expand, covering all southern Scandinavia and the North European Plain roughly between the Rhine and the Vistula.

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  9. Id love to se a comparison of the inuit languages and the south african. I heard at some point some had done a vaster study wehre they just compared the main words, some where water/mother and such, to try and traceback to a "motherlanguage" of all languages.

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  10. @Alexander: There have been attempts to prove that all the world's languages are related and to reconstruct their common ancestor, but they are utterly unconvincing. Comparing the Eskimo languages (Inuit or Yupik) with one of the other of the African click languages is not likely to be productive. For example, the Proto-Eskimo word for 'mother' is reconstructed as *ana or *ana-ana, rather obviously derived from the babbling of babies (like mama in innumerable languages). In the "Khoisan" languages of southern Africa there are several different terms for 'mother', e.g. qáe (q = uvular stop) in the ǃXóõ language. None of them has anything to do with *ana by any stretch of the imagination. Likewise for water: the ǃXóõ word is ǃqhàa (the initial consonant spelt !qh is a combination of an alveolar click with an aspirated uvular stop). The Proto-Eskimo 'water' word is *ǝmǝʁ (usually imiq in the modern dialects). Just imagine trying to prove that it is related to the ǃXóõ term. Some Proto-World enthusiasts like Ruhlen & Bengtson boldly reconstruct 'global etymologies' like *aja 'mother' or ʔaq'wa 'water', based on a random selection of badly analysed lookalikes from many languages. As far as my opinion is concerned, it's bad methodology, not to say pseudoscience.

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  11. Actually, mistaking lookalikes as true cognates isn't exclusive of these long-rangers, as some IE etymologies one can find in e.g. Pokorný's also have got them.

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