Friday, December 26, 2008

Towards a Reconstruction of Proto-Mammal

The origin of human language is one of the many fascinating areas of study concerned with the origin of man, and life in general. The detailed, and often rather pointless work of the great historical linguists is a testament to the majesty attainable by the human mind, and also to the lengths some people will go to to avoid paying attention to any of the things which are generally held to constitute the experience of living. Those who do not know linguistics tend to imagine that it is largely concerned with ‘learning foreign’ or with telling youths how to speak correctly. There is a general assumption that it is not a discipline calling for true scholarship, in the way that, say, sociology, is.

This is quite untrue, and as a first step the uninitiated should read the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, specifically his Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes, in which he deduces the existence of a series of sounds in a language that passed from this world five thousand years ago and was probably never written down. Nor was this idle speculation. Despite reservations on the part of colleagues, he was shown to be right when Hittite was discovered and interpreted some twenty years later. Such dogged insistence on seeking out identifiable truth is a rare quality; of course, having only warm chocolate and cuckoo clocks for intellectual stimulus he naturally sought ways to stimulate himself. He didn’t even have cheese, being from the region where they manufacture the holes that go in the cheese the other provinces make. (My researches indicate that the Swiss do not even have sex, but I should acknowledge that the sample was too small to draw any definite conclusions.) But I digress.

Indo-European is but one of the language families that exist in the world, Proto-IE being the assumed, and partly reconstructed, language that was the mother of English, Greek, Italian, Tocharian, Irish, Lithuanian, Bengali and quite a few other languages living and dead. This much is more or less certain. The linking of those major languages to each other, and the proto-languages into one single language from which all the world’s living languages ultimately derive, is the next step, but one which may be impossible for a number of reasons.

The underlying hypothesis may not be true, of course. It seems reasonable to postulate a proto-world language, but the physical development of language, as opposed to the cognitive faculty that allows it to exist, may have taken place after one or more of the major transcontinental migrations had occurred. (Biceps and triceps arose once in some distant ancestor of all humans, whereas archery has been invented independently by many different populations.)

It may not be possible to demonstrate the existence of such a language, even if it ever existed, and much less reconstruct it, because of the total destruction of all evidence. Words do not fossilize, as palaeo-linguists observe when they need an excuse to stop digging and put their feet up.

Those who attempt to show that there was once a single language spoken by all humans have met with varying degrees of acceptance, from furrow-browed distrust, to cautious ridicule, to headshaking exasperation and outright rejection. Nicholas Marr attempted to underpin his highly speculative theories with Marxist theory, which was good politics at the time but made for rather poor science. And having debased himself in this way he was posthumously denounced by Stalin for introducing non-Marxist formulae into his theories. This article on Stalinist linguistics provides a fascinating insight into the man. As well as being an evil, blood-stained tyrant he also had an ego the size of Ursa minor β. And he was a bright chap, though it pains me to say it.

Sergei Starostin undoubtedly suffered from the lasting effects of all this when developing his own Dene-Caucasian, also considered speculative by most historical linguists. (In science, ‘speculative’ means ‘without foundation and almost certainly a load of codswallop intended to get the attention of the newspapers’; ‘highly speculative’ means ‘completely without foundation, utter bollocks, and the author probably thinks he’s Napoleon.’)

So much for the terminology. The work of Joseph Greenberg was merely speculative. Much of it was not without interest, but the methodology was deeply flawed. In essence, in order to obtain any result at all the hypotheses that underpinned the method had to be so broad as to virtually preclude all possibility of the result being true. His determination to produce something rather blinded him to the uselessness of what he was producing. Imagine a committee of French poets trying to design a cuckoo clock. The result would be extremely messy, and might even tick, but the cuckoo would quote Lecan on the interpretation of post-modernity in a society which is both post-colonial and neo-colonial, and the numbers will have been removed as a symbol of Bourgeois capitalist oppression of someone or other. It would not tell you you were late for lunch. Once more, I digress.

Merritt Ruhlen has continued the work of Greenberg, has proved nothing and been laughed at a lot, but they have both contributed much that is useful on the way to their speculative conclusions. But this does not mean that what they say is not true, it does not even mean that it cannot be shown to be true, only that they have not shown it to be so. One day, what can in fact be concluded from their work may be satisfactorily separated from the bits that owe more to sweaty palms, and they will yet contribute to the furthering of knowledge about the history of language. The fairly recent history, relatively speaking.

And that is the point. This post is an introduction to a topic which I shall outline on the 28th (for reasons which are important but not necessarily obvious). Despite what has been said about the difficulties of establishing relationships between languages, and reconstructing proto-languages beyond a certain point in the past, and the dangers of over-interpreting results, it is still possible, with great caution, to progress in this field. And that is what I want to do in the work I shall present; to go back, not only to a hypothetical proto-sapiens (which my theory does not require in the sense that it is understood by Ruhlen and Greenberg), but beyond the hominid lineage, beyond the primate, to an early stage of verbal communication common to the ancestor of modern mammals. I wish, in short, to reconstruct proto-mammalian.

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