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Quest for the Mother Tongue: Part 2 


Last week, we considered the possibility of reconstructing Proto-World, the mother tongue from which all of the world's languages, living and dead, are derived. Although a handful of maverick researchers claim to have re-created a couple of dozen "ur-words" spoken by our ancestors more than 100,000 years ago, most linguists have dismissed their efforts. Given that languages (especially unwritten ones) change constantly and rapidly, mainstream researchers say it's impossible to retrace more than a few thousand years of language history.

American linguist John McWhorter, who has written extensively about Proto-World, uses as his go-to example of rapid language change the Cheyenne word aa for "winter." Around 1,500 years ago, speakers of Cheyenne's precursor language, Proto-Algonquian, were using peponwi for the cold season. Historical linguists have been able to show exactly how a well-documented series of sound changes (from the wi ending to eon, ain, ai, aii, aai and finally aa) morphed peponwi into aa. All this in 1,500 years. Yet the Proto-World reconstructionists claim to have derived words from nearly 100 times further back! Hence the rather cruel dismissal of their efforts by some mainstream researchers as "the cold fusion of linguistics."

Maybe we can't reconstruct any actual words in Proto-World, but not all is lost. We can make some reasonable deductions as to its general aspects by considering the closest we have to a "virgin language" today: creoles. A creole language starts out as a pidgin, that is, a highly simplified method of communication between two groups of people who lack a common language. When whites encountered Australian Aborigines in the late 1700s, for instance, both parties spoke a pidgin English for trading. For whites and Aborigines alike, this was a second language learned as adults.

When children hear a pidgin and start speaking it among themselves as their primary tongue (in a process known as "nativization") it becomes a creole, with at least some of the subtleties inherent in any natural language. While the vocabulary of a creole derives mostly from the pidgin's parent language(s), grammar and syntax arise spontaneously and naturally. The odd thing, though, is that, whatever the structure of their parent languages, creoles the world over have a great deal of grammar and syntax in common. Virtually all creoles: use subject-verb-object word order ("dog bit man"); are non-tonal (meaning pitch doesn't affect the meaning of words, unlike in most languages today); ignore definite and indefinite articles ("the" and "a"); do not differentiate between verbs and nouns (context supplying the meaning); and lack tenses ("She go yesterday"). Isn't this astonishing? When humans — in this case, children of pidgin-speakers — unconsciously decide on the syntax and structure of language, they choose the same universal forms.

According to many linguists (but not all — they tend to be a combative bunch), our Proto-World mother tongue likely had similar forms to those of first-generation creoles. We'll probably never know if our distant ancestors used tik for finger or aqwa for water or any other specific words. But by listening to speakers of creole today, we can get a sense of what those inventive first language speakers might have sounded like.

Barry Evans ([email protected]) ran out of space before getting into Noam Chomsky's "Universal Grammar."

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About The Author

Barry Evans

Barry Evans

Barry Evans lives in Old Town Eureka with his girlfriend (and wife) Louisa Rogers, several kayaks and bikes, and a stuffed gorilla named “Nameless.” A recovering civil engineer, he is the author of two McGraw-Hill popular science books and has taught science and history. His Field Notes anthologies are available... more

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