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Evolution of Human Languages

An international project on the linguistic prehistory of humanity
coordinated by the Santa Fe Institute




          There are currently about 6,000 languages on Planet Earth as of 2017, some of them spoken by millions and some by only a few dozen people. A primary goal of EHL researchers is to provide a detailed classification of these languages, organizing them into a genealogical tree similar to the accepted classification of biological species. Since all representatives of the species Homo sapiens presumably share a common origin, it would be natural to suppose - although this is a goal yet to be achieved - that all human languages also go back to some common source. Most existing classifications, however, do not go beyond some 300-400-language families that are relatively easy to discern. This restriction has natural reasons: languages must have been spoken and constantly evolving for at least 40,000 years (and quite probably more), while any two languages separated from a common source inevitably lose almost all superficially common features after some 6,000-7,000 years.


          Nevertheless, despite widespread skepticism and reluctance to tackle the problem, there are a number of scholars who believe that these obstacles are not insurmountable. Research has been going on over the past several decades that appear to indicate that larger genetic groupings are not only possible, but indeed quite plausible. It can be shown that most of the world's language families can be classified into roughly a dozen large groupings, or macro families. Two sorts of evidence can be used for this purpose:


          1) Even a superficial analysis of the vocabulary of a large number of linguistic families reveals numerous lexical similarities extending far beyond the borders of the smaller genetic units. They are frequently restricted to individual macro families (such as Eurasiatic, Afro Asiatic etc.), but a significant number of such matches have already been found between the macro families themselves, pointing to the probability of common origin.


          2) Classical historical linguistics has developed a very powerful tool - the comparative method - that allows the reconstruction of unattested language stages, so-called proto-languages. It turns out that whereas modern languages may vary significantly, protolanguages in various cases tend to be much more similar to one other. This is the case, e.g., with Indo-European, Uralic and Altaic: modern English, Finnish, and Turkish may have almost nothing in common, but their respective ancestors - Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Uralic and Proto-Altaic - appear to have many more common traits and common vocabulary. This means that the possibility exists of extending the time perspective and reconstructing even earlier stages of human language and much of this research has already been conducted.

          The amount of information that has to be processed in order to achieve a deep linguistic taxonomy is enormous - if one keeps in mind that one has to process thousands of languages and hundreds of linguistic families. Modern computer technology, however, provides some solutions to these problems. The first step that needs to be taken is a compilation of computer databases containing established matches between related languages - etymologies. The primary goal of the EHL research is therefore to collect and compile such databases and to make them easily available: in the present world this means making them available on the Web. A large set of computer databases is already available and many of them are already online. The databases provided by the EHL participants, and freely browseable on the Web, include Altaic, Dravidian, (North) Caucasian, Yenisseian, Sino-Tibetan, Indo-European, Austroasiatic, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, and Semitic. For many other language families the databases are in the stage of preparation.


          Etymological databases for several macro families are also being compiled, and several of them - Australian, Eurasiatic (Nostratic) and Afro Asiatic - are already near completion. Once an etymological database becomes available, it can be used to significantly simplify the task of searching for lexical cognates and building up higher level databases. Etymological databases can also be used (and are being used) for a statistical evaluation of taxonomic correlations. The number of etymological matches between languages is a good measure of the distance between them and they can also be employed for evaluating the time depth of any linguistic family. In fact, so-called lexicostatistics is the only available tool for absolute linguistic dating and its theoretical rationale and practical employment is one of the central tasks of the EHL project.


          While the project is concentrated on building up a hierarchical system of etymological databases, reflecting the hierarchical taxonomy of the linguistic genealogical tree, it is also concerned with collecting and putting online primary language wordlists as well as existing etymological sources. The ideal etymological database system should be able to provide an etymology for any word in any modern or ancient language, tracing its origin as far as possible. The participants of the project have provided source wordlists for poorly explored language families such as Indo-Pacific and Australian, where most of the comparative work is yet to be done. They have also scanned, recognized, and converted to database format some of the major existing etymological dictionaries, such as Pokorny's Indo-European etymological dictionary.


          The ultimate goal of the system of databases described above is to arrive at a stage when an absolute majority of the world's languages can be reduced to a minimum number of huge language macro families, which in turn can be traced back to a Proto-Sapiens stage, should the databases provide sufficient evidence to support the hypothesis of monogenesis. With the database system completed, and the basics of the Proto-Sapiens structure established, we can hope to come into possession of a vital tool for helping us understand the nature of the origin of language itself.