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Another protolanguage? 
Posted: 07 May 2013 04:21 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Any comments on this?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/may/06/european-asian-language-tongue-superfamily

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Posted: 07 May 2013 05:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Interesting, although I’ll leave it to the linguists on the board to assess the claims made. The Washington Post has some fun by suggesting a caveman may well understand you if you travel back in time and say, “You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!” (Using many of the 23 ‘ultraconserved’ 15000 year old words that have barely changed in that time. Again, I haven’t a clue how accurate this is.)

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Posted: 07 May 2013 05:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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It would be nice if the author of the article asked for a second opinion…

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Posted: 07 May 2013 06:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Going back about half that time to (reconstructed) Proto-Indo-European gives us some roots: *peh₂ur ‘fire’, *wṛmis ‘worm’, *mehₐtēr ‘mother’, *h₂ehₓōs- ‘ash’. I chose these roots because the English words are reflexes of them. Words like the and black are more problematic: most PIE grammars agree that PIE did not have a definite or indefinite article; the word for black in English comes from a root, *bhel- ‘shiny, glittering; white’. As for the syntax and inflections (cases and such), they’d be quite different, too.

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Posted: 07 May 2013 09:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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In other news:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7163/full/nature06176.html

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/05/01/1218726110

http://www.pnas.org/content/suppl/2013/05/01/1218726110.DCSupplemental/pnas.201218726SI.pdf

http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2013/05/english-may-have-retained-words-.html?ref=hp

[ Edited: 07 May 2013 09:20 AM by sobiest ]
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Posted: 07 May 2013 09:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I don’t know about a hypothetical caveman, but I’m more than a bit confused as to what “Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother,” is supposed to mean.  Is this some sort of metaphor than has sailed well over my head?  If it is meant to be taken literally (i.e., there’s a worm - which happens to be black - and which also happens to be on a piece of bark, and I want you to take the worm and give it to your mom (or to a woman who happens to be the mother of somebody)), then it seems like a rather odd thing to ask somebody to do, and an even odder way of phrasing such a request.  Even assuming a caveman would recognize the words used in that statement, I’m pretty sure he’d be baffled by the sentence’s grammatical structure and syntax.

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Posted: 07 May 2013 10:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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According to the National Geographic magazine, we could even have the Neanderthals to thank:

Just a few weeks earlier, Svante Pääbo, who now heads the genetics laboratory at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Lalueza-Fox, and their colleagues had announced an even more astonishing find: Two El Sidrón individuals appeared to share, with modern humans, a version of a gene called FOXP2 that contributes to speech and language ability, acting not only in the brain but also on the nerves that control facial muscles. Whether Neanderthals were capable of sophisticated language abilities or a more primitive form of vocal communication (singing, for example) still remains unclear, but the new genetic findings suggest they possessed some of the same vocalizing hardware as modern humans.

Admittedly Neanderthals had disappeared from the scene a few thousand years earlier than PIE is supposed to have existed, but if you want to go backwards in time, well, Neanderthals interbred with early humans so maybe part of their communication system was absorbed into our speech.

In other words, the whole thing is speculative to the point of absurdity.  But it keeps some experts in business, so I guess it has a point.

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Posted: 07 May 2013 12:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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A “worm” on bark could plausibly be an edible grub.

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Posted: 07 May 2013 01:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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And, while we’re at it. What makes these “ultraconservative” words the oldest in the daughter and granddaughter languages? Theoretically, “black” is just as old as “mother” is in English as they both go back to reconstructed PIE, and no doubt to other roots from unreconstructable proto-proto-languages. As for the timeline: PIE 6K BP, Euro-Asiatic 15K BP, extinction of Neanderthal 60K BP.

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Posted: 07 May 2013 02:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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At first perusal, it strikes me as a decent article. The main strength, as I see it, is that Pagel and company are not setting out to reconstruct the proto-language. Rather they claim to have demonstrated that such a proto-language probably existed using statistical methods. They don’t tell us what that language was like grammatically or, aside from a handful of likely words, in terms of vocabulary. Any effort of that nature would be laughable. The idea of such a proto-language isn’t revolutionary, but this study provides more evidence that it may have actually existed.

I don’t, however, see on what grounds Pagel places the geographic point of origin in southern Europe. I can’t see how you can get there from here. There are too many variables to predict location with any confidence. (I couldn’t find that claim in the paper--maybe it’s there and I missed it--but it may be a wild guess the Guardian reporter pulled out of him.

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Posted: 07 May 2013 05:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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extinction of Neanderthal 60K BP.

More like 30K.

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Posted: 08 May 2013 04:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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More like 30K.

Still double 15K.

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Posted: 08 May 2013 06:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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My gut reaction was that it was crap, and the historical linguists who commented in this LH thread, Marie-Lucie Tarpent and Piotr Gąsiorowski, agree: “Like Renfrew and the Proto-World people, the authors do not seem to differentiate between the survival of a lexical item (although made unrecognizable through millennia of phonological changes) and the survival of the sounds that compose it (which are independent of the meaning of the whole word) [...] Read it at your own risk”; “This is exactly the kind of approach which makes wishful thinking look like science and gets it past reviewers. Even if the numerical methods are basically sound, the data are garbage (obtained by the intuitive eyeballing of reconstructions from the Tower of Babel database—itself a highly questionable source—without any actual comparative analysis)”; “I am appalled by the qualkity of the linguistic input.”

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Posted: 08 May 2013 09:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I am temped to be qualked by the appallity of it.

*if “qualk” is not a word yet, I heartily recommend that it be made so.

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Posted: 08 May 2013 12:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Sally Thomason has a good response to it on Language Log. She isn’t as vociferous as the commentators in the LH thread, but she does say, “yet another sad example of major scientific publications accepting and publishing articles on historical linguistics without bothering to ask any competent historical linguists to review the papers in advance.”

Pagel is an evolutionary biologist by training. I think this is a good example of why academics should take extreme care when straying outside their fields of expertise, and of the general belief that since everyone speaks a language, everyone is competent to write about linguistics.

My earlier, more sanguine, assessment was based on a quick read and discovering Pagel and co. had not fallen for the usual pre-PIE reconstruction quackery. After rereading it, I’ve since concluded that there just isn’t evidence to support even the limited conclusions that Pagel makes. (It’s not quackery, but that doesn’t mean it’s good science.) I still think that the conclusion that there is a single linguistic forbear for these various language groups is likely to be correct, but that’s an assumption based on what seems likely, not on any firm evidence. There just isn’t evidence to take us back before PIE. (And even much of the work on PIE is sketchy, pushing the available evidence beyond the breaking point.)

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Posted: 08 May 2013 08:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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A “worm” on bark could plausibly be an edible grub.

Or a human being OD-ing on piety? 

Job 25:6

Psalms 22:6

;-)

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