[b-hebrew] Fw: Roots Language

Yigal Levin leviny1 at mail.biu.ac.il
Tue Mar 16 00:55:34 EST 2004

While this article does not deal with proto-semitic, it should be of


> >From <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/16/science/16LANG.html>
> ======================================
> March 16, 2004
> A Biological Dig for the Roots of Language
> Once upon a time, there were very few human languages and perhaps only
> one, and if so, all of the 6,000 or so languages spoken round the world
> today must be descended from it.
> If that family tree of human language could be reconstructed and its
> branching points dated, a wonderful new window would be opened onto the
> human past.
> Yet in the view of many historical linguists, the chances of drawing up
> such a tree are virtually nil and those who suppose otherwise are chasing
> a tiresome delusion.
> Languages change so fast, the linguists point out, that their genealogies
> can be traced back only a few thousand years at best before the signal
> dissolves completely into noise: witness how hard Chaucer is to read just
> 600 years later.
> But the linguists' problem has recently attracted a new group of
> researchers who are more hopeful of success. They are biologists who have
> developed sophisticated mathematical tools for drawing up family trees of
> genes and species. Because the same problems crop up in both gene trees
> and language trees, the biologists are confident that their tools will
> work with languages, too.
> The biologists' latest foray onto the linguists' turf is a reconstruction
> of the Indo-European family of languages by Dr. Russell D. Gray, an
> evolutionary biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
> The family includes extinct languages like Hittite of ancient Turkey, and
> Tokharian, once spoken in Central Asia, as well as the Indian languages
> and Iranian in one major branch and all European languages except Basque
> in another.
> Dr. Gray's results, published in November in Nature with his colleague
> Quentin Atkinson, have major implications, if correct, for archaeology as
> well as for linguistics. The shape of his tree is unsurprising  it
> arranges the Indo-European languages in much the same way as linguists do,
> using conventional methods of comparison. But the dates he puts on the
> tree are radically older.
> Dr. Gray's calculations show that the ancestral tongue known as
> proto-Indo-European existed some 8,700 years ago (give or take 1,200
> years), making it considerably older than linguists have assumed is
> likely.
> The age of proto-Indo-European bears on a longstanding archaeological
> dispute. Some researchers, following the lead of Dr. Marija Gimbutas, who
> died in 1994, believe that the Indo-European languages were spread by
> warriors moving from their homeland in the Russian steppes, north of the
> Black and Caspian Seas, some time after 6,000 years ago.
> A rival theory, proposed by Dr. Colin Renfrew of the University of
> Cambridge, holds that the Indo-Europeans were the first farmers who lived
> in ancient Turkey and that their language expanded not by conquest but
> with the spread of agriculture some 10,000 to 8,000 years ago.
> Dr. Gray's date, if accepted, would support the Renfrew position.
> Several linguists said Dr. Gray's tree was the right shape, but added that
> it told them nothing fresh, and that his dates were way off. "This method
> is not giving anything new," said Dr. Jay Jasanoff, a Harvard expert on
> Indo-European. As for the dates, Dr. Jasanoff said, "The numbers they have
> got seem extremely wrong to me."
> Dr. Don Ringe, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania who has taken
> a particular interest in computer modeling of language, said that Dr.
> Gray's approach was worth pursuing but that glottochronology, the
> traditional method of dating languages, had "failed to live up to its
> promise so often that convincing linguists there is anything there is an
> uphill battle."
> In the biologists' camp, however, there is a feeling that the linguists do
> not yet fully understand how well the new techniques sidestep the pitfalls
> of the older method. The lack of novelty in Dr. Gray's tree of
> Indo-European languages is its best feature, biologists say, because it
> validates the method he used to construct it.
> Most historical linguists know a few languages very well but less often
> consider the pattern of change affecting many languages, said Dr. Mark
> Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading.
> "The field is being driven by people who are not confronted with the broad
> sweep of linguistic evolution and is being invaded by people like me who
> are only interested in the broad sweep," Dr. Pagel said.
> Glottochronology was invented by the linguist Morris Swadesh in 1952. It
> is based on the compiling of a core list of 100 or 200 words that Swadesh
> believed were particularly resistant to change. Languages could then be
> compared on the basis of how many cognate words on a Swadesh list they
> shared in common.
> Cognates are verbal cousins, like the Greek podos and the English foot,
> both descended from a common ancestor. The more cognates two languages
> share, the more recently they split apart. Swadesh and others then tried
> to quantify the method, deriving the date that two languages split from
> their percentage of shared cognates.
> The method gave striking results, considering its simplicity, but not all
> of the findings were right. Glottochronology suffered from several
> problems. It assumed that languages changed at a constant rate, and it was
> vulnerable to unrecognized borrowings of words by one language from
> another, making them seem closer than they really were.
> Because of these and other problems, many linguists have given up on
> glottochronology, showing more interest in an ingenious dating method
> known as linguistic paleontology.
> The idea is to infer words for items in the material culture of an early
> language, and to correlate them with the appearance of such items in the
> archaeological record. Cognates for the word wheel exist in many branches
> of the Indo-European family tree, and linguists are confident that they
> can reconstruct the ancestral word in proto-Indo-European. It is, they
> say, "k'ek'los," the presumed forebear of words like "chakras," meaning
> wheel or circle in Sanskrit, "kuklos," meaning wheel or circle in Greek,
> as well as the English word "wheel."
> The earliest wheels appear in the archaeological record around 5,500 years
> ago. So the proto-Indo-European language could not have started to split
> into its daughter tongues much before that date, some linguists argue. If
> the wheel was invented after the split, each language would have a
> different or borrowed word for it.
> The dates on the earliest branches of Dr. Gray's tree are some 2,000 years
> earlier than the dates arrived at by linguistic paleontology.
> "Since `wheel' is shared by Tocharian, Greek, Sanskrit and Germanic," said
> Bill Darden, an expert on Indo-European linguistic history at the
> University of Chicago, "and there is no evidence for wheels before the
> fourth millennium B.C., then having Tokharian split off 7,900 years ago
> and Balto-Slavic at 6,500 years ago are way out of line."
> Dr. Gray, however, defends his dates, and points out a flaw in the wheel
> argument. What the daughter languages of proto-Indo-European inherited, he
> says, was not necessarily the word for wheel but the word "k'el," meaning
> "to rotate," from which each language may independently have derived its
> word for wheel. If so, the speakers of proto-Indo-European could have
> lived long before the invention of the wheel.
> His tree, Dr. Gray said, was derived with the methods used by biologists
> to avoid problems identical to those in glottochronology. Genes, like
> languages, do not mutate at a constant rate. And organisms, particularly
> bacteria, often borrow genes rather than inheriting them from a common
> ancestor. Biologists have also learned that trees of any great complexity
> cannot be drawn up by subjective methods. Mathematical methods are
> required, like having a computer generate all possible trees  a number
> that quickly runs way beyond the trillions  and then deciding
> statistically which class of trees is more probable than the rest.
> Dr. Gray based his tree on the Dyen list, a set of Indo-European words
> judged by linguists to be cognates, and he anchored the tree to 14 known
> historical dates for splits between Indo-European languages.
> Many of the Dyen list cognates are marked uncertain, so Dr. Gray was able
> to test whether omission of the doubtful cognates made any difference (it
> did not). He also tested many other possible assumptions, but none of them
> produced an age for proto-Indo-European anywhere near the date of 6,000
> years ago favored by linguists.
> "This is why our results should be taken seriously by both linguists and
> anyone else interested in the origin of the Indo-European languages," he
> wrote, in a recent reply to his critics.
> "We haven't repeated the errors of glottochronology," Dr. Gray said in an
> interview. "What we are doing is adding value, since we can make
> inferences about time depths which can't be made reliably in other ways."
> Dr. Gray said he had formed collaborations with linguists and hoped they
> would give his tree a warmer reception once his critics understood that he
> had not made the errors they cited.
> Some linguists are interested in the biologists' approach.
> "I think these methods are extremely promising," said Dr. April McMahon of
> the University of Sheffield and the president of the Linguistics
> Association of Great Britain, though she expressed concern about Dr.
> Gray's emphasis on dating language splits.
> If the biologists' methods can date languages that existed 9,000 years
> ago, how much further back can they probe?
> "Words exist that can in principle resolve 20,000-year-old linguistic
> relationships," Dr. Pagel of Reading wrote in a recent symposium volume,
> "Time Depth in Historical Linguistics," adding that "words that can
> resolve even deeper linguistic relationships are not out of the question."
> Many linguists believe that once two languages have drifted so far apart
> that they share only 5 percent or so of their vocabulary, chance
> resemblances will overwhelm the true ones, setting a firm limit on how far
> back their ancestry can be traced.
> "That's a mistaken reasoning which shows the linguists are relying on a
> model of evolution they trash when they see it written down," Dr. Pagel
> said.
> He added that their argument assumed a constant rate of language change,
> the very point they know is wrong in glottochronology.
> Geneticists believe modern humans may have left Africa as recently as
> 50,000 years ago, perhaps in a single migration with very small numbers.
> Reconstructing language of 20,000 years ago would be a big stride toward
> whatever tongue those first emigrants spoke. But Dr. Gray has no plans in
> that direction.
> "It's hard enough to work out what happened 10,000 years ago, let alone
> 30,000 years ago," he said.

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