[b-hebrew] Recreating the Origins of Language

Jack Kilmon jkilmon at historian.net
Sun Feb 24 14:38:36 EST 2013

Every book I read on this subject, the last being McWhorter’s “The Power of Babel” (also with a big ziggurat on the cover) has a built in bias that only US, Homo sapiens,  acquired language and speech.  I am supposed to believe most linguists’ position that Homo erectus walked out in groups from Africa and populated Southeast Asia and China over a million years ago without language?  Language originated in Africa because people originated in Africa.  
The Pleistocene Period, beginning about 1.8 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago began a period of constancy and continuity that promoted the evolution of hominids on the African savannahs. There are a constellation of alleles that evolved governing intelligence in primates and humans, the IGF2 receptor gene, GABA receptors, COMT and ASPM and VAMT2 (the "spirituality" gene) included but with the exception of Homos neanderthalensis we don't have the genomes of most prehistoric hominids but the evolution of general intelligence in early hominids did leave indicators on their cranial endocasts that signaled the development of abstract thought, those being the areas identified with the use of language. These are the Broca's Area consisting of Brodman's areas 44 and 45 on the inferior third frontal convolution on the left hemisphere, temporo-parietal region and the Wernike's Area at the temporo-parietal lobes. These areas can be seen in a lower developed state in the Chimp brain (Yes, chimps have very rudimentary language as anyone, like myself, who has studied them can attest), and a slightly larger state of development in Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus (Holloway, 2004), in Homo habilis and increasing levels of development in H. erectus, sapiens, sapiens neandertalensis. Nothing is a better "signal" of the ability to abstract than the development of speech and language. As those of you who know me have concluded, I am a "language freak" and I believe it developed during the environmental constancy of the lower Pleistocene as groups of hominids became organized hunter-gatherers and communicated with each other with signals, perhaps imitations of birds, animals and natural sounds. Relics of this earliest "language" may survive in the South African Khoisan "click" languages. Language historians, like McWhorter (The Power of Babylon) apply the endemic Homo sapiens bias in proposing that WE, H. sapiens, developed language but common sense tells us Homo erectus didn't get in groups from Africa to East China in the lower Paleolithic without language. Concomitant with language development, for which we have physical evidence, is the fashioning and use of tools which begin with the Olduwan pebble tools (Australopithecine); Acheulian (Homo habilis, ergaster, erectus); Mousterian (Neanderthal); Chatelperronian, Aurignacian , coinciding technologically with the development of language. The NW Semitic languages are about 5,000 years old, seemingly ancient unless compared to language being a million years old. I think the click language of the Khwe in South Africa is the place to start. I lived with them for a little while and they good naturedly laughed at my attempts.

Jack kilmon
Houston, TX

From: Rev. Bryant J. Williams III 
Sent: Sunday, February 24, 2013 3:42 AM
To: B-Hebrew 
Subject: [b-hebrew] Recreating the Origins of Language

Dear List,

BAR has the following article on Recreating the Origins of Lanauges. This article is a small summary of a larger BBC article at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21427896. This BBC article is actually a reporting of the larger  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/02/05/1204678110 ). Sorry, I am not a subscriber to this journal.

I find it interesting that the picture accompanying the BAR article is of The Tower of Babel. Interesting that Polynesian languages are used. What would be nice is to try other language groups. Some think Africa, because it is thought that languages and mankind descended from the African continent. Genesis 2 indicates that mankind was from the area of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Genesis 11 indicates that languages were a direct result of man's disobedience at the Tower of Babel. Furthermore, I would like to see the assumptions or presuppositions, methodology, etc. used in the study. I remind myself of GIGO. 85% of the language can be reduplicated. Not bad. But it is definitely not good. 15% cannot be recreated unless there is a lot of GUESSING, albeit educated guessing, but still GUESSING going. Oops! That should be "speculation" NOT "GUESSING. Scholars don't guess they speculate.:))))

Any comments? Does any one have the full PNAS article?

Rev. Bryant J. Williams III


Recreating the Origins of Language
Bible and archaeology news

Noah Wiener   •  02/15/2013

Epigraphers have a hard enough time tracing the evolution and spread of ancient writing systems. How do linguistic scholars conceive of the languages of our preliterate ancestors? After identifying patterns in the evolution of language, linguists can reverse the process to recreate ancient sound systems. This involves analysis of large quantities of “Big Data;” this can be an extremely long process. University of British Columbia and University of California, Berkeley researchers have developed computer software that can reconstruct protolanguages out of a synthesis of modern languages. A recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science combined 637 Austronesian languages and 142,000 words to reconstruct a common ancestor 7,000 years ago. 85 percent of the resulting words were within one character of a similar study conducted by linguists. The researchers hope that the new software will serve as an accelerated aid for linguistic researchers, rather than a disruptive replacement of traditional methods.


12 February 2013 Last updated at 07:18 ET

Ancient languages reconstructed by computer programBy Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC World Service

A new tool has been developed that can reconstruct long-dead languages.

Researchers have created software that can rebuild protolanguages - the ancient tongues from which our modern languages evolved.

To test the system, the team took 637 languages currently spoken in Asia and the Pacific and recreated the early language from which they descended.

The work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Currently language reconstructions are carried out by linguists - but the process is slow and labour-intensive.

Dan Klein, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said: "It's very time consuming for humans to look at all the data. There are thousands of languages in the world, with thousands of words each, not to mention all of those languages' ancestors.

"It would take hundreds of lifetimes to pore over all those languages, cross-referencing all the different changes that happened across such an expanse of space - and of time. But this is where computers shine."

Rosetta stone

Languages change gradually over time.

Continue reading the main story 
Start Quote
  Sound changes are almost always regular... so patterns are left that a human or a computer can find”
Dr Dan Klein
University of California, BerkeleyOver thousands of years, tiny variations in the way that we produce sounds have meant that early languages have morphed into many different descendents.

Dr Klein explains: "These sound changes are almost always regular, with similar words changing in similar ways, so patterns are left that a human or a computer can find.

"The trick is to identify these patterns of change and then to 'reverse' them, basically evolving words backwards in time."

The scientists demonstrated their system by looking at a group of Austronesian languages that are currently spoken in southeast Asia, parts of continental Asia and the Pacific.

>From a database of 142,000 words, the system was able to recreate the early language from which these modern tongues derived. The scientists believe it would have been spoken about 7,000 years ago.

They then compared the computer's findings to those of linguists, finding that 85% of the early words that the software presented were within one "character" - or sound - of the words that the language experts had identified. 

But while the computerised method was much faster, the scientists said it would not put the experts out of a job.

The software can churn through large amounts of data quickly, but it does not bring the same degree of accuracy as a linguist's expertise.

Dr Klein said: "Our system still has shortcomings. For example, it can't handle morphological changes or re-duplications - how a word like 'cat' becomes 'kitty-cat'.

"At a much deeper level, our system doesn't explain why or how certain changes happened, only that they probably did happen."

While researchers are able to reconstruct languages that date back thousands of years, there is still a question mark over whether it would ever be possible to go even further back to recreate the very first protolanguage from which all others evolved, or whether such a language even exists.

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