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Before Babel: In Search of the First Language is a documentary about language families and the attempt by linguists to reconstruct the earliest root languages. It's made by the BBC, producer of the best television in the history of the world, so you know it's gonna be good. You can watch it on your computer at your convenience if you have no friends, or you can sit in front of the telly with your mates and wait for it go show up. If you are short of time skip ahead to 45:39 and listen to the reconstructed words of Neolithic Proto-Nostratic.
 
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I didn't have time to watch more than a couple of minutes of it but it looked interesting. No doubt packed full of mistaken journalistic assumptions and false simplifications and only showing one particular theory, though, without giving any time to any counter arguments, if other similar documentaries I've seen are any guide, though.

I was slightly surprised I hadn't heard of this before. It seemed to have been shown on BBC2 but when I searched the BBC site I couldn't find any mention. A Google search brought up a several links to various sites with versions of the same video, but no more information. When I looked at the closing credits I found it was a copyrighted 1992!


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It's about the fringes of historical linguistics, the Nostratic and Proto-World hypotheses. The first linguist they talk to is Merritt Ruhlen. A little later on they spend some time with Joseph Greenberg, the founder of the technique of mass comparison. Bill Poser says, about Ruhlen's and Greenberg's work, "NO EVIDENCE WHATEVER IS PRESENTED."

There's also a bit about the "mysterious" and "very old" Basque language. No language is older than any other.

They talk to Don Ringe, who is awesome.

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So you mean I've wasted all the hours I've spent learning Proto-Nostratic so that when I travel half-a-billion miles to another star I'll be able to say a few words to the Engineers?

Bummer.
 
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You've probably seen this, neveu. The comments include an interesting discussion of the Proto-European phrase used in Prometheus: its structure and exactly what it means.
 
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Thanks for that link to LL, goofy. I vaguely remember that post, but I must have read it soon after posting as there was nothing like the number of comments then. I particularly liked the addition of the remark made by a denizen of the 4chan forums:
quote:
The comments on that page have to be the most hardcore nerdiest comments I have ever read in the history of my life.

Brofist to those guys. I wish I was in on their club.

Coming from someone on 4chan, that is praise indeed!


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What does "brofist" mean?


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http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/bro-fist
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Bro Fist is a series of image macros and ASCII-based copypasta often used on imageboards and forums as a virtual fist bump, a popular method of male-to-male greeting that conveys mutual respect for the participating bros. While the act of fist-bumping itself has become a common practice through TV shows and films, the legitimacy of “Bro Fist” as an internet meme remains debatable, as it has been criticized by some as a forced meme or spam.


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Richard English
 
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Proto-Indo-European

There's a website promoting a "modern" PIE as an auxiliary language: link.

It's sad that there's no Wikipedia project in PIE, but there is a one-man, tour-de-force Wikipedia in Volapük: link. (I wonder what the ISO 639-1 two-letter code for PIE is.)


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Originally posted by zmježd:

There's a website promoting a "modern" PIE as an auxiliary language: link.



From that site:
quote:

Following the 2006 prize received in innovation and the interest shown by Spanish media, we decided to fund an informal group - later legally incorporated as the Indo-European Language Revival Association - to work on the conventional questions surrounding the modern, practical use of a mainly theoretical reconstruction, on its learning and teaching among European Union citizens, and on its future adoption as EU's national language.


I wonder what the Basques, Estonians, Finns, Hungarians, Maltese and Turks think of that.
 
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Bill Poser says, about Ruhlen's and Greenberg's work, "NO EVIDENCE WHATEVER IS PRESENTED."

Well, not exactly. What Poser says is "What is the evidence for the 11 subgroups of Amerind, and more generally for his family tree? There isn't any. Really. NO EVIDENCE WHATEVER IS PRESENTED." It's referring to a specific claim Greenberg makes in LIA (although Poser may hold that opinion of all their work).

quote:
No language is older than any other.

Wait a minute. English clearly didn't exist, say, 2000 years ago, and Greek did. It's not the same as modern Greek, but it's Greek. In biology it's inaccurate to say that, for example, homo sapiens are more evolved than the Coelacanth, as they have both been evolving for the same amount of time, but as a species the Coelacanth has been around a lot longer than homo sapiens, or even primates. It seems to me that this would apply to languages as well.

Finally, I think that whenever you have a field called Historical X, different rules are going to apply than for standard X, because of the nature of history. Historians try to establish what really happened in the past, which is usually difficult or impossible to verify since we can't go back in time. They piece together bits of evidence, which get more sparse the farther back you go, and make their best guess at what really happened. Different interpretations of the evidence can lead to different opinions, and new evidence can be more consistent with one reconstruction or another, but until someone invents a time machine that's the best you can do.
 
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In a way, Classical Greek and Modern Greek are different languages related to one another historically. (Based mainly on their mutual incomprehensibility.) Also, all living languages exhibit change. There's no evidence of a living fossil language. When some non-linguist says that Basque or Lithuanian is "older" than English, the only way I can make sense of that statement is that Basque or Lithuanian exhibits some kind of archaism. It doesn't help their argument that examples of Basque and Lithuanian are only recorded during the past half millennium or so.


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quote:
Originally posted by neveu:

Wait a minute. English clearly didn't exist, say, 2000 years ago, and Greek did. It's not the same as modern Greek, but it's Greek.


If Greek is older than English, then where did English come from? Did it just pop into existence out of nothing 1000 years ago?

All non-creole languages consist of an unbroken line of speakers stretching into the past. English was spoken 2000 years ago. We don't call it English, we call it Proto-Germanic, but it's the same language. We give the language different labels for different periods, but that's just for convenience. People think Greek is older than English because the language now and the language 2000 years ago are both called “Greek”, but that's an accident of terminology. 

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quote:
Originally posted by neveu:

Finally, I think that whenever you have a field called Historical X, different rules are going to apply than for standard X, because of the nature of history. Historians try to establish what really happened in the past, which is usually difficult or impossible to verify since we can't go back in time. They piece together bits of evidence, which get more sparse the farther back you go, and make their best guess at what really happened. Different interpretations of the evidence can lead to different opinions, and new evidence can be more consistent with one reconstruction or another, but until someone invents a time machine that's the best you can do.


No, historical linguistics isn't just guesswork where one opinion is as valid as another. We have a methodology, called the comparative method, which has let us reconstruct Proto-Indo-European with some confidence. We have developed rules of sound change that let us make predictions about how languages will be related. Take Latin caput and English head. We can explain, sound for sound, how these words are related. Of course we could be wrong, but the comparative method has been so successful in letting us explain these changes in detail for a lot of words in a lot of languages, that I think we are probably right. The comparative method also lets us say with confidence that Latin deus “god” and Greek theos “god” are not related. So words that look similar are not necessarily related, and related words don't necessary have similar forms. This also lets us distinguish borrowed words from derived words: if a word appears to break the rules, then we can hypothesize that it was borrowed. For instance, "butter" is similar to Latin "butyrum", but it can't be cognate because English b does not correspond to Latin b. So we can hypothesize that "butter" is a borrowing from Latin, and then look for evidence to that effect.

As I understand it, Greenberg’s mass comparison consists of simply looking at a bunch of words from various languages, noting similarities, and concluding that the words are related. There is no attempt to explain the sound changes, so there is no way of distinguishing borrowed words from derived words.

Also, it seems to me that without explaining sound changes, you have no way of falsifying your hypotheses. Using mass comparison, deus and theos could be related and we have no way of showing that they are not. And we have no way of showing that caput and head could be related.

On the other hand, Nostraticists do use the comparative method, but as I understand it the time depth is too great to give us reliable results. 

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We have a methodology, called the comparative method, which has let us reconstruct Proto-Indo-European with some confidence.

I'd amend this to say "some parts of PIE with confidence": mainly phonology and morphology.

time depth

That is my understanding from the few critiques I've read.

[Fixed misspelling.]

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Goofy's comment makes sense to me in light of the great differences in pronunciation of similar letters in the Roman alphabet among Romance language speakers today. Then there's the case of unrelated, or distantly related letters that look the same. Cyrillic comes to mind as an example. Some letters are pronounced as if they were Roman, some as Greek, and some are neither despite their looking like one or the other.


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The sound changes that differentiate caput and head happened a long time before the Roman alphabet was developed. But you can see some later sound changes in the writing, for instance the letter c has different values in French, Spanish and Italian because of how the sound changed.

quote:
Originally posted by zmj:
I'd emend this to say "some parts of PIE with confidence": mainly phonology and morphology.


Yeah I'd agree with that.
 
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Thanks, those explanations make sense.
With respect to time depth, how do they calculate what is too far back to reconstruct? Do words have a half-life?
Also, there was an argument implied in the documentary that certain types or categories of words are more persistent than others; I think "mouse" was the example. Is this demonstrably the case? Are, say, words for pests or vermin more persistent over time in other languages?
 
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Here's a term for vermin that's lasted for several hundred years: http://blog.oup.com/2008/09/politician/


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quote:
Originally posted by neveu:
Thanks, those explanations make sense.
With respect to time depth, how do they calculate what is too far back to reconstruct? Do words have a half-life?


As Ringe says, there is a limit to how far back we can go, but I don't know if we have determined exactly what that limit is.

quote:
Originally posted by neveu:
Also, there was an argument implied in the documentary that certain types or categories of words are more persistent than others; I think "mouse" was the example.


Ruhlen used the example of "mouse" as a word that didn't change much in the daughter languages: Proto-Indo-European *mūs, Greek mūs, Latin mūs, Old English mūs. He also mentions "nephew": Proto-Indo-European *nepōt-, Romanian nepot (also Latin nepōt-). However, words like this are rare.

quote:
Originally posted by neveu:
Is this demonstrably the case?


I don't know. If a word remains relatively phonologically unchanged for 3000 years, I'd say it's just because the sounds it contains just happen to be the sounds that haven't changed. It's nothing to do with the meaning.

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As Ringe says, there is a limit to how far back we can go, but I don't know if we have determined exactly what that limit is.

No doubt there is a limit, but is it 5000 years, 20,000 years, 100,000 years? It seems to me you would need to be able to quantify how much of an earlier version of language remains after some period of time, like how much Proto-Germanic remains in modern English, and give it an actual number, to even begin to talk about time depth limits.
 
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The limit I have seen is 10K years BP.


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There is glottochronology, an attempt to assign dates to linguistic events. The problem is "the lexical replacement rate is not constant. The rates observed in languages with a known history vary considerably. For example, studies show that English preserved only 68% of its basic vocabulary over a 1,000 year period, while Icelandic preserved 97%."

quote:
Originally posted by zmježd:
The limit I have seen is 10K years BP.


I would be very interested to know where this number comes from.
 
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I would be very interested to know where this number comes from.

Might've been on Language Log. (You might contact Liberman for more info.) Might've been Joanna Nichol's book on comp-hist method. Or Ringe paper. I'll look around in my library for something. FWIW, it is mentioned (uncited of course) in the Wikipedia article on Historical Linguistics.


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Originally posted by goofy:
The rates observed in languages with a known history vary considerably. For example, studies show that English preserved only 68% of its basic vocabulary over a 1,000 year period, while Icelandic preserved 97%."

Is this due to isolation or technology or both? Or some other forces?


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Is this due to isolation or technology or both? Or some other forces?

Probably because of a whole bunch of complex events.


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I have my nose in this book: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/...n-all-things/#review The author thinks that ears have played as much a part in language development as speech, since what we hear translates into what we say. So might language differentiation be due to aural change, or due to mondegreens, or both?


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quote:
Originally posted by Geoff:
I have my nose in this book: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/...n-all-things/#review The author thinks that ears have played as much a part in language development as speech, since what we hear translates into what we say. So might language differentiation be due to aural change, or due to mondegreens, or both?


I think the causes of language change are complex. I've never heard of aural change (change in how our ears work?) as a cause.
 
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Originally posted by Geoff:
I have my nose in this book ...

You keep it there for safekeeping, do ya'?
 
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Nah, Tinnie, my nose dribbles a lot, so when one pair of pages gets snotty, I just turn the page and I've got fresh, dry paper. They printed it on thick, absorbent paper.


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