You are on page 1of 4

THIS

vlEW OF LIFE

Grimm's Greatest Tale


The threads ofour linguistic history closely match
the pattern ofour biological development

by Stephen Jay Gould


With the possible exception of Eng and
Chang, who had no choice, no famous
brothers have ever been closer than
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, who lived
and worked together throughout their
long and productive lives. Wilhelm
(1786-1859) was the prime mover in collecting the Kinder- und Hausmiirchen
(fables for the home and for children) that
have become a pillar and icon of our culture. (Can you even imagine a world without Cinderella or Snow White?) Jacob,
senior member of the partnership
(1785-1863), maintained a primary interest in linguistics and the history of human
speech. His Deutsche Grammatik, first
published in 1819, became a cornerstone
for documenting relationships between
lnd~European languages. Late in their
lives, after a principled resignation from
the University of Gottingen (prompted by
the king of Hanover's repeal of the 1833
constitution as too liberal), the brothers
Grimm settled in Berlin where they began
their last and greatest project, the Deutsches Wijrterbuch -a gigantic German
dictionary documenting the history, etymology, and use of every word contained
in three centuries of literature from Luther to Goethe. Certain scholarly projects
are, like medieval cathedrals, too vast for
completion in the lifetime of their architects. Wilhelm never got past D; Jacob
lived to see the letter F.
Speaking in Calcutta, during the infancy of the British raj in 1786, the philologist William Jones first noted impressive similarities between Sanskrit and the
classical languages of Greece and Rome
(an Indian king, or raja, matches rex, his
Latin counterpart). Jones's observation
led to the recognition of a great lnd~
European family of languages, now
spread from the British Isles and Scandinavia to India, but clearly rooted in a
20

NATURAL HISTORY

2/89

single, ancient origin. Jones may have


marked the basic similarity, but the brothers Grimm were among the first to codify
regularities of change that underpin the
diversification of the rootstock into its major subgroups (Romance languages, Germanic tongues, and so on). Grimm's law,
you see, does not state that all frogs shall
tum into princes by the story's end, but
specifies the characteristic changes in
consonants between Pro~lnd~E~
pean (as retained in Latin) and the Germanic languages. Thus, for example,
Latinp'sbecomef'sinGermaniccognates
(voiceless stops become voiceless fricatives in the jargon). The latin plenum becomes "full" (vol/, pronounced "foll" in
German); piscis becomes fish" (Fisch in
German); and pes becomes "foot" (Fuss
in German). (Since English is an amalgam
of a Germanic stock with Latin-based imports from the Norman conquest, our language bas added Latin cognates to Angl~
Saxon roots altered according to Grimm's
law-plenty, piscine, and podiatry. We
can even get both for the price of one in
plentiful.)
I first learned about Grimm's law in a
college course more than twenty-five
years ago. Somehow, the idea that the
compilers of Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin also gave the world a great scholarly
principle in linguistics struck me as one of
the sweetest little facts I ever learned-a
statement, symbolic at least, about interdisciplinary study and the proper contact
of high and vernacular culture. I have
wanted to disgorge this tidbit for years
and am delighted that this essay finally
provided an opportunity.
A great dream of unification underlay
the observations of Jones and the codification of systematic changes by Jacob
Grimm. Nearly all the languages of Europe (with such fascinating exceptions as

Basque, Hungarian, and Finnish) could be


joined to a pathway that spread through
Persia all the way to India via Sanskrit
and its derivatives. An origin in the middle, somewhere in the Near East, seemed
indicated, and such fossil" lnd~Eu~
pean tongues as Hittite support this interpretation. Whether the languages were
spread, as convention dictates, by conquering nomadic tribes on horseback or,
as Colin Renfrew argues in his recent book
(Archaeology and Language, Cambridge
University Press, 1987), more gently and
passively by the advantages of agriculture, evidence points to a single source
with a complex history of proliferation in
many directions.
Might we extend the vision of unity
even further? Could we link Ind~Eu~
pean with the Semitic (Hebrew, Arabic)
languages of the scx:alled Af~Asiatic
stock; the Altaic languages of Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan; the Dravidian
tongues of southern India; even to the native Amerindian languages of the New
World? Could the linkages extend even
further to the languages of southeastern
Asia (Chinese, Thai, Malay, Tagalog), the
Pacific Islands, Australia, and New
Guinea, even (dare one dream) to the
most different tongues of southern Africa,
including the Kboisan family with its complex clicks and implosions?
Most scholars balk at the very thought
of direct evidence for connections among
these basic "linguistic phyla." The peoples
were once united, of course, but the division and spread occurred so long ago (or so
the usual argument goes) that no traces of
linguistic similarity should be left according to standard views about rates of
change in such volatile aspects of human
culture. Yet a small group of scholars,
including some prominent emigres from
the Soviet Union (where theories of lin-

guistic unification are not so scorned), persist in arguing for such linkages, despite
acrimonious rebuttal and dismissal from
most Western colleagues. One heterodox
view tries to link Indo-European with linguistic phyla of the Near East and northern Asia (from Semitic at the southwest,
to Dravidian at the southeast, all the way
to Japanese at the northeast) by reconstructing a hypothetical ancestral
tongue called Nostratic (from the Latin
noster, meaning our "). An even more
radical view holds that modern tongues
still preserve enough traces of common
ancestry to link Nostratic with the native
languages of the Americas (all the way to
South America via the Eskimo tongues,
but excluding the puzzling Na-Dene languages of northwestern America).
The vision is beguiling, but I haven't the
slightest idea whether any of these unorthodox ideas have a prayer of success. I
have no technical knowledge of linguistics, only a hobbyist's interest in language.
But I can report, from my own evolutionary domain, that the usual biological argument, invoked a priori against the possibility of direct linkage among linguistic
phyla, no longer applies. This conventional argument held that Homo sapiens
arose and split (by geographical migration) into its racial lines far too long ago for
any hope that ancestral linguistic similarities might be retained by modern speakers. (A stronger version held that various
races of Homo sapiens arose separately
and in parallel from different stocks of
Homo erectus, thus putting the point of
common linguistic ancestry even further
back into a truly inaccessible past. Indeed,
according to this view, the distant common ancestor of all modern people might
not even have possessed language. Some
linguistic phyla might have arisen as separate evolutionary inventions, scotching
any hope for theories of unification.)
The latest biological evidence, mostly
genetic but with some contribution from
paleontology, strongly indicates a single
and discrete African origin for Homo sapiens at a date much closer to the present
than standard views would have dared to
imagine-perhaps only 200,000 years ago
or so, with all non-African diversity perhaps no more than 100,000 years old (see
my column of June 1987). Within this
highly compressed framework of common
ancestry, the notion that conservative linguistic elements might still link existing
phyla no longer seems so absurd a priori.
The idea is worth some serious testing,
even if absolutely nothing positive eventually emerges.
This compression of the time scale also
suggests possible success for a potentially

powerful research program into the great


question of historical linkages among
modern peoples. Three major and entirely
independent sources of evidence might be
used to reconstruct the human family tree:
( 1) direct but limited evidence of fossil
bones and artifacts by paleontology and
archeology; (2) indirect but copious data
on degrees of genetic relationship among
living peoples; (3) relative similarities and
differences among languages, as discussed above. We might attempt to correlate these separate sources, searching for
similarities in pattern. I am delighted to
report some marked successes in this direction ("Reconstruction of Human Evolution: Bringing Together Genetic, Archaeological, and Linguistic Data," by
L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, A. Piazza, P. Menozzi, and J. Mountain, Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, August
1988, pp. 6002-6). The reconstruction of
the human family tree-its branching or. der, its timing, and its geography-may
be within our grasp. Since this tree is the
basic datum of history, hardly anything in
intellectual life could be more important.
Our recently developed ability to measure genetic distances for large numbers
of protein or DNA sequences provides the
keystone for resolving the human family
tree. As I have argued many times in this
forum, such genetic data take pride of
place not because genes are ''better" or
"more fundamental" than data of morphology, geography, and language but
only because genetic data are so copious
and so comparable. We all shared a common origin, and therefore a common genetics and morphology, as a single ancestral population some quarter of a million
years ago. Since then, differences have
accumulated as populations separated
and diversified. As a rough guide, the
more extensive the measured differences,
the greater the time of separation. This
correlation between extent of difference
and time of separation is our chief tool for
reconstructing the human family tree.
But this relationship is only rough and
very imperfect. So many factors can dis-.
tort and disrupt a strict correlation of time
and difference. Similar features can
evolve independently-black skin in Africans and Australians, for example, since
these groups stand as far apart genealogically as any two peoples on Earth. Rates of
change need not be constant. Tiny populations, in particular, can undergo marked
increases in rate, primarily by random
forces of genetic drift. The best way to
work past these difficulties lies in a "brute
force" approach: the greater the quantity
of measured differences, the greater the
likelihood of a primary correlation be-

tween time and overall distance. Any single measure of distance may be impacted
by a large suite of forces that can disrupt
the correlation of time and differencenatural selection, convergence, rapid genetic drift in small populations. But time is
the only common factor underlying all
measures of difference; when two populations split, all potential measures of distance become free to diverge. Thus, the
more independent measures of distance
we compile, the more likely we are to
recover the only common signal of diversification: time itself. Only genetic data (at
least for now) can supply this required
richness in number of comparisons.
Genetic data on human differences are
flowing in from laboratories throughout
. the world, and this essay shall be obsolete
before it hits the presses. Blood groups
provided our first crude insights during
the 1960s, and Cavalli-Sforza was a pioneer in these studies. When techniques of
electrophoresis permitted us to survey
routinely for variation in the enzymes and
proteins coded directly by genes, then
data on human differences truly began to
accumulate in useful cascades. More recently, our ability to sequence DNA itself
has given us even more immediate access
to the sources of variation. (The data on
mitochondrial DNA has received the
most publicity, including an essay in this
series and a story in Newsweek that broke
conceptual ground with a cover painting
of Adam and Eve as black, if minimally so
with their near-white complexions, to
honor our ultimate African ancestry. But
additional data from other genes have
been published and continue to accumulate rapidly.)
The methodologically proper and powterful brute force comparisons are, for the
lmoment, best made by studying differing
~tates and frequencies of genes as revealed
in the amino acid sequences of enzymes
land proteins. Cavalli-Sforza and col]eagues used information from alleles
(varying states of genes, as in tall versus
short for Mendel's peas) to construct a
tree for human populations least affected
by extensive interbreeding. (few human
groups are entirely aboriginal, and most
populations are interbred to various degrees, given the two most characteristic
attributes of Homo sapiens: wanderlust
and vigorous sexuality. Obviously, if we
wish to reconstruct the order of diversified
branching from a common point of origin,
historically mixed populations will confuse our quest. The Cape Colored, living
disproof from their own ancestors for the
Afrikaner "ideal" of apartheid, would join
Khoisan with Caucasian. One town in
Brazil might well join everyone.)

.30

.lot

iSu

18

.u

-;;
.()6

:!
;e

<

1
~

<

c:

-;;

<

I I
IV

-..
.!!

.!!

f
a

<

VI

VD
.

Cavalli-Sforza's consensus tree, based


on overall genetic distances among 120
alleles for forty-two populations-probably the best we can do for now, based on
the maximal amount of secure and consistent information-divides modem hu-

mans into seven major groups, as shown in


the accompanying chart. Only branching
order counts in assessing relative similarity, not the happenstance of alignment
along the bottom of the chart. Africans
are not closer to Caucasians than to Aus-

Meanwhile, the second great branch di- by comparing the measured genetic disvided to split the northern Oriental stocks tances with actual dates recorded in the
from the Caucasians (group II, including geological record. If rates of change are
Europeans, Semitic peoples of southwest roughly the same for all groups, then the
Asia, Iranians, and Indians). A second di- ratio between genetic distance and age of
vision separated the Native American separation should be fairly constant. The
peoples (group IV) from the northeast geological record is woefully poor; all estiAsian family {group Ill, including the mates are tentative and can only represent
Uralic peoples who left Hungarian, Finn- minimal ages (separation might have ocish, and Estonian as their non-Indo-Euro- curred long before we first pick up geologpean calling cards from invasions into ical evidence). But Cavalli-Sforza and colCaucasian territories, and the Altaic peo- leagues worked with three widely cited
ples of Mongolia, Korea, and Japan).
dates: 35,000 years for the separation of
This good and sensible order indicates Caucasian and Asiatic (the first discovery
that genetic data are not betraying our ofCro-Magnon people in Europe); 40,000
efforts to reconstruct the human family years for migration to Australia and New
tree. But Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues go Guinea; and 92,000 years for the
further toward the great promise of ex- African-non-African split (based on the
tending this correlation between genes oldest non-African dates from the Qafzeh
and geography to the other great sources caves of Israel). Using a measure of geof independent information-the geologi- netic distance devised by Masatoshi Nei,
cal and linguistic records.
a professor at the University of Texas and
Fossils and artifacts supply our only di- the best mathematician in the business,
rect evidence for the timing of these Cavalli-Sforza found that gene/time rabranches; all other criteria rely on infer- tios for these three events are consistent
ences from differences among living peo- with the hypothesis of constant rates.
ples. The simplest hypothesis, surely unAn interesting potential exception intrue as an absolute rule but potentially volves the perennially vexatious question
useful as a rough generality, would postu- about the peopling of the Americas. The
late constancy in the overall rate of ge- conventional date for first migration to the
netic change. We can test this hypothesis New World is a surprisingly late 11,000 or

tralians just because the two groups are


adjacent; rather, Africans are equally far
from all other groups by virtue of their
common branching point with the ancestor of all six additional groups. (Consider
the diagram as a mobile, free to rotate
about each vertical "string." We could
tum around the entire array of groups II
to VII, placing Australians next to Africans and Caucasians at the far right, without altering the branching order.)
These seven basic groups, established
solely on genetic distances, make excellent sense when we consider the geographic distribution of Homo sapiens.
Humans presumably evolved in Africa,
and the first great split separates Africans
from all other groups-representing the
initial migration of some Homo sapiens
out of the mother continent The next split
separates the coherent region of the Pacific and Southeast Asia from the rest of
the world. One group reached Australia
and New Guinea, perhaps 40,000 years
ago, forming the aboriginal populations of
this region. A later division separated the
Pacific island peoples (group VI, including Polynesians, Micronesians, and Melanesians) from the southeastern Asiatics
(group V, including southern Chinese
Thai, Malayan, and Filipino).
'

so years ago--as the last glacial age


reached its peak, to form the Bering corridor, and the ice began to melt, to provide
access. But legions of doubters, from the
most bookish scholars to the Heyerdahls
who sail bark and paper boats across
oceans, have argued for earlier dates. The
traditional date gives a gene/time ratio
about twice as great as the common value
for the other three events, while 35,000
years would put the ratio on target.
Does this mean that we should drop the
traditional date and give our allegiance to
an older New World? Not at all. The unorthodox, older date may well be correct,
but the high ratio given by the traditional
age has another potential explanation
based on the near certainty that genetic
rates cannot be absolutely constant in all
cases. We know the general circumstances that enhance rates of genetic
change--and remember that any acceleration in rate will convey the impression
of a falsely magnified age. In particular,
very small populations are subject to a set
of random forces that can markedly enhance rates of genetic change: genetic
drift, or rapid spread and loss of alleles by
chance, and the founder effect, or esta&lishment of populations with genetic cc.positions rna!'kedly different from pan~r-

------

--------------

tal groups. The initial American populations that ventured over the Bering land
bridge may have been very small.
But I found the linguistic correlations
more exciting than anything else in the
work of Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues.
Language is so volatile. Conquerors can
impose their language as well as their will.
Tongues interpenetrate and merge with
an explosive ease not granted to genes or
morphology. Look at English; look at any
of us. I, for example, live in America, the
indigenous home of a very different people. I speak English, and consider the cathedral of Chartres the world's most beautiful building. But along with Disraeli's,
my ancestors were priests in the Temple of
Solomon when the physical forebears of
the original English people still lived as
"brutal savages in an unknown island."
One might have anticipated very little correlation between language and the tree of
human ancestry.
Yet the mapping of linguistic upon genetic iree is remarkable in its degree of
overlap. Exceptions exist, of course, and
for the reasons mentioned above. Ethiopians speak an Afr<rAsiatic language (in the
phylum of Hebrew and Arabic), but belong to the maximally distant African
group by genes. The Tibetan language
links with Chinese in group V, although
the Tibetan people belong with northeast
Asians in group III. But Tibetans migrated from the steppes north of China,
and Ethiopians have maintained primary
contact and admixture with Semitic
speakers for millennia. The correlations,
however, are striking. Each genetic group
also defines either a single linguistic phylum or a few closely related phyla. The
Pacific island languages, with their mellifluous vowels,and nearly nonexistent consonants, define group VI almost as well as
the genetic distances. The Ind<rEuropean
languages set the borders of Caucasian
affinity, while the other major tongues of
Caucasian peoples (Afr<rAsiatic of the
Semitic group) belong to a related linguistic phylum.
I am especially intrigued that the heterodox hypotheses for linkages among linguistic phyla, and for potential reconstructions of human languages even closer to
the original tongue, follow the genetic connections so faithfully. Nostratic would
link groups II and III. The even more
heterodox connection of Nostratic with
Amerindian tongues would include group
IV as well. Note that groups II to IV form
a coherent limb of the human family tree.
The Tower of Babel may emerge as a
strikingly accurate metaphor. We probably did once speak the same language,
and we did diversify into incomprehension

~-

as we spread over the face of the earth.


But this original tongue was not an optimal construction given by a miracle to all
people. Our original linguistic unity is only
historical happenstance, not crafted perfection. We were once a small group of
Africans, and the mother tongue is whatever these folks said to each other, not the
Holy Grail.
This research has great importance for
the obvious and most joyously legitimate
parochial reason-our intense fascination
with ourselves and the details of our history. We really do care that our species
arose closer to 250,000 than to 2 million
years ago, that Basque is the odd man out
of European languages, and that the peopling of the Americas is not mysterious for
its supposed "delay," but part of a regular
process of expansion from an African center, and basically on time" after all.
But I also sense a deeper importance in
this remarkable correlation among all major criteria for reconstructing our family
tree. This high correspondence can only
mean that a great deal of human diversity,
far more than we ever dared hope,
achieves a remarkably simple explanation
in history itself. If you know when a group
split off and where it spread, you have the
basic outline (in most cases) of its relationships with others. The primary signature
of time and history is not effaced, or even
strongly overlain in most cases, by immediate adaptation to prevailing circumstances or by recent episodes of conquest
and amalgamation. We remain the children of our past-and we might even be
able to pool our differences and to extract
from inferred pathways of change a
blurred portrait of our ultimate parents.
The path is tortuous and bard to trace,
as the sister of the seven ravens learned
when she went from the sun to the moon to
the glass mountain in search of her brothers. History is also a bard taskmaster, for
she covers her paths by erasing so much
evidence from her records--as Hansel
and Gretel discovered when birds ate their
Ariadne's thread of bread crumbs. Yet the
potential rewards are great, for we may
recover the original state so hidden by our
later changes-the prince behind the frog
or the king that became the bear companion of Snow White and Rose Red. And the
criteria that may lead to success are many
and varied-not only the obvious data of
senes and fossils but also the clues of lansuage. For we must never doubt the power
of names, as Rumpelstiltskin learned to
his sorrow.

StepMn Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and tM history ofscience at HQTVQI'd
University.