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[mythfolk] Seeking the Mother Tongue: Proto-World and Creoles

T. Peter Park Tue, 15 Aug 2006 19:34:52 -0700
SEEKING THE MOTHER TONGUE: PROTO-WORLD AND CREOLES By T. Peter Park Inquiring minds have long wondered about the origins of language, the causes of our world's vast linguistic diversity, and about whether our world's myriad languages might all be derived from a single original tongue. In the Biblical Tower of Babel story, human beings originally all spoke the same language until God stopped their attempt to build a tower reaching up to Heaven by making them speak different languages. Thus, the tower's builders could no longer understand each other or collaborate on their impious project. Herodotus related an Egyptian story about an experiment by King Psamtik I (664-610 B.C.) to determine the original language. Psamtik had two babies reared in isolation from human contact by a mute shepherd, so that they would not be "contaminated" by hearing any adult language. Their first intelligible sound resembled "bekos," the Phrygian word for "bread." Psamtik concluded that Phrygian, an Indo-European language spoken in ancient Turkey, was humanity's original tongue. Christian and Jewish writers in the Middle Ages assumed that God, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, spoke Hebrew, the language of the Holy Scriptures. Patriotic scholars in the Renaissance claimed, according to their nationality, that God, Adam, and Eve had spoken French, German, English, Dutch, or Swedish! 18th and 19th century philosophers and linguists, inspired by the Enlightenment and Darwinism, devised ingenious and seemingly plausible but speculative and unprovable "rational" and "scientific" theories of the origins of language In exasperated reaction against the endless, inconclusive speculations of "armchair" theorists relying more on the theories of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, or Darwin than on actual linguistic research, late 19th century professional linguists declared a moratorium on theorizing on the origins of language. As the origin of human speech and the character of the original language would probably forever remain insoluble mysteries, speculation on such topics was futile and unscientific. Therefore, papers on the origins of language or the original "mother tongue" would no longer be allowed to be published in linguistic journals or read at linguistic congresses. The world's many different languages, it was granted, could well be ultimately related, in being probably all descended from the grunts of the same band of Pleistocene ape-men. However, after so many tens or hundreds of thousands of years of constant change and divergence, this presumable distant common origin would be forever impossible to trace or prove. This remained the predominant, quasi-official view of linguists through most of the 20th century. However, a few maverick linguists--Wilhelm Schmidt (1869-1954), Alfredo Trombetti (1866-1929). Otto Jespersen (1860-1943),

Greenberg's protégé and disciple Ruhlen. 1905). like Jespersen. Swadesh cited many reconstructed proto-words in numerous articles and in _The Origin and Diversification of Language_. Bickerton suggested. the ultimate common origin of all languages. Defying the "official" taboos of the linguistic profession. Hamito-Semitic. and Ruhlen differed in some details. 1981) and _Language and Species_ (University of Chicago Press. Merrit Ruhlen (1944-)--challenged this dogma throughout the 20th century. 249. and by a number of Russian linguists including Vladislav Illich-Svitych. Some. Dutch. The Russian linguists were at first mainly interested in proving a "Nostratic" language phylum or superfamily comprising the Indo-European. 116-122). 1.Morris Swadesh (1909-1967). Spanish. 1990). Derek Bickerton (1925-). wife" was variously . pp. Joseph H. and Ruhlen. like Schmidt. a professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii who has spent much of his career studying pidgin and creole languages throughout the world. broadly similar to Trombetti's though often with small differences of detail.: John Wiley & Sons) and the similarly titled but much more technical _On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy_ (Stanford University Press). No. and Aron Dolgopolsky. culminating in his posthumously published _The Origin and Diversification of Language_ (Chicago and New York: Aldine-Atherton. 1970's. and the possibility of proving that common origin even now by the accepted methods of comparative and historical linguistics. Swadesh. Portuguese. In the 1960's. There also were some differences in the exact phonetic form reconstructed for some proto-words. Vitaly Shevoroshkin (now at the University of Michigan). and Arabic. citing many reconstructed proto-words. summed up these late 20th century researches with two 1994 books: the semi-popular _The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue _ (New York. and in his 1983 _Scientific American_ article "Creole Languages" (_Scientific American_. Japanese-Korean. Swadesh. tens or even hundreds of millennia after the original human dispersal (whether from the Near East or Africa). Some. Uralic. July 1983. again citing many reconstructed proto-words. in his books_Roots of Language_ (Ann Arbor. Trombetti. In the mid-20th century. French. did not offer any reconstructed proto-worlds. amassed evidence for the probable common origin of all languages and attempted to reconstruct the basic vocabulary of the_Ursprache_. Swadesh. they dared to speculate about the origins of language. Altaic. Derek Bickerton. with _L'Unità d'origine del linguaggio_ (Bologna: Libreria Treves di Luigi Beltrami. The Proto-World reconstructions of Trombetti. and 1980's. using vocabularies borrowed from those of colonialist or trader languages like English. Thus. have recreated the probable grammar and syntax of the earliest _ Homo sapiens _ languages. the project was continued by Stanford University's Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen. etc. Greenberg (1915-2001). Sergei Starostin. Vladislav Illich-Svitych (1934-1966). Like Trombetti." Alfredo Trombetti launched modern attempts to prove the common origin of all languages. "Mother-Tongue" or "Proto-World. MI: Karoma Publishers. and the light shed on it by pidgins and Creoles. Some cited proto-words not listed by some of the others. Vol.. Morris Swadesh argued for the concept among American linguists. Illych-Svitych. Shevoroshkin. Greenberg. and Eskimo-Aleut families--but soon expanded this into a search for even broader world-wide relationships. he discussed the origin of language. However. 1971). Modern creole languages. theorized about the origins of human speech and the probable characteristics of the earliest stages of language. the proto-word for "woman. and Bickerton.

Thus. and despite small differences in exact phonetic form ("man." mana "stay. kuna.. günaika) in gynecology. Mocha (Ethiopia) gäne. want. or maga? )--but we are getting a fairly good idea of their approximate form. meno." When they pointed to the flight of a bird overhead. Germanic *hw-) that we find at the beginning of Indo-European question-words like Latin quis?. by Morris Swadesh as kwen and by Greenberg and Ruhlen as kuna. kena. as well as of Quechua (Peruvian "Inca") muna. or gnô. feel. kuri. mag. kâne. "Love-Singers"! A bit further on. küni or kuna in Proto-World. male. k'üina. küni. kun "who?" includes the ku." When they gestured toward the ground.000 years ago. and kanakwayina in Zuñi. Tupí (Brazil) & Guaraní (Paraguay) kuñá. kina. Ultimately. or kuanai." and aqwa "water. pp. Isthmus Zapotec (Mexico) guná'a. 138) that the word for "woman" or "wife" is künü in Kirghiz (Central Asia)." mena "think. misogynist. geneticist Steve Olson discussed the linguistic evidence on prehistoric migrations in his chapter "Sprung from a Common Source: Genes and Languages" in _Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes_ (Houghton Mifflin. The Proto-World "woman"-word reflected in these forms was reconstructed by Alfredo Trombetti as kuanai. Olson noted (p. that for "know. kwena.or kw. they might have said something like "tika. kane in Cambodian. 2002). k'uyan. as well as a host of world-wide "woman"-words among." a sense of mena we also find in the mediaeval German Minnesingers. however. wolf" was variously reconstructed as kuan." Proto-World ku. citing the work of Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen. quid?."wish. that for "dog. they could have used a word similar to "par. and that for "think.000 years ago by raft from the Horn of Africa across the Red Sea to Asia and ultimately Australia. the gyn. mental.reconstructed as kwen. I would add. He wrote (p. many others. Bay of Bengal) kân. wife" was most probably something . Tonkawa (Texas) kwân.when these people wanted to refer to the water they were crossing.. mäno. Vai & Susu (West Africa) gine. There is now enough of a consensus on the probable basic vocabulary of Proto-World that some writers have even attempted hypothetical short sentences and "conversations" among the first "Out of Africa" migrants. strong" mek.element (from Greek güne. For the most part. SE Tasmanian quani. quo? and English who?. Nancowry (Nicobar Islands. while mena is the ultimate source of English mind. 137-139) the hypothetical Proto-World spoken by the first _Homo sapiens_ migrants 65. here's a question in a pidgin version of the language they may have spoken: "Kun mena mana? Kun mena aqwa?" It means: "Who thinks we should stay? Who thinks we should go across the water?" >> Olson's hypothetical Proto-World discussion about crossing the Red Sea included the widely accepted proto-words kun "who?.element (rendered as Latin qu-." In fact. what?. Paez (Colombia) kuenas. androgynous. or mar?) the reconstructions have been broadly similar. think" as ken. we will probably never know the EXACT pronunciation of most Proto-World words (was "big. or kuari. gon. love. if there is an overwhelming preponderance of world-wide linguistic evidence that the word was SOMETHING of that GENERAL sort. husband" as mano. Similarly. wish" as mena or manu. remain. perceive. Olson began the chapter by discussing (pp. where? Proto-World *aqwa is preserved almost unchanged in Latin aqua. with the English queen coming from the same source-as does. etc. feel. they may have used a word that sounded something like "aqwa. Short of building a time-machine and going back to East Africa 70. Nootka (Vancouver Island) ganemo. it does not matter that much if women were called kwen. 138): <<. 137-154. there has been considerable broad agreement on many proto-words. desire. My own hunch is that the Proto-World word for "woman.

Bickerton is very skeptical of any suggestion that most or all modern Creoles are descended from any one . or kweni.. Portuguese. The first out-of-Africa migrants probably spoke a language very similar in grammar and syntax to modern creoles. and Bonaire in the Caribbean). Saramaccan (an English-based Creole spoken by the so-called "Bush Negroes" of the Guyanas). baby-talk-like "me Tarzan you Jane. Korean. he believes. you die" fashion. Moreover. out of pidgins. the former Dutch Guyana). chiefly in colonial and plantation settings. Bickerton finds. the Far East. Bickerton has noted.and Portuguese-based Creole of Curaçao. A pidgin is a sort of proto-language or crude formless makeshift language invented by adults who are native speakers of different languages in order to communicate between themselves. and whether their speakers are mainly of African. me hit you head. Aruba. etc." "me Ugg. Tok Pisin (New Guinea "Pidgin" English). We also seem to be on the threshold of reconstructing the grammar and syntax as well as the basic vocabulary of Proto-World. invented entirely by the first generation of children who learned pidgin as native speakers from their parents and playmates. Bickerton has pointed out. It is now a real language. Sranan (an English. as described by Bickerton.and Dutch-based Creole of Surinam. Spanish. Pidgins have no set grammar. Bickerton's Creole researches. All the creole speakers use the same grammatical rules. have shown that the close similarities in Creole grammar and syntax in the Americas. Seychelles Creole French. and thus give a strong clue to what the grammar and syntax of Proto-World must probably have been like. A creole language. Papiamentu (a Spanish. or Arabic. Jamaican Creole English. regardless of whether their vocabularies are based mainly on English. This has historically happened mostly in colonial or trading situations. Crioulo (a Portuguese Creole). he argues. with regular grammatical rules. Substantially the same grammar and syntax. stringing words together haphazardly in a crude. Likewise. he finds. Chinese. They are not. Japanese. creoles throughout the world have virtually the same grammatical rules--which coincide with the grammatical "mistakes" most commonly made by small children learning to speak their own "regular" languages! Creoles seem to spontaneously recapitulate the probable historically very earliest stages in the evolution of the world's languages out of Proto-World. In modern times. if we accept University of Hawaii linguist Derek Bickerton's conclusions about Creole languages. as popularly believed. Asian. if future researchers should conclude that something like kuna or kuni is more likely. Dutch. French. are found in Hawaiian Creole English (spoken by Hawaiian laborers of variously native Hawaiian. These Creoles. me big hunter. kwina. Africa. Réunion Creole French. is a new language developed when the children of pidgin speakers in a colony or on a plantation acquire a language based on their parents' pidgin and that being spoken around them by the children of other pidgin speakers. derived from the grammar and syntax of Chinese or any Afrcan or Melanesian languages. Krio (Caribbean Creole French). which are not traceable to the grammars of any of the native languages spoken by their parents (pidgin speakers).like kwena. Senegal Kriol (West Africa). or Pacific Islander descent. Filipino. and the Pacific can not be explained by the universal influence on all these Creole languages of any one particular plantation-laborer language like Yoruba (in the Americas) or Chinese (in and around the Pacific). However. and Portuguese origin). all have essentially the exact same grammar and syntax. Haitian Creole French. creoles have developed in various parts of the world. The creole has a definite standardized grammar.

I would drive home" is rendered in [Hawaiian] Creole as "If I bin get car." or about language being biologically "hard-wired." in Creole there is a tense Bickerton calls the anterior tense. Chinese. and subsequently spread all over the world with frequent vocabulary replacements from English. 2001). usually marked in "-ed. It's a "bioprogram. Swahili. English employs the conditional or the future tense. the addition of a definite or indefinite article to "shirt" changes the meaning of the sentence. Dutch." the speaker further presupposes that the listener is already familiar with the shirt the speaker is going to buy (the object discussed is known/familiar to the listener). in the sentence "I stay go da store for buy da shirt. Moore is correct in _The Dependent Gene: The Fallacy of "Nature" Vs. it is marked with "bin" for older speakers and with "wen" for younger speakers. it may be a mistake to talk about a "linguistics bioprogram. if the developmental psychologist David S." It too is placed before the main verb and indicates that the action expressed by the verb is . Arabic. The anterior tense is somewhat like English "past perfect": "had walked" in English is "bin walk" in Hawaiian Creole. Bickerton adds. the sentence "If I had a car. Regardless of the merits of Bickerton's haed-wired linguistic bioprogram hypothesis." or the standard French contrast of "un~une" versus "le~la. possible. He cites historical reasons why such theories are highly unlikely. Japanese." In place of English past tense. Here are some of the main grammatical and syntactic features of Creoles. a grammatically neutral marker or particle for number can be employed on a noun in order to avoid specifying number: "I stay go da store for buy shirt" ("I am going to the store to buy a shirt") Moreover. In saying "I stay go da store for buy one shirt. I go drive home. However." the Creole speaker asserts that the shirt is a specific one. For example. In Hawaiian Creole." too. In Creole all such irreal ("irrealis") circumstances are expressed by the [Hawaiian Creole] particle "go. a Creole auxiliary verb that marks what linguists call "aspect. he has pinpointed some interesting similarities between Creoles of different geographical areas and derived from different "normal" base languages.particular Portuguese Creole language spoken in Portuguese-run African plantations and trading posts in the 17th century." as Bickerton does. or Tagalog. according to Bickerton. and even Arabic. French. he believes Creole patterns of grammar and syntax are so very similar throughout the whole world because they express a neurologically hard-wired human "bioprogram" that all children spontaneously express before being conditioned by parents and teachers into following the biologically counter-intuitive particular ethnic or tribal grammatical rules of English. though Bickerton never used the term. French. and "walked" in English is simply "walk" in Creole." There is also. No. Freeman. "Nurture" _ ((New York: W. This closely parallels the standard English opposition of "a~an" versus "the. In other words. hypothetical. he evidently felt that Proto-World had a grammar and syntax closely resembling that of modern Creoles. Portuguese. or future actions or processes.H. In order to distinguish irreal ("irrealis"). Spanish. that Bickerton feels was expressed in the earliest languages of the very first members of our own biological species." which is placed before the main verb and marks what linguists call modality. in Creole as described by Bickerton. Russian. as described by Bickerton in his 1981 book _The Roots of Language_ and his July 1983 _Scientific American_ article "Creole Languages": In Creole. _ Homo sapiens_.

One would expect . "go" [irrealis] and "stay" [nonpunctual] play in Hawaiian Creole." The grammatical disrinction between purposes accomplished and unaccomplished. and the particle for modality precedes the particle for aspect [nonpunctual aspect]." "He go stay walk. té marks the anterior tense of the verb. This order is identical in Creoles all over the world. The anterior tense is roughly equivalent to the English past tense for stative verbs and to the English past perfect tense for nonstative verbs. No marker of continuing action can be employed with stative verbs in Creoles. or if the speaker does not know whether John saw Mary. are now almost extinct because of the growing influence in Hawaii of standard American English. for example. the action is understood to be completed or non-repetitive. at a very early age. he notes." which expresses duration. and the irreal particle precedes the nonpunctual particle . likewise. av~ava marks irreal modality. conditional. is found in all Creoles. It is expressed by"stay" in Hawaiian Creole. In Creole grammar the ambiguity must be resolved. go see Mary. If John saw Mary. there are 3 invariant particles that act as auxiliary verbs--for anterior tense. In all the Creole languages the anterior particle precedes irreal particle. Bickerton observes. Even before the age of 2 many children say things such as "I sitting high chair. and neutral number is also made in all other Creole languages. there is no straightforward way to distinguish between purposes that have been accomplished from those that have not. habitual. and ap marks the aspect of the verb as nonpunctual." If John did not see Mary." which cannot form the nonpunctual aspect. In English. according to Bickerton. For example. or incomplete.. The base form of the verb refers to the present for stative verbs and to the past for nonstative verbs. he explains.e. In English." where the verb expresses a continuing action. absent in English. children learning English acquire the suffix "-ing. In all other Creole languages. and the Creole speaker knows that John saw Mary." although they were widespread before World War II. If the particle "stay" is omitted. plural. however. according to Bickerton. "He bin go walk" has come to mean "He walked" instead of "He would have walked. In Haitian Creole. the particle for tense [anterior tense] precedes the particle for modality [irreal modality]. No Creole language distinguishes questions and statements on the basis of word order alone--the difference between questions and statements is marked by intonation alone in Creoles <> The distinction between "stative" versus "nonsttative" verbs is an important one in all Creoles. the speaker must say. Stative verbs. and irreal modality--and play the role that "bin" [anterior]. The sentence "John went to Honolulu to see Mary" does not specify whether or not John actually saw Mary." and the forms "He bin stay walk. In Hawaiian Creole. repeated." and "He bin go stay walk." and "love. "John bin go Honolulu. Bickerton points out. The irreal mode includes the English future. for instance. we cannot add "-ing" to a finite stative verb. The base form of the verb refers to the present for stative verbs and to the past for nonstative verbs. and subjunctive." "want. continuing. the speaker must say "John bin go Honolulu for see Mary. In all Creoles. are verbs such as "like. nonpunctual aspect. The distinction in Hawaiian Creole between singular.nonpunctual--i.

. and Mayan le--even though languages like Latin." can be completed by the phrase "and he never will read a book". to. Greek ho. For example. go to: . at a very early age. it cannot be completed by the phrase "and he enjoyed a book. Bickerton observes. das. In English.that as soon as the suffix ["-ing"] was acquired it would be applied to every possible verb.000 or 100. Japanese." Children as young as 3 years were able to make such distinctions correctly about 90% of the time. hoi. he notes. just as the suffix "-s" that marks the English plural is frequently overgeneralized to nouns such as "foot" and "sheep. For example. seem to know implicitly that English verbs such as "like" and "want. that the _Homo sapiens_ "Proto-World" or _Ursprache_ of 60. the sentence "John has never read a book." Remarkably." Similarly. las. Estonian. Even before the age of 2 many children say things such as "I sitting high chair. and no marker of continuing action can be employed with a stative verb in Creoles. Russian. Children. ha. les." in which a specific book is presupposed. he believes. [Non-text portions of this message have been removed] Yahoo! Groups Links <*> To visit your group on the web. the distinction can be subtle. such errors are almost never heard." which makes nonspecific reference to the noun "book. los. children avoid making errors that would otherwise seem quite natural." which expresses duration. according to Bickerton. etc. and Malay/Indonesian lack(ed) it. just as the suffix "-s" that marks the English plural is frequently overgeneralized to nouns such as "foot" and "sheep. The distinction between specific and nonspecific reference is an important one in Creole languages. children learning English acquire the suffix "-ing. I think. he points out. Arabic el. the sentence "John read a book yesterday. either. Bickerton notes. The distinction between stative and nonstative verbs is fundamental to Creole languages. Bickerton feels." where the verb expresses a continuing action. Hebrew ha. it cannot be completed by the phrase "and he never will read the book. This seems to suggest. When a feature of the local language matches the structure of Creole. Chinese. French le. Finnish. One would expect that as soon as the suffix ["-ing"] was acquired it would be applied to every possible verb.000 years probably possessed a definite article comparable to English the." which are called stative verbs." It now appears that intrinsic child grammar and Creole languages may have much in common.. however. Bickerton notes. cannot be marked by the suffix "-ing" to indicate duration. can be completed by the phrase "and he enjoyed the book". la. but young children nonetheless acquire it with ease. la. German der." One would therefore expect children to utter ungrammatical sentences such as "I liking Mommy" and "I wanting candy. die. Sanskrit.000 or 70. Spanish el.

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