October 5, 2017

Our reconstructions of proto-languages could be wrong


The Polynesian Migration, by David Eccles, via WikiMedia Commons.

We’ve written before about the ways linguists reconstruct the long-extinct ancestors from which modern languages have evolved. This sort of methodology has been used in attempts to trace the roots of many language families, developing hypothetical models of earlier languages like Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Afro-Asiatic, and Proto-Niger-Congo to name a few — and continues to be a major concentration of linguistic research.

That research may just have gotten even more complicated, thanks to new research from a team at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. The researchers used computational data to prove that language components do not evolve at the same speeds, or in the same ways, as previously thought.

As Phys.org reports, this research has plotted changes in grammar against changes in lexicography. What it found could necessitate a fundamental change in the way we reconstruct proto-languages:

A large-scale study of Pacific languages reveals that forces driving grammatical change are different to those driving lexical change. Grammar changes more rapidly and is especially influenced by contact with unrelated languages, while words are more resistant to change.

The abstract to the published paper specifies, “While it is commonly thought that the rapid rate of change hampers the reconstruction of deep language relationships beyond 6,000–10,000 [years], there are suggestions that grammatical structures might retain more signal over time than other subsystems, such as basic vocabulary.”

So, quite possibly, the origins and changes we’ve theorized for modern languages could be very wrong. Instead of attempting a simple reversal of observed trends, this research suggests the need for a multifaceted approach that combines analyses of changes in words with analyses of changes in grammar in attempting to find a language’s origins.

For a nifty snapshot of how this all works (which doesn’t address this current research), check out this cool cartoon.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.