Proto-World and the Origin of Language [w/ subs]



00:00:06 – So, quick recap: Languages can be genetically related.
00:00:09 – This isn’t like human familial relationships where two parents produce children one at
00:00:13 – a time but continue to exist themselves.
00:00:15 – With languages what happens is the language will expand, either by the people who speak
00:00:19 – it spreading out or by outsiders learning the language, and then in different places
00:00:22 – they’ll talk more and more differently from each other over time until they can’t understand
00:00:26 – each other anymore.
00:00:27 – It’s not a perfect analogy, but, when this happens we say that the resulting languages
00:00:30 – are “descended” from the original language, called a proto-language, and that they’re
00:00:34 – “genetically” related to each other.
00:00:35 – We’ve seen this happen in history, with sanskrit branching into the modern Indian
00:00:39 – languages or Latin branching into the romance languages.
00:00:41 – From these known examples we can figure out what it looks like when a group of languages
00:00:44 – are related, and we can then seek to identify those same patterns in other languages and
00:00:48 – determine whether or not they’re related too, even if we don’t have any written records
00:00:52 – of the parent language.
00:00:53 – The method linguists use to do this is called the “comparative method,” and it’s yielded
00:00:56 – some cool results, linking together huge groups of languages into giant genetic groups like
00:01:00 – Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, Austronesian and plenty of others.
00:01:05 – But can we go bigger?
00:01:06 – Can we group languages into even bigger and bigger groups?
00:01:09 – Or, here’s the real question: could linguists prove that all the worlds languages are related
00:01:14 – to each other?
00:01:15 – Before Latin, before Proto-Indo-European, was there ever a proto-World?
00:01:19 – Well, maybe, but the normal comparative method isn’t going to do us any good here.
00:01:23 – It works mostly by comparing the vocabularies of languages and looking for regular patterns
00:01:27 – between them.
00:01:28 – Like, where Spanish has the “ch” sound in its word for a thing, Portuguese will usually
00:01:31 – have a “t” sound in its word for that same thing, suggesting that maybe they had
00:01:35 – a common ancestor with the “ch” sound and in Portuguese it changed to a “t”
00:01:39 – sound.
00:01:40 – Or maybe the other way around, this is too little to tell.
00:01:42 – Point is, if you find enough of these regular correspondences then at some point you have
00:01:46 – to say, ok, this is too much to be a coincidence, these languages are probably related.
00:01:50 – Thing is, though, this method works best at short time-scales, when the changes languages
00:01:54 – have gone through are the simplest and easiest to figure out.
00:01:56 – At longer time-scales the changes start to pile up and get more and more complicated,
00:02:01 – and it gets harder and harder to tell if these are actually regular correspondences or if
00:02:04 – it’s just a random coincidence.
00:02:06 – Not only that, but any time the meanings of words change in addition to how their pronounced
00:02:10 – that’s also another piece of evidence lost, and given enough time more and more words
00:02:14 – will start to mean different things than they used to.
00:02:16 – Because of this, the comparative method can only really show us if languages are related
00:02:19 – if they diverged from each other fewer then, like, five-thousand years ago or so, and human
00:02:24 – language is way, way older than that.
00:02:26 – This doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t a proto-world, though!
00:02:29 – Maybe there was, maybe at some point humans started speaking for the first time, creating
00:02:32 – the first ever language, and from there it spread out and diversified and diverged until
00:02:36 – all the daughter languages were so different that we can’t tell anymore.
00:02:39 – Or, maybe not: maybe language was invented multiple times independently, and modern languages
00:02:44 – are descended from different first languages.
00:02:46 – Thing is, we don’t really know how language first happened.
00:02:49 – Like, we’re the only animal on the planet that can really use language.
00:02:52 – Gorillas using sign language and Parrots repeating words and phrases is cool, but for reasons
00:02:56 – I’ll get into some other time the stuff they do never gets nearly as complicated or
00:03:00 – sophisticated as what humans do, no matter how hard we try to train them.
00:03:03 – So at some point we must have evolved the ability to speak, but we don’t really know
00:03:07 – how that happened.
00:03:08 – Did we evolve the physical ability to speak and then the mental capacity for language,
00:03:12 – or the other way around, with the mental capacity evolving and then the physical ability?
00:03:15 – Who knows!
00:03:16 – Did we start speaking immediately after we evolved the ability to speak, or did it take
00:03:20 – a while before we invented language?
00:03:22 – Who knows.
00:03:23 – Did our ability to speak evolve slowly, bit by bit, involving progressively more complicated
00:03:27 – systems of communication, or was there some single mutation that suddenly gave us the
00:03:30 – ability to use language all at once?
00:03:32 – Who knows.
00:03:33 – Did language happen when we started using the cries and yelps and grunts and other vocal
00:03:37 – signals that Chimpanzees also use to communicate more precisely?
00:03:40 – Or maybe we actually evolved sign language first, and only started using our mouthes
00:03:43 – when we evolved the necessary equipment in our throats?
00:03:45 – Or maybe language is just it’s own, completely separate thing that didn’t develop directly
00:03:49 – from anything simpler.
00:03:50 – No one has any idea.
00:03:52 – And how would they?
00:03:53 – You can’t really look at fossils and tell whether or not the creature they used to be
00:03:55 – inside of used language, let alone what that language was like.
00:03:59 – Maybe eventually neuroscientists and geneticists will piece together exactly what order we
00:04:03 – evolved what in, and maybe from that we’ll be able to figure out how language happened,
00:04:07 – but for now we’re kind of in the dark, and there’s not much that traditional linguistics
00:04:11 – can do to solve any of these problems.
00:04:12 – So, as far as I can tell, that ignorance basically leaves us with three possibilities concerning
00:04:18 – Proto-World: One: proto-world did in fact exist and all
00:04:20 – of the world’s languages are genetically related.
00:04:23 – This doesn’t necessarily mean that Proto-World was the first language.
00:04:26 – Maybe the most recent common ancestor of all modern languages existed at the same time
00:04:29 – as a bunch of other languages, but now all those other languages are extinct.
00:04:33 – Or maybe it was the first language ever, but either way, possibility one is that proto-world
00:04:37 – was a thing that existed.
00:04:39 – Two: proto-world sort of existed.
00:04:41 – Like, let’s say language evolved really slowly out of the simpler, non-language forms
00:04:45 – of communication our ancestors used.
00:04:47 – In-between they would have used some sort of communication that was more sophisticated
00:04:50 – than what chimpanzees do but less sophisticated than real language.
00:04:54 – Like, maybe they developed some sort of complicated system of vocal signals that signaled for
00:04:58 – different stuff but that they couldn’t put together into complex sentences, or maybe
00:05:02 – they had some sort of sign-language-like system supplemented by vocal signals.
00:05:05 – Maybe names were the first linguistic signs to develop and we used them to get each other’s
00:05:09 – attention, or maybe we used singing and nursery-rime-like stuff to socialize with each other and language
00:05:13 – developed out of that.
00:05:14 – Point is, there’s a lot of possible things that language might have first developed out
00:05:18 – of but that wasn’t itself quite language yet.
00:05:21 – So, maybe all of the world’s languages are descended from one of those pre-language systems,
00:05:25 – in which case there was sort of a proto-world, it just wasn’t technically a language yet.
00:05:30 – Three: proto-world didn’t exist at all.
00:05:32 – Like, maybe whatever genetic mutations allowed humans to speak spread through the population,
00:05:37 – and then, after the fact, language was invented multiple times, and those different initial
00:05:40 – languages eventually evolved into different groups of modern languages.
00:05:43 – We have no way of knowing which of these three possibilities was what actually happened.
00:05:47 – But the idea that proto-world might have existed is really interesting, so, let’s assume
00:05:51 – for a second that it did exist.
00:05:53 – Can we know anything about it?
00:05:54 – Well, besides a few fringe linguists who claim to be able to reconstruct some of it, the
00:05:58 – general consensus seems to be: a little bit but not a lot.
00:06:01 – Like, until about a hundred thousand years ago all humans lived in Africa, and after
00:06:05 – that they spread out across the world, so we can be reasonably sure that it would have
00:06:08 – been spoken in Africa sometime earlier than about a hundred thousand years ago.
00:06:11 – We also think that humans diverged from chimpanzees around seven million years ago, so unless
00:06:15 – that common ancestor could talk and chimpanzees lost the ability to speak, proto-world would
00:06:19 – have had to exist sometime after that.
00:06:22 – Besides that, well, I mean, we can look at all the languages in the world and ask ourselves
00:06:26 – “what do all of these things have in common” and then we can assume that proto-world also
00:06:29 – had those traits, but we don’t find a whole lot when we do that.
00:06:32 – Like, human languages can be really different from each other, so all you can really say
00:06:36 – is, like “it probably had both consonants and vowels, it probably had between ten and
00:06:40 – a hundred phonemes, you probably had to use your tongue to speak it,” you know, stuff
00:06:44 – like that.
00:06:45 – And that’s kind of it.
00:06:46 – Beyond that we don’t really know anything about Proto-World and we probably never will,
00:06:50 – including whether or not it existed.
00:06:51 – I hope you found it kind fun to think about though.
00:06:53 – See you soon for more linguistics videos!


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