How are the Various Proto-World Families Linked?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

The Proto-World language, also known as the Proto-Human or Proto-Sapiens, is believed to be the single source of origin of all the world’s languages. The concept of Proto-World language is hypothetical and is susceptible to analysis in historical linguistic. There are, however, many things about the Proto-World paradigm that are worthy of praise.

Ancient inscriptions on a stone.
The earliest known writing system was developed in the 4th century B.C. The Mesopotamians took reeds from river beds and impressed characters on clay slates. The characters were then assigned meanings. (Image: Sirotinin Maksim/Shutterstock)

Links Between Proto-World Families

The reputed American linguist, Joseph Harold Greenberg, concentrated mainly on linguistic typology and the genetic classification of languages. Greenberg attempted to show the links between various Proto-World families, although it was impossible to link all of them. He was more interested in forming super-families (a term Greenberg developed) or mega-families. However, he was not the first to try something like this. Many other linguists were interested in showing that Proto-Indo European could be linked to other families of the Eurasian landmass. According to the Russians, there was a ‘Nostratic super-family’ that included various families. Greenberg, however, had revised the idea. His version is that of a ‘Eurasiatic super-family,’ instead of a Nostratic. Eurasiatic includes an Indo-European, a group called ‘Uralic.’ Uralic is the Lappish language of northern Europe such as Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, and Saami and various smaller languages that are spoken eastward of those. The Eurasiatic super-family also includes Korean and Japanese that are very similar grammatically.

According to Greenberg, there’s a group called ‘Altaic’ that stretches across Asia and includes Turkish, Mongolian and relatives of those languages. There’s another group called the Chukchi-Kamchatkan group, which is a series of relatively isolated languages spoken in far eastern Russia. There are also the ‘Eskimo-Aleut’ languages, which are spoken across the Bering Strait from the Chukchi-Kamchatkan group. These are one of the groups of languages that are spoken by the Native Americans. Greenberg believed that there is a family of languages that stretches from Europe all the way roughly across Russia and then over into North America.

Image depicting an old undefined abstract handwritten text.
Languages of Europe and North America are believed to belong to the same language family. Over the years, the languages evolved and became more structured. This can be seen in ancient manuscripts discovered by archaeologists and scientists. (Image: LiliGraphie/Shutterstock)

Learn more about when language began.

Similarities in Proto-World Languages

Greenberg came up with the idea of super-families, like that of the Nostratic idea of the Russians, because of some strange similarities in the Proto-World languages. For example, for Indo-European speakers, the first-person singular has something to do with m. In English that’s me and my, in French it’s moi and mon and in Spanish it’s me. This is found in other Indo-European languages as well. The German language has mich and Russian has menja. It is clear that some kind of ‘m-ness’ is used for the first-person singular. For second-person singular, there’s tu in French, in Spanish, and du in German. However, in English, there’s only you. But it is important to remember that originally the second-person singular in English was thou that resembled the tu‘s. It is seen that there is an m/t alternation in the first-person singular/second-person singular. They are not the same words and their functions differ from language to language, but some form of similarity can be found in them.

Such similarities can be found in other groups also. For example, Uralic can be representative of being Finnish. However, despite the physical similarities of the Finns with the Swedes and the Norwegians, their language is completely different. Yet, there is an m/t issue that is found in there when it comes to ‘me-ness’ and ‘you-ness.’ Even in rare language groups such as the Chukchi-Kamchatkan and Eskimo-Aleut, issues with m/t alteration can be found. Within them, one can find roots like m for the first-person singular and t for second-person singular.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Difference with Content Words

Even though different language groups have similar roots for first-person singular and second-person singular, it would wrong to assume that these are just coincidences, especially in the case of me and you. The reason is the difference between content words, concrete words, and the grammatical words in terms of how language change works. For grammatical words and grammatical pieces such as prefixes and suffixes, the change is much slower than content words. They are used so heavily or frequently that they’re drilled into people’s heads and tend to stay the same for a long period of time.

In the case of plural words in English, they are supposed to end with s such as chairs, tables, pens, etc. But there also some exceptions like men, women, and children. Going by the general rule for plurals in English, it should be mans, womans, and childs. The usage of words like men, women, and children is so frequent that they kind of hold on. Similar instances can be seen in words like oxen and geese, which held on because people talked about them a lot. Things like me and you are the sort of things that one says every 10 seconds whether one wants to or not. As a result, they tend to hold on.

Image of an old open book in Old Russian language.
Every language has different words with their own sets of vocabulary. Yet, it is seen that the grammatical characteristics of different languages, especially European languages, are similar to one another. (Image: Preto Perola/Shutterstock)

It seems like these languages’ words are very different from each other, but the grammatical characteristics held on. For example, Russian and Greek have very different vocabularies but in terms of their endings, the parallels are very clear.

It seems like these languages’ words are very different from each other, but the grammatical characteristics held on. For example, Russian and Greek have very different vocabularies but in terms of their endings, the parallels are very clear. There are also other high-end words like what that are spoken a lot. So, Indo-European, what goes back to ma, in Uralic mi, in Turkish mi, in Chukchi-Kamchatkan mi, Eskimo-Aleut mi. This is not by accident. These sorts of things led Greenberg to suppose that there was a Eurasiatic family. Neither Greenberg nor the Nostraticists have attempted to reconstruct the entire language, even in terms of an entire word list. It is believed that work is still going on.

Learn more about how language changes-meaning and order.

Common Questions about Different Proto-World Languages

Q: What is the Proto-World language?

Proto-World language is believed to be the single source of origin of all the world’s languages. The concept of Proto-World language is hypothetical and is susceptible to analysis in historical linguistics.

Q: What were the main areas of study of the American linguist, Joseph Greenberg?

The American linguist, Joseph Greenberg specialized in linguistic typology and the genetic classification of languages.

Q: What is the Indo-European language group included in the Eurasiatic super-family?

The Eurasiatic super-family includes an Indo-European, a group called ‘Uralic’ which is the Lappish language of northern Europe such as Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, and Saami and various smaller languages that are spoken eastward of those.

Q: Which language group, according to Joseph Greenberg, stretches across Asia and includes Turkish, Mongolian, and relatives of those languages?

According to Joseph Greenberg, there’s a group called ‘Altaic’ that stretches across Asia and includes Turkish, Mongolian, and relatives of those languages.

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