By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer
Linguists often balk at the idea that all languages came from one. However, universal vocalizations like snoring or imitating a lion’s roar could hold the key. Globally recognized vocal sounds may say more than we think.
The Proto-World theory became popular in Russia in the 20th century, stating that certain language families were linked with one another. For example, Proto-Indo-European was connected to other language families of the Eurasian land mass. However, most linguists disregard the theory as unfounded.
Whatever the case may be, scientists have found what could be a “missing link” between humanity’s first languages. For the first time, studies show that regardless of which language we speak, we understand “iconic vocalizations,” which are sounds we make to represent specific objects or actions.
In his video series The Story of Human Language, Dr. John McWhorter, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, explained the intricacies of the Proto-World paradigm.
In an article in September 2020, The Great Courses Daily looked at two of the forefront theories of superfamilies, as presented by Dr. McWhorter. The first, involving a Nostratic Superfamily, was the aforementioned theory popularized in Russia that Proto-Indo-European was connected to other Eurasian land mass families.
The second theory was proposed by American linguist Joseph Harold Greenberg, called the Eurasiatic Superfamily, which was a derivative of Nostratic. Eurasiatic included several groups of languages. For example, Greenberg proposed an “Altaic” language group that included Turkish, Mongolian, and others, as well as a “Uralic” group, which included Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Saami, and other languages.
“Then, there is another place where Greenberg is supposed to have come a-cropper, and that is with his reconstruction of an Amerind family,” Dr. McWhorter said. “I’ve [said] that in North America we have these two big giant families: Eskimo-Aleut and Na Dené.
“Up there [in modern-day Canada and Alaska] we have those two, but as you go further down, there are all of these other families.”
Citing over a dozen language families in the remainder of North America and South America, Dr. McWhorter said that Greenberg believed he saw enough things in common with them to suppose that everything besides Eskimo-Aleur and Na Dené were one superfamily, called the Amerind Superfamily.
The Ruhlen Discovery
When Greenberg published a book detailing the Amerind Superfamily in the late 1980s, he came under incredible scrutiny from critics. Meanwhile, another American linguist, Merritt Ruhlen, made a discovery of his own, linking two languages across a larger span of time than maybe any other two languages in human history.
In Nepal, people often speak Indo-European languages. They also speak languages that trace back to where the Chinese language comes from, known as the Sino-Tibetan family. However, one language that stands out is called Kusunda, which was long thought to be a Sino-Tibetan language and simply had word lists that few people had cared to study.
Dr. McWhorter said that Merritt Ruhlen took a look at the Kusunda word lists and found a connection to Papua New Guinea, an island on which 800 of the world’s 6,000 languages are spoken. The Papuan languages are referred to as Indo-Pacific languages.
“As it happens, Kusunda, which is spoken way up in Nepal, has these bizarre correspondences with none other than Indo-Pacific languages,” he said. “What’s interesting is, that couldn’t be language contact—people who live in the highlands of Nepal are not given to taking pleasure trips to New Guinea and people who are in New Guinea don’t know from Nepal.
“Yet somehow, this language spoken by a small group of people up in the mountains and this language spoken by one and a half people in a group that is concentrated on New Guinea have these things in common.”
If there’s a relationship between Kusunda and the Indo-Pacific languages, Dr. McWhorter said, it means the people who settled Papua New Guinea split off from the Kusunda 75,000 years ago. If the many correspondences in their languages were proven to be a connection, rather than a coincidence, it would be an unprecedented link between languages and a strong piece of evidence for the Proto-World theory.