Geneticists, Drs. David Reich of Harvard and Andres Ruiz-Linares of University College London announced today, as was reported in The New York Times (“Earliest Americans Arrived in Waves, DNA Study Finds”), that there were three waves, not one wave, of migration from Siberia which first populated the Americas. DNA has provided enough clues to confirm this, though researchers need more DNA samples to flesh out the picture. The full report was published on July 11 in Nature.
In 1987, a linguist, Joseph Greenberg, “asserted that most languages spoken in North and South America were derived from the single mother tongue…Amerind…Two later waves…brought speakers of Eskimo-Aleut and of Na-Dene, the language family spoken by the Apache and Navajo.” Dr. Greenberg’s conclusions were roundly rejected at the time, and have only now been resuscitated. Yes, there were three waves.
Genetic research is less squishy than linguistics research, but perhaps this confirmation that language research is also a way to uncover the past will earn it more respect. Unfortunately, Dr. Greenberg did not live long enough to see his theory vindicated. He died in 2001.
I take a lesson from this — one that we learn again and again. Do your job well and then call things as you see them, no matter what the fallout. Ask Charles Darwin. Do what you love doing. That’s a good life. The rest is history.
At the end of the 19th century, a Xam/San man (we call them “Bushmen”) in South Africa looked at a figure in a prehistoric rock painting and said “That’s a shaman!” (This account taken from The Mind in the Cave, by David Lewis-Williams, published by Thames & Hudson in 2002.) Nobody knows for certain what happened 70,000 years ago in the mountains where the modern Bushmen still live, but scholars had been studying the prehistoric rock paintings they found there, and puzzling over what they meant. The Xam/San have been continuously living in this area since before history began, and until the 20th century took full hold, their lives had not changed much. They have always lived off of the meager takings in the Kalahari Desert. The Xam/San man’s reaction to the painting is a clue to what happened 70,000 years ago, when the painting was created.
The period in which the rock paintings were made is identified as the beginning of human abstraction. A symbolic figure like the shaman represented something that one could not touch, an abstract, godlike figure. There is also evidence from around the same period that ritual burials were conducted, and this suggests also that syntax had developed sufficiently to create verbal rituals which were shared by a large group and used to bury their dead, along with various artifacts. Archaeologists have uncovered many of the artifacts, but the language, of course, is lost, except for its traces among the Xam/San.
There are cave paintings showing women sitting in a circle clapping and singing, with a larger circle of men dancing behind them. What were they saying? There would have been text as well as rhythm. (The modern Xam/San man also recognized the dual circle type of ritual because they still performed it at the end of the 19th century.)
Humans 70,000 (or so) years ago were also experimenting with the mind, performing ritual dances like the dance above, which altered their state of consciousness resulting in trances. This suggests a level of self-awareness not experienced by any other animal, and also a control of language which could trigger, enhance, and then explain these experiences. Trances which alter consciousness are still part of religious experience today. Sometimes they have a linguistic result, Speaking in Tongues.
Without phonographs and television, there is no way to analyze the experiences of prehistoric man, man at the beginning of language. We have only tiny glimpses of the truth through the lives of modern men and women like the Bushmen, paired with rock paintings which portray human behavior, and artifacts which suggest the patterns of prehistoric life. All evidence is circumstantial. There will never be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Archaeology and anthropology have developed as rapidly as astronomy over the last century, and circumstantial patterns are emerging more and more clearly. The assumption at this point in their research is that humans emerged in southern Africa, where the Bushmen still live, and dispersed to Asia and then to Europe. Language probably began as part of burial and religious rituals in those early days, and later became the glue which held communities together and made possible their cooperative efforts as they took the long journeys to Asia and Europe.
In their new book, Linguistics (published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2012), Anne E. Baker and Kees Hengeveld catalogue the differences between human and animal language. Neanderthals and the predecessors of homo sapiens communicated, of course, but language rose to a more complex intellectual endeavor at some point. Bees, for example, will perform their “wiggle dance” pointing to the source of the materials to make honey whether or not any other bees are watching, and will perform the same dance every time. They never “just do a little dance.” The bees cannot say what the weather was like, or that they encountered other bees en route. Human language requires cooperation – the interaction between one speaker and another; creativity – the ability to create unique sentences upon demand; spontaneity – the use of language whether or not there is a prompt; and arbitrariness – the use of vocabulary and syntax which is created without any natural reason. We call a bee bee, Greeks call it melissa, and the French call it abeille, for no particular reason. The important factor is mutual comprehensibility – cooperation — and we could agree on any word we chose to accomplish that.
This reflection on the beginnings of human language is not meant to be comprehensive, and certainly not meant to be right. Not even the greatest archaeologist would claim to be “right.” It’s food for thought as we speak our way through our lives.
In my opinion, language smothers our familiarity with the biological patterns which direct our lives just as powerfully as our minds do, but that blog belongs to somebody else.
Around the year 449, England was invaded by Germanic tribes who introduced their language to the Celts whom they conquered. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, recorded the first account of this catastrophe. Bede claims that the conqueror tribes were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, from the Danish peninsula and Germany.
Before 449, the central and southeastern parts of England were a Roman province (the Romans never penetrated Scotland and Wales), and the Romans spoke Latin. Given the advanced technology and comforts introduced by the Romans, like central heating, baths, and advanced plumbing, it is no surprise that at least the mercantile and ruling classes in Britain adopted Latin as their language, while the rest of the populace spoke Celtic languages. Gaelic, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Irish, and Manx are among the original Celtic languages, and some are making a comeback today.
As Rome weakened, its legions left Britain, leaving it unprotected against the invasions of the Germanic tribes who brought along the original forms of English.
Under different circumstances, our language might be called Jutish, or Saxonish, but the Angles became ascendant among the invading tribes. Over the succeeding centuries, the place came to be called “Englalande” (Land of the Angles), and the coalescing languages of the invading tribes were called Englisc.
Olde English, with its Germanic declensions of nouns and adjectives and complicated verb conjugations, lasted from about 450 to 1150. Olde English is dead in that nobody but specialists could either speak or comprehend it today. It differs from modern English more than, say, old French from modern French, or old German from modern German. Consider this example (taken from The Unfolding of Language, by Guy Deutscher):
Me ofthingth sothlice thæt ic hi worhte (I regret having made them).
This is incomprehensible, right?
Language turned topsy turvy again in 1066, when the French-speaking Normans invaded. The Norman king and his Court spoke French, and as reward for their victory, Norman lords took over British land and businesses. The servants and townspeople continued speaking English. Gradually, the Latin-based French vocabulary and syntax changed the surrounding English dialects, and by 1600 the above quote became:
For it repenteth me that I haue made them
which is fairly comprehensible.
Nouns dropped their gender in this period, though for some reason we still call ships “she.” Over the centuries, the familiar forms thou/thee were replaced by you in both the singular and the plural. The modern pronoun forms he/him/his, she/her/hers, our/ours/ours, and so on, give us a sense of how to decline nouns, but even these forms are fading. My students regularly use me instead of I in sentences such as, “Me and Mary went to the mall,” thus regularizing the pronoun forms. Without the declensions, speakers identify the function of nouns by their place in the sentence. Me is the subject (nominative case) because it comes first in the sentence. English has become a more linear language.
When some English people ended up in America, all hell broke loose. The native tribes contributed succotash, chipmunk, moccasin, powwow, and teepee. African slaves gave us the Blues and boogie, mumbo jumbo and banjo. The Irish added hooligan, galore, and whiskey. The Jews brought us oy vey, blintz, chutzpah, glitch, and putz. We recently added quesadilla, hola, and macho to our vocabulary.
The invention of recording devices made it possible at last for us to listen to the accents of peoples’ speech. We cannot hear a 10th century British farmer speaking, but we can hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt and many early movie actors, whose speech sounds almost British. Changes in accent occur gradually, as do changes in syntax. We seem to be eliminating the nominative case and saying, “Me and Mary went to the mall” without the blink of an eye.
English is morphing in Jamaica, India, and Singapore. Perhaps some day these offshoots will be so deeply changed by influences of their own that a native English speaker will not understand them. That’s how modern English moved away from its own Germanic roots.
It all started in 449. Thanks goodness that today our changes occur through immigration, not bloody invasion. The language changes faster that way, and change is more or less voluntary, though many grandparents today mumble, “Over my dead body,” when they hear their grandchildren say “Me and Mary went to the mall.” But I like it better this way.