Do All Languages Go Back to the Same Root?

From the Lecture Series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Whether or not all languages go back to the same root depends on accepting or denying the Proto-World theory. Perhaps there was one proto-mammal that all mammals evolved from. Even though not all the fossils along the path of proto-mammal to today’s mammals are discovered, the theory is accepted. Why can it not be the case with languages?

Chinese antique calligraphic text on beige paper with brush
Despite all the differences of languages, supporters of the Proto-World theory believe that they all had the same origin but slowly evolved apart from each other.
(Image: Sophy Ru/Shutterstock)

Joseph Greenberg was a linguist at Stanford University, who pioneered the Proto-World theory. He also initiated the classification of African languages and had other achievements, but the Proto-World theory is his most famous. The theory suggests that all languages go back to the same root.

Merritt Ruhlen is an independent scholar who supports the theory, but many linguists disagree on its soundness. The Proto-World theory attracted a lot of ‘common’ attention and newspapers, but not the scientific world. People liked to think the theory is correct, but there is not enough supporting evidence yet – the same way that Wegner discovered continental drift and was rejected and humiliated by other scientists in the field. Is that the case?

Learn more about when language began.

Greenberg and Ruhlen’s View

Greenberg and Ruhlen view the history of language and the Proto-World in a different way. From an unbiased point of view, the evidence may really not be enough to support the theory. On the other hand, it might be too early to decide. Ruhlen’s scientific work usually is not published in acclaimed journals due to this lack of evidence.

ancient Greek writing chiseled on stone
Many languages come from the Indo-European origin, but this does not necessarily mean all languages have the same root. (Image: Fat Jackey/Shutterstock)

One thing that he strongly relies on is the similarities of words in languages from separate roots. Another one is how quickly words can evolve into something totally different in the same language. Hence, he believes it is sensible that Korean and German come from the same origin.

Learn more about a new perspective on the story of English.

The Same Root of all Languages

The language dates back to 150,000 years ago. Ruhlen argues that when in a short time languages change so drastically, why should they look any similar to their origin after 150,000 years? Another problem is that writing emerged much later than spoken language. Thus, there is no evidence of the spoken languages before writing, while language existed since long ago.

Even with the written evidence, many languages go back to the same root, for example, Indo-European languages. Algonquianists explain this with more tangible examples.

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

Algonquianists and Reconstruction of Words

Algonquianists are a subclass of linguists who study Algonquian languages – a group of Native American languages, including Cree and also Cheyenne, spoken today. They have reconstructed many words of the origin of Algonquian languages, called the Proto-Algonquian.

For example, the Proto-Algonquian word for winter was peponwi, which is now aa. It took only 1500 years for peponwi to turn to aa. How did the process go?

Learn more about how language changes-Sound Change.

Peponwi to aa

Peponwi ends in fragile vowels sounds like w and y, which can be dropped quickly. Peponwi lost the fragile and changed to pepon. Different languages tend to drop different consonants. Proto-Algonquian had a problem with p. after a while, both p’s dropped, and winter was called eon.

Greek inscription in Celsus Library at Ephesus ancient Greek city on the coast of Ionia, Turkey
Writing is a much newer part of the language. If the language started 24 hours ago, writing started at 11 pm. Thus, it is challenging to tell how language was before writing. (Image: Amnat Phuthamrong/Shutterstock)

Vowels shift to ‘easier’ pronunciation. Eventually, eon changed to ain, with a fragile n at the end, which was lost through time. ai got a longer vowel later, ai’ i until then I also dropped and only the aa remained.

When this all took 1500 years, who can tell what winter will sound like in the same language in 10,000 years? What about 100,000? Not all words undergo the same change process peponwi did, but some do. Some, on the other hand, stay the same for almost ever.

It could be all by chance, but there is a chance for the Proto-World theory to be real.

Common Questions about Do all Languages Go Back to the Same Root

Q: Can all languages be traced back to one?

The Proto-World theory explains that all languages go back to the same root. However, many linguists strongly disagree with reasons that can be true. Many languages have the same root, but some are completely different and cannot be from the same origin. Still, languages from different origins have very similar words sometimes. Thus, it is not so easy to tell if there is one origin to all languages or not.

Q: Do all languages come from the same source?

The source of all languages was humans’ need to communicate. However, all languages may not go back to the same root because there is not enough evidence to support this theory.

Q: What is the root of all languages?

Many languages have an Indo-European origin. However, there are some languages, like Chinese and Japanese, that come from different roots. Thus, all languages do not go back to the same root, but many of them do.

Q: Do cognate words always stem from the same root?

Cognate words are normally from the same root and have similar meanings. The question of cognate words is much simpler than the question of whether or not all languages go back to the same root.

Keep Reading
Language Evolution: How One Language Became Five Languages
Language Death: Why Languages Die and How to Save Them
Wily Words: How Languages Mix on the Level of Words