By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University
Linguists have often talked about different language families and how they are linked to one another. According to Joseph Greenberg, an American linguist, there are many common factors between the language families of North America and South America that show an interesting pattern among the family members. He called it ‘Amerind’. Greenberg’s reconstruction of the Amerind family was an attempt to find a pattern that would suggest the existence of different family members.
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Patterns Indicating Relationship between Family Members
Greenberg’s reconstruction of Amerind shows an interesting pattern where vowels change to identify different family members. Greenberg’s hypothesis suggests t’ina was a son or brother, t’una was daughter or sister, and *t’ana was a child or sibling. There’s also e, u, and a. e refers to a boy, u is a girl, and a is some sort of child or sibling in general. An interesting discovery showed that no Native American language preserved these words, but one can still find their hints. In the Iranshe language, the word atina refers to a male relative and atuna refers to a female relative. In Tiquie, ten presumably came from *t’ina that refers to a son, and ton from *t’una that refers to a daughter. It is important to remember that an ‘eh’ sound is a low ‘e’ sound, and an ‘oh’ sound is a low ‘u’ sound: *t’ina, ten, *t’una, ton. This shows a clear relationship between different family members. For example, if *t’una is the original sound for daughter or sister, in Salinanthe the word for younger sister would be ton and not t’in or t’an. Similarly, *t’ana, which is the root for the word tanya, can be found in the South American language family of Aymara.
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Merritt Ruhlen’s Objection about the Correlation Among Different Languages
There has been a lot of debate over the concept of t’ina/t’una/t’ana and many believe that it is just an example of chance correspondence. The American linguist, Merritt Ruhlen, opposed this idea and said that one could not find a t-na root that refers to language family members like this in any other language assemblage in the world. He questioned its existence in the language families of Russia and New Guinea. The lack of the t-na root in these language families supports Ruhlen’s objections. Ruhlen discovered what could very well be a relationship between languages that are separated by a vaster period of time than any languages known in the world. According to him, as time goes by, any relationship between languages, in terms of word shapes, would have to have been worn away. Even though Ruhlen has published his paper on this subject, it would be interesting to see how the linguistic community would react to it.
Link between the Languages of Nepal and Papua New Guinea
The languages that are spoken in Nepal mostly belong to the Indo-Aryan language family, also known as the Indian languages. There are other languages in Nepal as well that can be traced to the same group as the Chinese languages — the Sino-Tibetan language family. There’s one more language that only a handful of people in Nepal speak called Kusunda. For a long time, it was believed that Kusunda was one of the Sino-Tibetan languages because there are lots of words from the Sino-Tibetan family in Kusunda. Merritt Ruhlen took a closer look at the word lists of Kusunda and made some interesting discoveries.
Papua New Guinea or New Guinea is host to almost 800 languages. One of the reasons for such a diversity in the languages is the mountainous terrain of the island that have led different groups of people to live in isolation. Once the groups split off, they had no contact with each other and eventually, their languages diverged as well. It is believed that people reached that area about 75,000 years ago. It is presumed that one small group of people, most likely speaking the same language, proliferated across this island and that language has been proliferating into new ones for probably 75,000 years. This family of language is called the Indo-Pacific, and in shorthand, Papuan. However, there’s a link between Kusunda and Juwoi, which is the language of Papua New Guinea. This may not seem possible because of the geographical distance between these two places. Yet, these two languages have certain similarities. Some of the things that are indicative of the similarities between these languages are grammatical. I in Kusunda is tsi, and tui in Juwoi. My in Kusunda is tsi-yi, and tii-ye in Juwoi. You in Kusunda is nu, and nui in Juwoi. Similarly, Your is ni-yi in Kusunda, and nii-ye in Juwoi. If there is a relationship between Kusunda and Juwoi, it means that the Indo-Pacific people, who settled Papua New Guinea, or New Guinea in general, would have split off from the Kusunda people at least 75,000 years ago. If this is true, then one can see a relationship between languages that are tens of thousands of years old, which is unprecedented in historical linguistics.
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The study of the origin of human languages has provided some findings from a linguistic point of view. One such finding is the existence of the Amerind family, even though it cannot be reconstructed in the snusos-style. A Kusunda/Juwoi link that shows that some languages can survive the test of time. These findings indicate that one can only perform a step-by-step reconstruction for a certain subset of languages that will provide good documentation of them. But, the idea that in order to look at the history of language, the responsible way is to trace sound-by-sound and consonant-by-consonant and to have very close careful deductive reasoning for each step, is not as accurate as it seems. Linguists need to make a better effort in reconstructing the Proto-World languages that can aid in finding the origins of human language. However, at this point, it is difficult to declare the world’s first language.
Common Questions about Correlation Among Language Families
Joseph Greenberg’s reconstruction of Amerind shows an interesting pattern where vowels change to identify different family members.
The languages that are spoken in Nepal mostly belong to the Indo-Aryan language family, also known as the Indian languages.
Some of Nepal’s languages can be traced to the same group as the Chinese languages known as the Sino-Tibetan language family.
Kusunda was believed to be one of the Sino-Tibetan languages because there are lots of words from the Sino-Tibetan family.
One of the reasons for the diversity in the languages of Papua New Guinea is the mountainous terrain of the island that have led different groups of people to live in isolation. Once the groups split off, they had no contact with each other and eventually, their languages diverged as well.
The family of language in Papua New Guinea is called the Indo-Pacific and in shorthand, Papuan.