Proto-languages and Their Evolution

From The Lecture Series: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Proto-languages were the original languages that can group today’s languages together. Even though they also evolved to thoroughly different systems, some words seem to remain the same as they were thousands of years ago. Why is that? How does linguistic evolution work?

green language schulptured on wall in Ephesus temple .
Proto-languages are linguistically proved to have been the ancestors of groups of languages in use today. (Image: abdelsalam/Shutterstock)

The Proto-World theory was developed by a linguist called Joseph Greenberg and continued by another called Merritt Ruhlen. Greenberg and Ruhlen argued that all languages have the same origin, but many linguists vehemently disagree. However, proto-languages are what many linguists agree on.

A very famous example of proto-languages is Proto-Indo-European. Indo-Europeanists closely study Sanskrit and Old Church Slavonic, which is the earliest known Slavic language. Looking at French and Hindi, one might not see any similarity and possibility of shared roots, but their proto-language claims otherwise.

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

The Problem with Proto-languages

One example of the Proto-World lexicon is aq’wa, which means water. The problem is, aq’wa is the same form as today’s Italian. Why has it remained the same since language was born? It looks merely impossible for a word to remain with absolutely no change through 150,000 years. Ruhlen’s explanation of how they concluded that aq’wa is the proto-word makes things even worse.

Dead language sign on Ruins of the ancient city Ephesus, the ancient Greek city in Turkey
English and hundreds of other languages originated form one proto-language. (Image: S-F/Shutterstock)

They picked water in 12 proto-languages and compared them. Then, they decided that they all must have come from aq’wa. The 12 words were: k” ā, nki, engi, ak’ wa, rts’ q’a, nīru, akwā, ‘oχwa, namaw, okho, gugu, akwā. Only four proto-words are truly similar, and this cannot be an accident. On the other hand, it cannot be proof that aq’wa‌ is the proto-word.

At a closer look, one sees that ak’wa, akwā, and ‘oχwa are from Proto-Indo European, which shares similar words with Afro-Asiatic and Caucasian languages. To make it short, it is wrong to pick a proto-word for all the languages by looking at only 12, many of which come from geographical neighborhoods.

Learn more about language families-Indo-European.

Can Languages Be Traced Back to the Origin?

Even though some linguists have tried to find similarities to aq’wa‌ in Native American languages, they ended up with uk, yok-ha, ku’uiagupuku-mi, and oxi’, all of which have supposedly similar pronunciations to aq’wa‌. This is not how science works. One cannot merely assume that a word sounds like another when a specific person speaks it, and then take it as proof. Taking a few languages in the same linguist group, analyzing them, and generalizing the findings to all the other languages, is genuinely wrong.

Some scientists believe we should simply stop looking for the sub-proto-language as we do not have enough evidence. The language was formed 150,000 years ago, it has a quick evolution pace, and writing came into the game only 6000 years ago. Scientists can go as far as writing does, but everything before that will be contemplation.

The Joy of Reconstruction

Vintage golden pen and ancient manuscripts
Proto-languages can be traced back as far as writing goes, and the time before that has to be built on hypotheses based on the written structure. (Image: Vladimir Kovalchuk/Shutterstock)

Many linguists enjoy reconstructing words in their field of study, which helps with knowing the family the languages are within. However, the study is always limited to evidence, in this case, written forms from the past.

Taking grammar books of 100 languages, reading them, and trying to draw conclusions requires deep knowledge of all those languages. Nevertheless, any linguist who does that can be familiar with only a few of the 100 languages under study. Thus, shallow and illogical judgments are made based on which theories are formed.

Learn more about artificial languages.

What if the Question Is Wrong?

With unscientific study, comes along guessing and impulsive decisions. One example is concluding that aq’wa‌ is the actual word for water in the original proto-language. As depicted above, it is just not right to decide about 6000 languages by looking at 12, four of which come from the same roots and are very likely to have similarities.

Overall, it might be an exciting topic, but a wrong scientific study to look for one language, which is the source of all languages today. Non-scientist people and the media find it a very attractive theory, and it is. However, in the world of science, media coverage does not necessarily mean the topic is scientifically arguable. Maybe this was the case, and all languages do come from the same root, but it is as likely that they do not.

Common Questions about Proto-Languages

Q: How many proto-languages are there?

There are approximately 50 proto-languages estimated. Since language was only spoken for most of its history, it is difficult to trace languages back to their roots. Furthermore, accidental similarities between some languages make it more challenging.

Q: Do all languages come from one language?

The Proto-World theory suggests that there was one proto-language that is the origin of all languages today. Even though there is some evidence to support the theory, many linguists strongly disagree with it.

Q: What is the proto-language of English?

English was derived from the Proto-Indo-European roots. Many other languages share this proto-language with English, and their similarities are much more structured than just some words.

Q: What is sound reconstruction in linguistics?

In search of proto-languages and the roots of words and structure, linguists reconstruct older versions of words. They use patterns of the new and the old forms of one language to reconstruct their ancestors.

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