The Peculiar Patterns of Language as Clues to the Past

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

The language systems of the world are strong indicators of various cultures and diverse histories associated with the language families. The movement and patterns of language through geographical locations can tell historians a lot about how languages spread. However, there are certain oddities that arise in this study upon closer scrutiny. 

Depiction of evolution of man
Certain patterns in language changes can allow us to understand the history of our own evolution a little better. (Image: mmatee/Shutterstock)

Before the Europeans came, an estimated 400 Native American languages were spoken in the New World. There were also about 670 languages in the Central and South Americas. These were, however, not closely related, nor were they a bunch of Bantus or Romance languages. The movement patterns exhibited by these languages can provide great insights into the oddities of language.

Odd Patterns in Native American Languages

The distribution of languages in the Americas poses a problem because evidence suggests that maybe North America was not exclusively populated by incoming migrants from the Bering Strait. 

When people started coming from Asia over the Bering Strait into Alaska, there was, as supposed, near Bering Strait, a huge cluster of languages. These languages were totally different from one another. But, once when one went downwards, for instance, towards South America, one could find a group of Swahilis, or perhaps, some Russian and Polish and Ukrainian, all of whom were different. Still, they were, in some ways, alike.  Looking at Native American languages, there are two big families: Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene. Despite the existence of two families, there is no real diversity of language in the area. The diversity is towards places that are down, like California and South America.

A usual assumption for the causal migratory pattern downwards is that it would have been through the Bering Strait, and the only plausible explanation for why there would be so few languages there, is that there would have been some kind of intervention. Some phenomena must have stopped the languages from growing and developing there. On the other hand, there was a boom in the way languages had started flowering as one went down. Climate history is likely to have been a strong contributor here.

That the last Ice Age ushered in after people had already begun crossing, is a mere postulation, but is one which stands to validate the lack of language divergences in the regions northward,  because the people who are there now are the descendants of the people who got there later than the people who were already down there in California and South America. To support this, there is also evidence that correlates with the idea of the people up there being later arrivals.

A lot of other questions have also found their answers through such linguistic history. The study of Khoi-San languages, for instance, has yielded a number of answers.

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

Studying Patterns in Khoi-San Languages

There are about 50 of the Khoi-San languages, which are very well known for their clicks. Other than the clicks, these are not alike. These are, in reality, quite different and have been there for a really long time. This group of languages is rather understudied, but as more and more is being learned about them, it’s clear that some of them are languages with case endings. They conjugate their nouns, as in Latin. Some of them are even like Chinese. It’s extremely hard to find cognate words in them. There aren’t too many to be found, either.

Map portraying language families of the African continent, including Khoi-San.
Khoi-San is quite a large language family, and the study of the differences between the 50 languages of the family provides a good understanding of the evolution of languages.
(Image: Mark Dingemanse / CC BY 2.5 / Public domain)

Also, it’s not that lots of words have been taken from surrounding languages. It’s simply that the words are very varied. As a natural course of evolution, as is typical for languages often, most of these languages are dying. There’s always a danger of losing a lot of information by not getting in there in time, and the same holds true for these languages, too.

The fact that these languages are so divergent from each other reiterates the belief of their old age. This belief is strengthened by studying the speakers of Khoi-San languages, who are not only genetically identifiable quite easily, but also possess rather small statures, giving away their age and identity as earlier hominids. Moreover, their culture is very ancient. A recent thought regarding them is that these are descendants of the first people and needless to say, that their language would be a descendant of the first language, an idea which also answers where the click comes from.

Learn more about sound changes in language.

Clicks in the First Language

Clicks are actually very rare in usage all over the world. If a language develops out of an older click language, clicks would be some of the first things to go. Assuming this theory to be true explains why clicks are so rare in other languages if one takes into account that the first language probably was based around clicks.

Other evidence, too, seems to corroborate the idea that these languages are extremely old, very close to the first language.  

Take, for instance, the fact that the Khoi-San languages are very unique to the regions they are spoken in. Down in that core southwestern region, they are uniquely different, from the ones spoken up in Tanzania, and in fact, the ones spoken in Tanzania are different from each other as well. 

It’s quite possible that the click languages are descendants of the first language, but there are two things that need to be considered. They are already so different that it would be quite difficult to ascertain what Proto language they can be traced to. Secondly, one needs to remember that that particular language, supposedly, must have been being spoken for many millennia. Thus, it becomes technically different from whatever the first language would have been, that is if we assume that the clicks were there right from the beginning. This fact makes it a lot easier on historical linguists, who are now, more or less, free of having to figure out how those clicks started.

To reiterate and then, to close, it is safe to presume that this is how the distribution of language families tell us things about history, which otherwise would be extremely hard to discover or which we’d only have faint clues about from other sources.

Learn more about the first language.

Common Questions about Patterns in Language

Q: What are some strange patterns found in Native American language?

Some strange patterns in Native American language point to the idea that North America was not exclusively populated by migrants from the Bering Strait. One of the most prominent patterns among these is the seeming lack of diversity in languages towards the north, which begins to diverge as one moves southwards.

Q: Why are the Khoi-San languages believed to be very old?

There are certain peculiar patterns about the Khoi-San languages that reveal their age. For instance, they are extremely diverse. Also, the Khoi-San speakers are genetically found to be early hominids.

Q: What do we know about the first language?

There is a lot of debate about the first language of the world. However, the idea that the first language had clicks has gained a lot of traction, and it solves the mysterious patterns of Khoi-San languages while pointing to the notion that they are very close to the first language.

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