We Are Family
(Originally published September 25, 2014)
In a few other posts, we have discussed how languages change and ultimately die. These linguistic phenomena take place over long periods of time and space and usually directly involve or lead to the expansion of language families. In essence, a language family is a group of languages that were originally one mainform and then evolved in different ways until multiple new languages were formed. In turn, these new languages continued to evolve until even more subgroupings occur. Depending on how you classify languages, there are approximately 20 basic language families, the most widely known of which include Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Afroasiatic. Each of these families is represented in a tree and can be further broken down into branches. Some linguists attempt to connect different languages together to show a previous tie. They do so by posturing a so-called “protolanguage” which is the mother to the two or more languages that came forth from it. This entails a process called language reconstruction, which requires a comparative study of the modern languages being spoken to see how they possibly could have changed over time until becoming what they are. This can become quite controversial, with different scholars arguing over whether or not a particular reconstruction is an accurate portrayal of what the older form of the language sounded like. Unfortunately, because no physical recording of these ancient languages exist (in written or spoken form), linguists and anthropologists are left to make the best of techniques that are available, such as examining how other languages have evolved phonologically (Grimm’s Law), showing how the syntax of similar languages and dialects operates, etc. The least effective methodologies rely on vocabulary, as many loan words enter a language’s lexicon based on contact and prestige, even though they are not remotely close to being genetically related. Still, some ambitious linguists would like to be able to connect ALL of the world’s languages into one neat little tree. This proves to be extremely difficult, not only based on the difficulties mentioned above detailing the process, but coupled with the additional burden of finding connections with languages that seemingly have nothing in common with another is a bit like grasping at straws. What do you think? Can all languages be traced to a single common ancestor? If so, how is that possible? As always, I’m curious to hear your comments!