Posts Tagged ‘Proto-Indo-European’

The oldest language in the world

August 8, 2018

Even those with supposedly the very “best breeding” in the world have derived from just as many ancestors and ancestral generations as the most wretched person alive today. Every single one of the 7 billion humans alive today has an unbroken line of descent from any time in the past. (Not forgetting that your dog is a product of around seven times more generations than you are). In terms of evolution every single human is just as much evolved (or devolved) as any other.

But so must it be with our languages as well. Every single language used today must have an unbroken connection backwards into the past. Assuming that the first proto-language, if there was only one, or the many original proto-languages, developed at around the same time, every language used today has as long a genealogy as every other. Some languages have no doubt become extinct, but every surviving language must have an unbroken connection back into the mist of the origin of language.

About half the world’s population speak languages which derive from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). PIE probably came into being around 10 – 15,000 years ago. But there would have been languages before that and possibly some simple speech was already established some 100,000 years ago or even earlier. One plausible family tree, proposed by Allan Bomhard in 2008, is of the Nostratic macrofamily. (Nostratic is still considered quite speculative but if it wasn’t Nostratic then it is only a question of what it was — for something there certainly must have been).

The evolution of language would have been a braided stream. Putting a time-line onto this evolution of language is purely speculative. Nevertheless, any speculation is perfectly valid as a possibility unless there is some evidence to exclude it. The origins of PIE seem to be linked to either the spread of humans with access to horses or to the neolithic spread of agriculture or possibly to both. Either way it would be dated to 10,000 – 15,000 years ago. The geographical location is also speculative. It could have been from the steppes of central Asia (the equine theory) or from the Golden Crescent (agriculture).

But PIE derives from Eurasiatic, and it probably displaced a Proto-Dravidian ancestor already being used in the Indus Valley and across the subcontinent. The generation prior to PIE (Afro-Asiatic, Kartvelian, Dravidian and Eurasiatic) could then occupy the period from 15,000 to about 25,000 years ago. It is probably with this generation of language that rudimentary written language first developed. Which, I speculate, would take Nostratic to the period from 25,000 to 35,000 years ago. But the story does not start or end with Nostratic. There was language – and languages – long before that. However, Nostratic and its siblings and all previous generations of language would have been entirely spoken (including whistling and clicks as part of the spoken tradition).

 

Every human has origins which go as far back into the past as any other. And so it is with language.

The oldest language in the world, the language with its origins in the most distant past, is the language you are speaking now.


 

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