PIE vs. Proto-World (Proto-Language)

Ralf-Stefan Georg Georg at home.ivm.de
Tue Aug 3 08:16:47 UTC 1999

>	Unless you're saying that language arose in the last 100,000 years
>[i.e. before humans left Africa], then I don't think you can make a serious
>claim that there are any true isolates. Basque and Burushaski are surely
>related to other languages but the lumpers are going to have to work a lot
>harder to prove it.

Some of them I know are satisfied with declaring it, so why waste time on
"proof" ? ;-)

>	My understanding is that language arose before humans left Africa,
>so any claims of polygenesis would have to be examined among African
>languages. Given that the only existing language families in Africa are
>Niger-Kordofanian, Nilo-Saharan, Afro-Asiatic and the Khoisan languages
>[which may be between 1and 5 families], it seems that the onus of proof is
>on the polygenesists.

I fail to see the logic in this (which is certainly my fault): out of
Africa, OK, maybe. But what does this have to do with African languages ?
Or, why should a "claim of polygenesis" only be testable against them ? As
I said, there is no real reason to believe that "language arose" only once,
consequently all the human groups which went "out of Africa" at some time
in history could have been speakers of seperate, independently "arisen"
languages in the first place. So "claims of polygenesis" could be tested
against whatever evidence there may be available on a global scale. I use
the quotes around "claims of p." because for me this is no claim at all but
simply the default assumption. Relatedness is a positive fact, testable
against hard evidence. Lack of this evidence, the nature of which is and
always was controversial, leads to the default assumption of
And, speaking about Africa: not everyone in the field accepts the genetic
status of Nilo-Saharan.
Even Niger-Kordofanian is not accepted by everyone, though the critics seem
to be in a minority position (which does of course not mean that they are
wrong !). I, for one, do think that at least Niger-Congo is OK (from my
limited experience with it; there are striking morphological patterns
recurring in, say, Kwa and Bantu), but noone really knows how this huge
language family came to dominate most of Africa. One scenario is, of
course, spread, no, not over previously uninhabitated territory, but spread
over territory dominated by different languages which either became
"niger-congoized" by intensive language contact or, if you don't like this
scenario, by language shift to Niger-Congo with all kinds of substratum
items surviving into the languages we can observe today, resp. classify as
N-C. So even the alleged "fact" that Africa has now no more than 5 language
families has any bearing on the question of poly- vs. monogenesis. Europe
has only two language families, if you are in that mood (Nostratic and
Dene-Caucasian ;-), which I'm not, but pre-Indoeuropean groups have been
identified before the spread of IE (or N.) on the continent.
I guess the familiar family-tree model with ideally one language at its
beginning and several to many ones at its contemporary bottom (to which I
wholeheartedly subscribe in those cases where such a thing has been
established !) leads to a somewhat slanted picture. It is true that, where
we look at language families, the present may be variegated and the past
look quite uniform. But if we look at *territories* on Earth which are
dominated by one language and investigate its past, in strikingly many
cases we find that what looks like a linguistically homogeneous area, was
not so in earlier times. Most languages which spread ofer a considerable
territory did so at the expense of other ones spoken by pre-spread
population groups in that area. We don't have sufficient information for
every single case in the world where this may have happened, but where we
do the picture is quite clearly this: modern uniformity of language most
often replaced former diversity. See yourself !
One more thing: even the "out of Africa"-theory is not accepted (or
acceptable) in every detail. While it is true that East Africa seems to be
the home of *anatomically* modern Man, it does not follow that *homo
loquens* originated in the same place. I don't see how this should follow.
Humans as bearers of cultural traditions, artificial skills and articulate
language may have "arisen" independently in several places of the Old
World. I pondered about this in a previous post.
No, the onus of "proof" is on the shoulders of the monogeneticists, and
even on that of the oligogeneticists. There simply is no analogy between
the development of a biological species and that of cultural traditions and
artefacts. One of them is language. We use our brains to handle it, but it
hasn't come to us readymade with those brains.

This could be a fascinating discussion to pursue further, but I use the
opportunity to say that I'll be away for the next two months, starting this
week, to do some fieldwork on the Lower Yenissey (on Dene-Caucasian ;-).
Anything said on this list about this matter in the meantime is, due to my
absence, irrelevant, meaningless and most probably seriously misguided ;-)
;-) ;-)

Stefan Georg

PS: You did see the emoticons, did you ?

Stefan Georg
Heerstrasse 7
D-53111 Bonn

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