Smith writes of the massacre known as the Sicilian Vespers. The linguistic challenge was to say "ceci" (pronounced "chaychee"), the Italian word for chickpeas.
The mutability of language reflects the dark truth that humans evolved in a savage and dangerous world, in which the deadliest threat came from other human groups. Mosaic zones presumably come into being when small tribal groups coexist for a long time in the same place, with none being able to overrun the others. Even if the original settlers all speak the same language, dialects quickly evolve in each group's territory, as a badge of identity and a defense against outsiders. The longer this situation lasts, the greater the diversity of languages that are spoken. New Guinea, a premier example of a mosaic zone, appears to have so many languages because it has been stable for a very long time. There seem to be two principal language families, Trans Guinea in the central mountains, and Austronesian languages spoken around the coastal plains.
Trans Guinea is the language of earlier settlers, possibly even the original ones who arrived 40,000 years ago, while Austronesian is thought to have arrived with rice-growing seafarers who expanded from Taiwan throughout the islands of the Pacific.
Each of New Guinea's languages is spoken, on average, by some 3,000 people living in 10 to 20 villages. Tribal competition, as well as the deeply forested mountains and valleys, is one reason for the extreme balkanization. "Political fragmentation is a fact of life in New Guinea communities," writes William Foley, an expert on the island's languages. "Unlike most of Eurasia and much of Africa, the region does not have a history of state formation, either of empire or nation type. The basic unit of social structure is the clan, and competition between clans is the basic arena in which political life is played out."256 Thus three factors that have shaped the island's rich mosaic of languages are competition, the inability of any one language group to dominate the others, and a long period of time for diversification to occur.
The same process may have occurred on a worldwide basis after modern humans first left the ancestral homeland. Linguistically, a single worldwide spread zone would have been created, because the small group that left Africa presumably spoke a single language. But that spread zone would have been occupied by mutually hostile tribes who deterred travel across their territory by any who didn't speak their tongue. Over the generations this worldwide spread zone would have crystallized into a mosaic zone of increasingly divergent languages. New Guinea and parts of Australia may represent the remnants of that ancient mosaic zone. Given the territoriality of early people, reinforced by language barriers, it is little wonder that the world's population has been so immobile, at least as reflected in its genetic composition, until recent times.
Discovery and exploitation of a new, uninhabited territory would open up a new language spread zone, though that too, once occupied, would gradually fragment into the mosaic pattern. South America, with its many Amerind-derived languages, is a recently created mosaic zone. But two areas of the world have been inhabited so recently that they still look like spread zones. One is Polynesia, the other is that of the arctic regions, first occupied when the Inuit peoples developed the technology for living there.
Once a spread zone has crystallized into a mosaic zone, what forces can make it revert to a spread zone? Three possibilities are climatic disaster, a transition to agriculture, and warfare.
If a large land area is wiped clean of people, those who recolonize the empty lands will create a spread zone of their own language. The Last Glacial Maximum depopulated the northern part of the Eurasian continent between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago. Those who returned could have been the speakers of the ancient language that preceded proto-Indo-European and other large language families. This postulated ancient superfamily is called Nostratic by some scholars, and proto-Eurasiatic by the linguist Joseph Greenberg. Or possibly it was the Younger Dryas cold snap, beginning around 13,000 years ago, that paved
Was this article helpful?