It may be worth while to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would, I think, be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some very ancient language had altered little, and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others (owing to the spreading and subsequent isolation and states of civilisation of the several races, descended from a common race) had altered much, and had given rise to many new languages and dialects. The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical; and this would be strictly natural, as it would connect together all languages, extinct and modern, by the closest affinities, and would give the filiation and origin of each tongue. CHARLES DARWIN, ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES

A CROSS THE WORLD, linguists estimate, there are some 6,000 different languages. All are descendants of older languages that are no longer spoken. In a few cases these parent languages have survived in written form, like Latin, or can be reconstructed from their descendants, like proto-Indo-European, the inferred ancestor of a vast family of languages spoken from Europe to India.

The 6,000 languages, in other words, are not an unrelated miscellany but all belong to various branches of a single family tree of human languages. Those branches must presumably have converged at their trunk to a single language, the first ever spoken, which was perhaps the mother tongue of the ancestral human population. If so, it should be possible to draw up a genealogy of the world's languages, showing their tree of descent from the mother tongue. As Darwin perceived, such a tree should be recognizably similar to a parallel tree showing the emergence of human races from the ancestral population. And if a tree of language could be interwoven with a genetic tree of human populations, and the two trees linked to the various cultures discovered by archaeologists, a new and unified framework would be created for understanding all of human prehistory. One immediate obstacle to this grand synthesis is that most historical linguists believe language trees cannot be constructed farther back than a mere 5,000 years from the present, or perhaps 10,000 years at most. Geneticists, however, are not so pessimistic. They have developed sophisticated statistical techniques for constructing genetic trees and believe the same approach should work for languages. The geneticists' methods, if they work, may help resolve several long-running disputes in historical linguistics. Foremost among these is the question of the unusual distribution of the world's languages.

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