Noted physicist teams with anthropologist to create ancient linguistic tree

Noted Physicist teams with anthropologist to create ancient linguistic tree
Evolution of word order. Image: (c) PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1113716108

( -- With the thousands of languages in the world today, it’s hard to imagine just one of them being spoken by all of the existing humans on Earth. And while there is really no way to prove that such was the case some fifty thousand years ago when the human race apparently shifted into behavior patterns that are more consistent with modern behavior than that which had come before, many believe it to be the case.

It was during this time period that early humans began to use more sophisticated tools, to paint and to create engravings and sculpture. Many historians have attributed this “sudden” leap to the development of . And if that was the case, then it’s likely all the people of that time were all speaking the same language, seeing as how there were still so few of them.

Now, well-known physicist Murray Gell-Mann and anthropologist Merritt Ruhlen argue that most languages descended from a common ancestor which likely came much later as the result of a possible bottleneck.

They describe in their paper published in the , how they believe that rather than following the more modern language construct of subject-verb-object (SVO), the ancient base language instead used subject-object-verb (SOV), such as is the case with old so-called dead languages, like Latin.

Murray Gell-Mann, currently a distinguished fellow with the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, received the Nobel Prize in Physics back in the late sixties for work he did on the theory of elementary particles. In addition to his numerous achievements in the field of physics, Gell-Mann has apparently always had an interest in linguistics as well. Now in his eighties, he has embarked on what some may deem a controversial idea; to develop a linguistics tree going all the way back to the first human language.

Thus far he and partner Ruhlen have come up with some 2200 nodes comprised of eight distinct branches, and twenty two sub or sub-sub branches. For each branch or sub, the two describe its most modern state and then work backwards to show how it might have developed from an older form. Using this method to go all the way back in time to the single earlier language, the two propose it must have been of the subject-object-verb variety.

It should be noted that thus far, the work is still just theory, and not all historians or linguistics experts for that matter, agree on its validity.

Explore further

Rescuing ancient languages: Linguists labor to unravel endangered Mayan tongues

More information: The origin and evolution of word order, PNAS, Published online before print October 10, 2011, doi:10.1073/pnas.1113716108

Recent work in comparative linguistics suggests that all, or almost all, attested human languages may derive from a single earlier language. If that is so, then this language—like nearly all extant languages—most likely had a basic ordering of the subject (S), verb (V), and object (O) in a declarative sentence of the type “the man (S) killed (V) the bear (O).” When one compares the distribution of the existing structural types with the putative phylogenetic tree of human languages, four conclusions may be drawn. (i) The word order in the ancestral language was SOV. (ii) Except for cases of diffusion, the direction of syntactic change, when it occurs, has been for the most part SOV > SVO and, beyond that, SVO > VSO/VOS with a subsequent reversion to SVO occurring occasionally. Reversion to SOV occurs only through diffusion. (iii) Diffusion, although important, is not the dominant process in the evolution of word order. (iv) The two extremely rare word orders (OVS and OSV) derive directly from SOV.

© 2011

Citation: Noted physicist teams with anthropologist to create ancient linguistic tree (2011, October 12) retrieved 19 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Oct 12, 2011
There are even more 'primitive' word arrangements used for communication. VS, VO, SV, and OV. Often the 'missing' part is implied by context. All may be found in current use. VO, for example, is the structure of the Imperative in English, while OV is the Imperative in German.

Oct 12, 2011
i'm in need of clarification. in hungarian the three parts

"az asszony" (S meaning the woman)
"issza" (V meaning is drinking)
"a vizet" (O meaning the water)

can be permuted in any of the six possible ways to convey the same basic meaning that the woman is drinking the water though each permutation might stress the three parts in different, nuanced ways. for example

"issza az asszony a vizet" (VSO)

will convey that the woman sure is drinking the water, whereas

"a vizet az asszony issza" (OSV)

will rather convey that it is the woman who is drinking the water, and so on. you could do the same thing in russian and i'm sure in many other languages as well. so i suppose they
would have to identify ordering with the most neutral connotation (if there is such a one) or just skip to the nearest linguistic kin. seems compicated.

Oct 12, 2011
moreover, even assuming that such a neutral order is identified (which for hungarian seems to be SVO) it is not entirely clear to that it should be something very stable and not something that could have been adopted very recently, like dialect. after all, we're talking nuance here and hungarian is surrounded by indo-european SVO all around.

Oct 13, 2011
So, all that work to come up with the idea that the first language was probably more like older languages than newer ones?

The tree is very useful of course but if that is the only inference (I doubt it) they made from it, it was rather a waste of time.

I came up with the same idea from watching my kids grow and lean language skills.
The first words they learn are subject.
"Mum", "dad", "cup" etc.

They group these together later when they want something, "Mum cup". Now they are indicating the subject, always first, followed by the object.

As more subtle nuances are required, verbs get added, to the end of course as they are of tertiary importance. "Mum cup get" "Dad cup put" etc.

The more modern form of "Dad get cup" develops as nuances are added by word order rather than suffixes, prefixes etc to denote case [male, female, inamimate, past, present, future, motion towards, motion away, travel by foot, travel by vehicle, request, command etc etc etc].

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more