Thursday, 5 March 2009

the only word they know is grunt and they can't spell it

Mahendra has asked me to comment on this story: 'Oldest English words' identified. Here are some more articles on the same subject.

I'm afraid I must apologize; I can't comment on these stories because I don't know what they are really about. Here are some things they might be about:

  • playing scrabble with cavemen (like this?)
  • using computer models to travel back in time and talk to William the Conqueror (instead of using, say, an Old French dictionary)
  • how the oldest English words are two, three, five, who and I (but not four, bafflingly), which have remained unchanged in sound and meaning for tens of thousands of years, in fact these words would be understood in Ice Age Europe! But then why are the cognates of five (fünf, cinq, coig, pāñc, pjat', pénte1) so different from each other? Or the cognates of who (wer, qui, cia, kaun, kto, poi1)?
  • how the words dirty, squeeze and guts will be the next words to disappear from English - so use them now while you can!

The Log tells us that the research behind this media frenzy is Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history, in Nature 2007. But as presented in the news, it has nothing to do with Proto-Indo-European, at least as I understand it. The time depths given - 15,000 years, 20,000 years, 40,000 years - are way older than the estimate for the breakup of Proto-Indo-European, which Fortson suggests is 2500 BC.

1. German, French, Scots Gaelic, Hindi, Russian, Ancient Greek


Glen Gordon said...

Wow. You've found a wonderfully nutbar link! Congratulations! Best yet! Some statements in that article nearly made me gush my morning coffee out of my nose in utter mental confusion. Here's an example of a really dumb statement by that author who, as we can all agree, should be beaten senseless:

"The ability to speak arose about 300,000 years ago, scientists think, thanks to a pair of anatomical changes that separate humans from other primates[...]"

Cough, cough! Sorry, let's all get off the crazy train now to examine the real answer.

First off, I'm sick of ignorant people using "language" as a shorthand for "vocal language" when there are millions of people worldwide using sign language, a valid language just as complex and nuanced as vocal language. With that simple revelation in mind, this author already seems unbearably naive about the topic.

Next is the problem of *assuming blindly* that a hyoid bone or larynx is necessary for vocal communication. Obviously it's not since even chimps utter sounds as a form of communication and let's not forget that hyoid bones and larynxes aren't even an issue for birds who use their syrinx for vocal communication all the time! Again, the author is too sate in his idle conviction that humans are "special" from other animals to notice the omens of his ignorance around him.

Then of course, there's the proven matter of a primate's physical and mental ability to sign words (Koko anyone? Hello!?) which should throw a permanent monkey wrench in this whole uneducated drivel once and for all.

Glen Gordon said...

Blow me down, I had totally forgotten that I wrote about this "language origins" controversy almost a full year ago: Xenolinguistics and the Language Gene Scam.