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Thread: Language as a Clue to Prehistory

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Language as a Clue to Prehistory

    One might first ask how that can be possible. Pots aren't people, as archeologists warn us, and words aren't people, either. Consider all the people who have learned English. It is the third most spoken first language, after Chinese and Spanish, and the first most spoken second language. It is spoken by people all over the world, people of all races and almost all ethnicities.

    But most people speak the language(s) that they grew up with, and that is how language can offer clues to prehistory.

    Even so, people can borrow words, or more precisely, copy them, from other languages. Linguistic purists sometimes try to fight borrowing, like French linguistic purists who oppose "franglais" ("Frenglish"), English words borrowed into French. Like trying to say "le fin de semaine" instead of "le weekend". But phrases like that are calques or loan-translations, formations using existing linguistic resources.

    So why don't people's languages get all mixed up?

    To see what happens, we must look at history. Fortunately, speakers of some languages have left long paper trails. Or papyrus trails or clay trails or rock trails, as the case may be. So let us look at some of these trails.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    The people of the ancient Roman Republic and Roman Empire spoke Latin, but in the territory of that former state, nobody speaks Latin as a primary language. In much of that territory, people speak languages that are very similar to Latin in some ways -- the Romance languages. Much of their vocabulary is Latin-derived, as is much of their grammar.

    Let us count from one to ten, using this resource: ūnus duo trēs quattuor quinque sex septem octō novem decem

    Then:
    Latin ūnus duo trēs quattuor quinque sex septem octō novem decem

    Now:
    Italian uno due tre quattro cinque sei sette otto nove dieci
    Spanish uno dos tres cuatro cinco seis siete ocho nueve diez
    Portuguese um dois três quatro cinco seis sete oito nove dez
    French un deux trois quatre cinq six sept huit neuf dix
    Romanian unu doi trei patru cinci şase şapte opt nouă zece
    Also numerous similar-looking words in dialects and non-national languages like Rumansch, Occitan, and Sardinian.

    I'll do an approximate transcription of their pronunciation:

    Latin: ûnus, dwô, três, kwattwor, kwînkwe, seks, septem, oktô, nowem, dekem

    Itaiian: uno, due, tre, kwattro, tshinke, sei, sette, otto, nove, dyetshi
    Spanish: uno, dos, tres, kwatro, thinko, seis, syete, otsho, nweve, dyes
    Portuguese: aN, dois, tres, kwatru, seNko, seis, sete, oitu, nove, des
    French: aN, dö, trwa, katr, seNk, sis, set, üit, nöf, dis
    Romanian: unu, doi, trei, patru, tshintshi, sase, shapte, opt, noua, zetshe

    They look rather similar, though some Latin sounds have been turned into other sounds. Something like tomayto vs. tomahto for that vegetable, but carried further. Such sound changes tend to be very regular, and they can be used to distinguish additional cognates from borrowings.

    Another interesting result is that commonplace sorts of words tend to be preserved very well, seldom borrowed or replaced by other word forms. However, this is not an absolute rule. The Latin word for dog was canis, with accusative or object case canem. Italian: cane, Spanish: perro, Portuguese: cão, French: chien, Romanian: câine. So some medieval Spanish speaker used "perro" instead of something like "can" and it caught on. The other medieval Romance speakers did not participate, and they kept their Latin-descended words.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Can and canino are valid terms for the same animal in continental Spanish as well. Perro is preferred informally and in the colonias, but the latin-related term wasn't lost. Many think that perro began as some manner of onomatopeia, since it doesn't seem to have any equivalents in neighboring languages.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Turning to grammar, some things look very different. Latin had several noun cases, while the Romance languages have much fewer. But there is more similarity than what one might at first think. The Romance languages carry over Latin's prepositions, and use some of them to substitute for cases. To illustrate, let us consider "horse's head" or "head of the horse".

    Latin: caput equi
    (equi: genitive or of-case for equus, "horse")

    Italian: testa di cavallo
    Spanish: cabeza de caballo
    Portuguese: cabeça de cavalo
    French: tête de cheval
    Romanian: capul calului

    All of them are "head of horse" or "head of-horse" with that word order. Most of the Romance languages use descendants of the Latin preposition "de" ("from") for "of". Note also the word-form substitutions. For "horse", the Romance words descend from Late Latin "caballus", becoming common in the last few centuries of the Western Roman Empire. The words for "head" are more complicated, with "caput" descendants surviving in some cases, but being replaced by descendants of Latin "testa" ("pot") in others. The descendants of Latin "caput" in Italian and French are "capo" and "chef", both meaning "leader", as English "head" sometimes does.

    Although this is simpler than Latin, the Western Romance languages have some complications. In particular, they have a definite article, a word for "the", a word that Latin lacks. In most of the Romance languages, it is derived from Latin "ille", meaning "that". They also have a lot of contractions of definite articles with prepositions.

    French:
    • de + le = du, à + le = au
    • de + les = des, à + les = aux

    The other combinations are written separately: de la and à la. Writing -ux instead of -us is a French spelling quirk.

    Spanish:
    • de + el = del, a + el = al

    The others are written separately here also.

    Italian:
    • il (masc. sg. bf cons.) di + il = del
    • lo (masc. sg. bf c clus.) di + lo = dello
    • l' (sg. bf vowel) di + l' = dell'
    • la (fem. sg. bf cons.) di + la = della
    • i (masc. pl. bf cons.) di + i = dei
    • gli (masc. pl. bf vwl/clus.) di + gli = degli
    • le (fem. pl.) di + le = delle

    All contracted here. The prepositions da ("from"), a ("to"), in ("in"), and su ("on") are similar, though in becomes ne-.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    I started off with Latin and Romance because this is a well-documented case of a language having descendants. The speakers of Latin in different parts of the former empire changed their language's sounds, its vocabulary, and its grammar, and changed them in different ways.

    Returning to vocabulary, it is evident that much of the Romance languages' vocabulary is inherited from Latin. They also have lots of words borrowed straight from Latin itself, causing such doublets as Spanish cabeza, capital. In such doublets, the inherited word has sound changes that the reborrowed word lacks.

    I now turn to word borrowing - what can easily be borrowed and what is seldom borrowed. The Romance languages are not very good for this, but one of their neighbors is: English. This language has numerous words borrowed from medieval Norman French, including lots of commonplace words. In particular, words for various animal meats are borrowings of Norman French words for those animals: beef, veal, pork, mutton. Modern French has boeuf, veau, porc, and mouton.

    But there are plenty of words that English has inherited from pre-Norman Old English, and those include lots of function words and very commonplace words. Also, the grammar of English has continuity with the grammar of Old English. In particular, the past tenses and past participles are formed in essentially the same way, though English has lost most personal verb endings. English has two types of verb: strong verbs, with vowel shifts, and weak verbs, with -ed.

    Several linguists have tried to find which sorts of words are seldom borrowed, and in the mid 20th cy., Morris Swadesh came up with a list of 200 word meanings, and later a list of 100. Appendix:Swadesh lists - Wiktionary has a list of 207 meanings, and Swadesh list has the 100-meaning list. That article has a shorter 35-meaning list, and the Dolgopolsky list is a 15-meaning list for super-conserved words. A separate list of 100 words is the Leipzig–Jakarta list.

    Dolgopolsky's list is I/me, two/pair, you (singular, informal), who/what, tongue, name, eye, heart, tooth, no/not, nail (finger-nail), louse/nit, tear/teardrop, water, dead.

    The lists include such meanings as "name", "not", small numbers, pronouns, humanity and family relations, body parts, and common animals, plants, substances, natural phenomena, environment features, actions and properties, like basic colors.

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    Let us look at English again. The first recorded form of English is Old English or Anglo-Saxon. It is different enough from present-day English to be a foreign language to present-day speakers, but it nevertheless has a lot of continuity with present-day English.

    Looking at several other northern European languages, one finds a lot of similarity in grammar and basic vocabulary, especially in earlier forms, forms like Old English and Old High German and Old Norse. But we do not have any written record of any possible ancestral language. Yet we nevertheless identify a Germanic family of languages, and we propose that it had an ancestor, Proto-Germanic.

    So we are sure that Proto-Germanic existed, even though we have no written record of it, not even a single word of it. We even have a likely location for where it was likely spoken, the Jastorf culture of roughly 500 BCE - 1 CE in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia.

    Likewise, in Eastern Europe, one can identify a Slavic family of languages and even propose a Slavic homeland: southern Poland and western Ukraine.

    The champion of written record in Europe is Greek. The first surviving writings in Greek are from the Mycenaean period, around 1500 - 1200 BCE. The destruction of the Mycenaean palace society around 1200 BCE ended that period of literacy, with the burning palaces baking the clay tablets that were used for recordkeeping. Greek speakers became literate again around 750 BCE, and they have kept their writing system all the way to the present.

    Turning to the Middle East, we find some more related languages, like Hebrew and Arabic and Aramaic and Akkadian, and in nearby east Africa, Amharic and the like. Someone named them Semitic after Noah's son Shem, who got the Middle East.

    Looking further, in India, we find some languages with a long written history and with an ancestor called Sanskrit, much like the Romance languages and Latin.

    So we have both direct evidence of ancestral languages - Latin and Sanskrit - and plenty of indirect evidence - Germanic, Slavic, Semitic, and Indic.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    Can and canino are valid terms for the same animal in continental Spanish as well. Perro is preferred informally and in the colonias, but the latin-related term wasn't lost. Many think that perro began as some manner of onomatopeia, since it doesn't seem to have any equivalents in neighboring languages.
    Curiously, in English exactly the same process happened to exactly the same word. "Dog" is preferred informally, but the Germanic-related term "hound" is still a valid term for the same animal, and "hound" is the Germanic cognate of Latin "canis", and nobody knows where "dog" came from, and onomatopeia has been proposed.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bomb#20 View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    Can and canino are valid terms for the same animal in continental Spanish as well. Perro is preferred informally and in the colonias, but the latin-related term wasn't lost. Many think that perro began as some manner of onomatopeia, since it doesn't seem to have any equivalents in neighboring languages.
    Curiously, in English exactly the same process happened to exactly the same word. "Dog" is preferred informally, but the Germanic-related term "hound" is still a valid term for the same animal, and "hound" is the Germanic cognate of Latin "canis", and nobody knows where "dog" came from, and onomatopeia has been proposed.
    Good point! Well, it is a common enough means for a neologism to come about, though there others; I imagine lpetrich will be getting around to some of them.

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    Berger calls language a compendium of our collective experience and history. When some phenomenon becomes critical enough that it needs to be symbolized, language emerges to describe it. If it falls out of necessity, it falls out of our language. So language used in prehistory should have been a reflection of the circumstances the speakers lived in - mostly whatever was necessary to survive in hunter-gathering conditions.

    Wait, what are we talking about again?

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    I also wonder if you could do an analysis on complexity, in theory the simplest words should have emerged first:

    God, Bread, Dog, Horse, Sun, Tree

    And so on..

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