phonological history inferred

We know about our tool making beginning over 2 million years ago (see post from last week), art and burials maybe 40,000 years ago, and written language (glyphs) maybe 6,000 years ago (see post 10/12/14) because we find tangible artifacts that can be dated.  The history of language is more difficult because oral traditions leave no artifacts.  Some believe human language emerged in the last 50-60,000 years, thereby changing consciousness, and others believe language emerged much earlier.  Some enterprising linguists have devised a manner for estimating the development and change in phonemes, the sounds of a language, that yields some estimated dates for language’s origins.  Here is the link:

Their method is analogous to scientists using measures of genetic change to estimate dates at which species diverged, for example, humans from chimps, or how long ago a hypothetical Eve, the mother of us all, meaning the earliest Homo sapiens female, lived.  The linguists looked at historical records of language change and also at the more recent colonization of some SE Asian islands, which initiated some grammatical changes as well.  Think of the changes from old or middle English to today’s forms, like Chaucer:

‘Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,’
Quod the Marchant, ‘and so doon oother mo
That wedded been

Vowels were quite different then, letters silent today,(initial k, final e) were pronounced aloud, etc.  Grammatical structure, including phonemes and phonology, by nature must be conservative; change must be gradual and slow.  So these linguists, using a method others can replicate to test its reliability, used linguistic data to show the origin of language came during the middle stone age, or roughly with the advent of shaped tools roughly 2 million years to a half million years ago, certainly not a recent event like 40,000 years ago.  Our cave painters talked a good deal.

This study indicates that all of our ancestors used language for communicating.

This study indicates that all of our ancestors used language for communicating.

I like it.  It may be impossible to establish the validity of such a study but it does use rigorous methodology and linguistic data.  And this fits with other archeological evidence and with the sense that our intellect come from deep and old rivers of evolutionary change.

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