That “discovery” sounds remarkably familiar to those acquainted with an ancient story about a colossal edifice erected in the ancient past. The Hebrews preserved a record of the achievement in the eleventh chapter of the book of Genesis. At the time of the tower’s construction, all of humanity consisted of “one people [sharing] one language.”
The argument for just such a common language is made in a detailed study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After finishing this column, you may wish to read the original journal article, which is available here.
The mechanics of the study will be of great interest to all logophiles (word lovers).
Using sophisticated statistical analysis, the researchers identified 23 different words that have remained recognizable for fifteen millennia. These “ultraconserved” words include some of the fundamental building blocks of basic communication. They include: not, mother, man (i.e. male), we, this, hand, old, fire, ashes and (rather oddly) worm.
The study identifies “proto-words” that underlie common terms in extremely diverse languages. It is no accident that these universal words are the ones that are the most concrete, frequent and essential for human communication.
The Languages of the World Etymological Database, part of the Tower of Babel project . . . records reconstructed proto-words for language families from around the world. Proto-words are hypotheses as to the form of the word used by the common ancestor or proto-language of a given language family to denote a given meaning.
These words are reconstructed by first identifying cognate words among the languages of a given family and then, because cognate words derive from a common ancestral word, working back in time to reconstruct the probable features of that shared ancestral form.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a brilliant linguist, and his abiding love of languages provided the impulse for the creation (and intricate history) of all of Middle Earth.
C.S. Lewis was one of the twentieth centuries greatest writers. He was also a scholar—one with an outstanding grasp of literature. Lewis acknowledged that words describing immediate, touchable concerns can be distinct and firm, just like the realities they connote. However, when language moves farther from such elements, it invariably grows more abstract.
All language, except about objects of sense, is metaphorical through and through. To call God a “Force” (that is, something like a wind or a dynamo) is as metaphorical as to call Him a Father or a King. On such matters we can make our language more polysyllabic and duller: we cannot make it more literal. The difficulty is not peculiar to theologians. Scientists, poets, psychoanalysts, and metaphysicians are all in the same boat. (God in the Dock, “Horrid Red Things”).
The linguistic study described here notes that frequency of usage exerts a stabilizing influence on words. Whereas less common (and more abstract) vocabulary “evolves” more rapidly.
A rule-of-thumb emerges that words used more than around once per 1,000 in everyday speech evolve slowly enough to have a high chance of being judged cognate among more than two of the language families; this might equate to around 16 uses per day per speaker of these high-frequency words.
Throughout history various languages have vied with one another for precedence. In the Mediterranean world Greek, for a season, and then Latin for another, were the “universal” tongues. The phrase lingua franca (literally, the “Frankish language”) has now come to refer to any language that is extensively used as a common bridge between speakers of different tongues.
Such languages, of course, enhance communication. That is not to suggest, however, that the development of these “dominant” languages is without critics. It seems, for example, that France was delighted in their language serving for many years as a standard for international diplomacy. Today however, France continues to staunchly resist the advances of English. (In 1994 the initial version of the Toubon Law overreached in requiring the extensive use of French in nearly all contexts. You can read about some implications for international businesses here.)
Even C.S. Lewis regretted some of the negative influences of American English on the mother tongue. In his book Studies in Words, he mourns:
I have an idea of what is good and bad language. . . . Language is an instrument for communication. The language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best. It is better to have like and love than to have aimer for both.
It was better to have the older English distinction between “I haven’t got indigestion” (I am not suffering from it at the moment) and “I don’t have indigestion” (I am not a dyspeptic) than to level both, as America has now taught most Englishmen to do, under “I don’t have.”
It remains to be seen whether any single language will come to truly dominate the world scene. Being able to communicate freely across all political borders sounds like a noble goal. It is ironic that should that day ever arrive it will mark a return to how things once began.
The painting reproduced above was painted circa 1563 by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.