Evolution of Human Languages

An international project on the linguistic prehistory of humanity
coordinated by the Santa Fe Institute
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Evolution of Human Languages

EHL Working Group Meeting (February 2002)

The working group on "Evolution of Human Languages"--part of SFI's program initiative on Evolution of Human Languages (EHL) supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-was held in SFI on Feb. 18 - Feb. 24. The meeting was co-chaired by SFI's Murray Gell-Mann and Sergei Starostin from the Russian Academy of Sciences. Presentations covered a range of topics.

Starostin discussed the current state of the EHL project, describing the set of linguistic databases currently available and demonstrating the software designed for processing these databases. Currently, databases exist for most language families of Eurasia and Australia (less is done for American and African languages), and work is in progress to relate them all within a global database network. A CD-ROM with all available databases and software was distributed to the participants.

Merritt Ruhlen (Stanford) presented evidence for a new macrofamily called "Afro-Pacific," relating some of the African language families and the Indo-Pacific family.

John Bengtson (Mother Tongue magazine) talked about the current state of the Dene-Caucasian theory, concentrating on sound correspondences and grammatical features.

Jim Mason (Rosetta Project, San Francisco) demonstrated the Internet Rosetta project, the goal of which is to present concise information about all individual languages on the Web. Ways were discussed of closer cooperation between the Rosetta and EHL project.

Tim Usher (Rosetta Project) presented the current state of the Indo-Pacific database, which has yet to be integrated into the general EHL framework.

George Starostin (EHL Project) discussed his work on comparative Khoisan and gave a talk about the position of the extinct Elam language in relation to Dravidian, Eurasiatic and Afroasiatic. Evidence was presented in favor of Elamo-Afroasiatic affinity as opposed to traditionally postulated Elamo-Dravidian relationship.

Alexander Militarev (Russian State University of the Humanities) presented a case study in identifying the homeland of a linguistic family. He presented convincing arguments in favor of identifying the homeland of the Afroasiatic family with the Natufian and Post-Natufian archeological culture in the Front East.

Among the other topics discussed was pronominal patterns as tools for identifying large linguistic genetic units. A conclusion was that the pronominal pattern *nga (1st person) / *na (2d person)-widely present in Afro-Pacific-can also be discovered in a number of other macro-families (albeit sometimes only as a relic) and may indeed be a trace of a very archaic pronominal system.