Research Focus Area
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
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
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
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