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

Reconstruction of Proto-Khoisan

George Starostin, Russian State University for the Humanities

George Starostin's current research within the Evolution of Human Languages project is centered around one of the more unique language families of the world - Khoisan (or, formerly, Bushman-Hottentot) languages of South Africa. While some important work on Khoisan languages has been done in the past century, mostly in the descriptive and taxonomic area, not much progress has been achieved in establishing regular phonological correspondences between the main branches of Khoisan and reconstructing the phonological and morphological system of Proto-Khoisan. This is partially due to a lack of consistently well transcribed language data, but even more so to the extreme complexity and uniqueness of Khoisan phonetics, primarily its high reliance on the use of so-called "click" (injective) phonemes which do not occur in any other language family.

The primary goal of the project is to systematize and classify all the relevant data that can be acquired from present day sources on Khoisan by creating a system of interrelated computer databases for the Northern, Southern, and Central subbranches of Khoisan, with intermediate protolanguage reconstrucrions for each, as well as for the isolated languages of Hadza and Sandawe which may or may not be part of a very archaic Macro-Khoisan family. At the same time, research is conducted into establishing a tentative system of correspondences between these branches, which will later lead to a stricter Proto-Khoisan reconstruction.

George Starostin's preliminary view of the Khoisan protosystem is that of a highly complex, yet easily transmutable unity, with a very complex series of phonetic changes independently occurring in each of the main subbranches. Basic language data shows that Proto-Khoisan "click" consonants could easily yield two and more reflexes in daughter languages due to factors both understandable (influence of the following vowel, nasalisation, etc.) and, as of yet, unexplainable. Further research will hopefully help clarify most of these issues.