Evolution of Human Languages

An international project on the linguistic prehistory of humanity
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Evolution of Human Languages

Working group: The Khoisan Problem (August 2002)

The working group on "The Khoisan Problem", held within the project "Evolution of Human Languages", assembled in SFI on August 20 - August 25, 2002. The meeting was chaired by Sergei Starostin from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The special attention dedicated to the Khoisan family and the problem of Proto-Khoisan reconstruction is explained by the fact that Khoisan is often considered a unique language family - its specific phonetic features (so-called "click" sounds) hold it apart from all the other languages and present a significant challenge for any attempts to directly link them genetically to any other family. This was explained by Merritt Ruhlen (Stanford) in his opening talk on Khoisan in general. He presented linguistic, archaeological, and genetic evidence indicating that Proto-Khoisan was the oldest branch to split from "Proto-World" speach, and that our knowledge of Proto-Khoisan would be of immense help for reconstructing Proto-World itself.

Rainer Vossen (University of Frankfurt) gave a detailed introductory speech on Khoisan, elucidating some of the family's most intricate phonological and morphological details for everybody present, particularly those who were not too familiar with the peculiarities of Khoisan. He described the "average" click system of Khoisan languages, after which he proceeded to point out the differences between the separate branches of Khoisan. He also briefly touched upon the general state of present day comparative Khoisan linguistics.

Chris Ehret (UCLA) demonstrated the results of his own work on Proto-Khoisan, a lexical and phonetic comparison of three most well described live Khoisan languages, each from one separate branch (Zhu|hoasi from the Northern branch, !Xoo from the Southern branch, and Nama from the Central branch). He described the system of phonological correspondences between the three languages, essentially similar to that of !Xoo but with a few differences, and presented the lexical material to support his hypothesis. He then proceeded to give a short talk on his research in comparative Khoisan morphology.

George Starostin (EHL Project) described his work on Khoisan which he had been doing for several months at the SFI Institute. He demonstrated the Khoisan computer database system, structured as a two-level hierarchy (from Proto-Khoisan to daughter branches), gave his results of calculating preliminary Khoisan glottochronology, and gave a brief comparison of the reliability and completeness of the data sources he used. He also touched upon several isolated problems of Khoisan comparative phonology, stressing the importance of dialect and language comparison within one branch as opposed to within several branches; in particular, he managed to prove that for Proto-North-Khoisan, five opposed clicks need to be reconstructed instead of the usually postulated four, which would have significant consequences for Proto-Khoisan in general.

Harold Fleming (Boston University) gave a talk on his own involvement in Khoisan studies, mainly concerning Khoisan isolated languages like Hadza and Sandawe, and presented his view upon the relations between Khoisan and other African families.

In the final discussion perspectives of future Khoisan historical research were discussed. The participants agreed upon the main problems facing Khoisan historical linguistics, such as incompleteness and frequent inadequacy of linguistic data, and produced several hypotheses about the origination of the click system. It was generally agreed that the clicks could (a) either be original, going back to Proto-World, or (b) secondary, having developed out of a gradual reduction of the bisyllabic root structure (i.e. *CVCV > *CCV > *XV, where C = consonant, V = vowel, X = click).