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

Workshop: Linguistic Databases and Linguistic Taxonomy (January 6-10, 2003)

The Conference began on January 6 with a welcome from the organizers, Murray Gell-Mann and Sergei A. Starostin. Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann is a distinguished fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, and Sergei A. Starostin, a professor at Russian State University of the Humanities in Moscow, has been residing for periods of time at Santa Fe as part of the Evolution of Human Language Project (EHL).

The general plan of the conference consisted of about six presentations each day. Each presenter was allotted an hour for the presentation and discussion. The presentations on Monday through Thursday were as follows:

Jim Mason (Director of the Rosetta Project, San Francisco, CA) updated the conference on the progress of the Rosetta Project.

Merritt Ruhlen (Stanford University and SFI) reported on “The Current State of Linguistic Taxonomy.”

Paul Whitehouse, working in London for SFI, spoke on “Inclusion Versus Exclusion: The Problem of Negative Evidence. “

Alexander Lubotsky (Leiden University) reported on the progress of the Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Project.

Sergei A. Starostin (Russian State University, SFI) reported on the extensive language database being compiled for the EHL. A compact disk containing the database was distributed to conference participants.

Martine Robbeets (Leiden University) presented a report on her doctoral thesis, a thorough evaluation of the evidence for the hypothesis that Japanese is an Altaic language.

Anna Dybo (Russian Academy of Science, Institute of Linguistics) reported on the historical contacts between the Ainu language of Japan and various Altaic languages.

Aharon Dolgopolsky (University of Haifa) presented the paper “Proto-Nostratic: a synthetic or analytic language.”

Harold C. Fleming (ASLIP and Boston University) reported on “The Grand Strategy” in the search for Mother Tongue.

William Baxter (University of Michigan) reported on “New techniques for reconstructing the history of Chinese dialects‚.”

John D. Bengtson (ASLIP and SFI) presented a paper on “Basque comparative phonology.”

Vitaly Shevoroshkin (University of Michigan) reported on “Salishan and North Caucasian.”

Timothy Usher (Rosetta Project and SFI) reported on recent comparative work testing the validity of Greenberg’s Indo-Pacific hypothesis, and on the huge Indo-Pacific database being compiled.

Ilya Peiros (Max Planck Institut and SFI) reported on the Intercontinental Dictionary Series and historical linguistics of Southeast Asia.

Dmitry Leshchiner (SFI) presented the paper “Hokan Comparative Studies ˆ Status and Prospects in Larger Amerind Context.”

Luca Cavalli-Sforza (Stanford University) reported on the latest information on the evolution of modern humans, according to population genetics.

Vaclav Blazhek (Masaryk University and Brno Institute of Linguistics) presented a report on Afro-Asiatic glottochronology.

Christopher Ehret (University of California/ Los Angeles) presented his results on the reconstruction of the Proto-South-Khoisan and Proto-Khoisan proto-languages.

Georgiy Starostin (Center of Comparative Linguistics, Moscow, and SFI) presented a paper “Towards a Reconstruction of Proto South African Khoisan.”

Alexander Militarev (Moscow Jewish University) reported on “Dating Proto-Afro-Asiatic.”

Some others who did not have specific presentations but participated in organized and spontaneous discussions, or otherwise participated “behind the scenes” were Bernard Comrie (Max Planck Institute), William S.Y. Wang (City University of Hong Kong), Vittorio Loreto (La Sapienza University, Rome), Natalie Operstein (Los Angeles), Lisa Diamond, and Kurt Bollacker.

The following are my personal reflections on the conference. For me it was a sequel to the Symposium on Language and Prehistory, held at Ann Arbor in 1988. At least 11 of the participants at the Ann Arbor conference were re-united for the present conference. For some of the Russians in 1988 it was their first journey to the United States and a first taste of the freedom brought about by the fall of the Iron Curtain. Now, almost 15 years later, we can report on significant progress in the study of language in prehistory. Much of this progress was made possible by the contacts between Western and Soviet-Bloc scholars initiated by Hal Fleming and Aharon Dolgopolsky in the early 1980s. They (along with Gell-Mann, Starostin, Ruhlen, Wang, Comrie) deserve copious credit and thanks for the state of the art in paleo-linguistics.

John D. Bengtson
Vice President
Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory
156 15th Avenue NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413 U.S.A.