Evolution of Human Languages

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

Database Construction for World Language Families

Merritt Ruhlen, Stanford University, City University of Hong Kong

Merritt's work is currently focused on creating top-level databases for all the world's language families. For families which have been reconstructed (e.g. Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Kartvelian, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, Yeniseian, Miao-Yao) the database contains all the reconstructions given for the family. For families that have not been reconstructed, but posited on the basis of a set of etymologies (e.g. Khoisan, Niger-Kordofanian, Amerind , Indo- Pacific) the database includes the defining etymologies. Some of the databases are taken from the work of other members of the EHL project, in particular Sergei Starostin, George Starostin, Paul Whitehouse, and Timothy Usher. Merritt concentrates on families for which there were no databases of any kind available (e.g. Amerind, Na-Dene, Miao-Yao, Afro-Asiatic, Eskimo-Aleut). Though there are still lacunae remaining to be filled in, we are now close to having a world-wide database that will provide the evidence with which we can try to work out the overall phylogeny of the human family tree based on linguistic evidence. It will be interesting to see to what extant this tree--if it can be discovered-- corresponds to similar trees being constructed by geneticists.

A particular aspect of Merritt's work is reseach (in collaboration with Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Usher, and William S-Y. Wang) on the Kusunda language of Nepal. The Kusunda have long been regarded as one of three relic tribes of South Asia (the Vedda of Sri Lanka and the Andamanese on the Andaman Islands are the other two). They are, or were until recently, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in jungles and forests, with a language that shows no similarities to surrounding languages. They are often described as shorter and darker than neighboring tribes. Current research indicates that the Kusunda language is a member of the Indo-Pacific family, with a pronominal system that is strikingly similar to that found in the Andaman Islands. This is a surprising finding inasmuch as the Indo-Pacific family is located on New Guinea and surrounding islands (including the Andaman Islands), making Kusunda the first Indo-Pacific language ever found on the Asian mainland. A recent study of the genetics of the Andaman Islanders (Thangaraj et al. 2002) found that they belong to mtDNA haplogroup M, which has been taken as an indicator of the first out-of-Africa migration that led to the initial peopling of Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Australia. Furthermore, the Andamanese belong to a subgroup of M that has not been found in either Africa or Asia and they share a substitution at position 16357 that is only present at high frequencies in the Andaman Islands and in one of the major founding lineages of New Guinea and island Melanesia. This genetic evidence suggests that the Andamanese are descendants of the first Palaeolithic colonizers of Southeast Asia and if genetic data can be obtained from the few remaining Kusunda it will be interesting to see if this genetic evidence supports the conclusions we have reached on the basis of their language.

Merritt is also working on a paper with the same three authors of the Kusunda paper that attempts to find linguistic traces of the first out-of-Africa migration. This paper is still at a very preliminary stage, and has essentially been put on hold while the necessary linguistic databases are built, but already a number of tantalizing clues have emerged.