June 10, 2004

Can relationships between languages be determined after 80,000 years?

I know -- Merritt Ruhlen is insane. Almost to a man, historical linguists assume that the attempts by Ruhlen and the late Joseph Greenberg proposing that languages of great antiquity retain traces of their origins in single ancestral languages are irresponsible.

But are we really being fair?

Ruhlen and some associates have published a paper in a place so obscure they might as well have scratched it on a cocktail napkin somewhere.

(The site to consult is http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/abstract/101/15/5692.)

But what they show is, to me, spinetinglingly interesting.

Kusunda is a moribund language of Nepal, once assumed to be Sino-Tibetan like a good Nepalese language often is, but which upon examination reveals itself to be something else.

And that something else is, of all things, Indo-Pacific. That is, Papuan. Properly, the Indo-Pacific group extends westward to, for example, the Andaman Islands tucked under Burma in the Bay of Bengal.

And there is spoken a language called Juwoi. And the correspondences between Kusunda and Juwoi are too close to be called an accident. What is crucial about the correspondences is that they involve pronouns. There are two things about pronouns. First, they tend to hone to their original state much longer than more general words for things like dogs and blogs. English has DOG and French has CHIEN, but both have held on to ME for "me" in their grammars. Second, languages do not exchange pronouns much. Usually, a language's pronouns are original stock, not the result of later bartering. So the Japanese say BEISUBORU for "baseball," but their word for "I" remains WATASHI.

So in that light, we must take note that Kusunda for "I" is CHI, where in Juwoi it is TUI. T becomes CH constantly over time: witness how many Americans say "chree" instead of TREE. Then Kusunda for "my" is CHI-YI -- and in Juwoi, TII-YE. Kusunda for "you": NU. In Juwoi, NGUI. "Your" in Kusunda: NI-YI. In Juwoi: NGII-YE. Note that pattern of sticking on a YE or YI -- this is too close to be an accident. "He/she" in Kusunda is GIDA. In Juwoi it is KITE -- and if you think about it, G is basically K enunciated in a slightly different way.

And yet there is no way that the Kusunda have been helicoptering over the millennia to the Andaman islands. And certainly not to Western New Guinea, where in the Seget language, Kusunda's CHI, NU, GIDA comes out as TET, NEN and GAO (remember that CH comes from T all the time). And then way over on the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea, the same pattern echoes: where Seget has NEN for "you" and GAO for "he," Savosavo has NO and GO.

The beauty of this is that according to the latest reports, New Guinea was occupied by humans 75,000 years ago (the source to consult is Stephen Oppenheimer's THE REAL EVE). Now, as it happens, the Kusunda are reported to have the same small, dark physical appearance as Andaman Islanders, unlike other Nepalese people. This suggests that they are remnants of the trek of early humans along the South Asian coast from Africa to New Guinea and Australia. Data is as yet unclear as to exactly when people like the Andaman Islanders got where they are now. But many suppose that humans left Africa to beachcomb South Asia 80,000 years ago, which means that the Kusunda would have found their place between then and 75,000 years ago.

Which means that the likenesses between Solomon Islands languages like Savosavo and Kusunda today represent a relationship almost 80,000 years old!!!

This flies in the face of a common wisdom taught to historical linguists, that it is impossible to trace parentages between languages much further back than ten thousand years or so, or that after that, sound changes will have erased any perceivable likenesses.

I doubt that we can trace any words as far back as the very first language -- i.e. Greenberg and Ruhlen's "Proto-World." But I suspect that the Kusunda data suggest that linguists ought to give these guys a break on their analysis of pronominal patterns in Native American languages similar to the ones between Kusunda and Indo-Pacific.

In my own THE POWER OF BABEL I dutifully trash the "Proto-World" hypothesis, as per my tutelage in the world of historical linguists. But we must let data speak, and I have a hard time seeing this Kusunda-Papua connection as mere happenstance.

Just think -- a handful of elderly people in Nepal, given a charter trip to the Andaman Islands, would find that they had eerily similar words in common with the people they met there. And language parallels can help support archaeological and genetic research. I hope that linguists will take a look at this Kusunda paper and give it a good, fair chew.

Posted by John McWhorter at June 10, 2004 04:01 AM