March 15, 2005

Ke'o and Ngadha

Last summer I learned about a couple of truly odd languages spoken by small groups in Indonesia, Ke'o and Ngadha. They have no prefixes or suffixes at all. All grammar is taken care of by separate words -- no WALK-ED, no FRIEND-SHIP, no RE-SEND. These days I am thinking that this, of all things, may be evidence of an interspecies encounter between two different species of HOMO.

Now, there are plenty of languages that are awfully low on prefixes and suffixes, although typically languages have at least something along these lines according to some linguists' analysis. But Ke'o and Ngadha are particularly odd in that they belong to the Austronesian family, which is not exactly known for being affix-shy. Ke'o and Ngadha's relatives include languages like Tagalog, bristling with prefixes and suffixes, and Malay, which shaves down the chaos somewhat, but still challenges the learner with affixes galore. Even Ke'o and Ngadha's VERY closest relatives, in what is called the Central Malayo-Polynesian group, are usually chock full of, at least, prefixes.

So what worried me about Ke'o and Ngadha was why languages would just dump their affixes. When this happens elsewhere, typically the affixes leave behind some kind of footprint -- in Chinese, for example, many prefixes faded away eons ago -- but often morphed into a change in pitch on the word that remains today. But in Ke'o and Ngadha, nothing of the sort. No tone, no fossilized warts. They're just nude. Their grammars are, in this aspect, simpler than what is typical of their relatives. They are haikus amidst limericks.

In fact, whenever grammars just let it all go in this way, it is because at some point, they were learned more by adults than children. Adults aren't as good at learning languages as kids -- as we all know from language classes -- and so in cases like this, the grammar becomes more streamlined. The demonstration case here is the extreme one of creoles, where a European language full of AMO, AMAS, AMAT-type baubles becomes one where the verb stays the same in all persons, and so on.

But Ke'o and Ngadha are not creoles. They have had nothing to do with plantation slavery or anything similar. I scratched my head over these languages for months.

But then last fall, we all learned about the discovery of skeletons of the "little people" on the Indonesian island of Flores. The skeletons date from 13,000 to 18,000 years ago, and are so unprecedently small in size that they have been classified as a new species of HOMO.

And get this -- Ke'o and Ngadha are spoken on none other than Flores.

This got me thinking: could it possibly be that what made these languages go "creole" was that the "little people" learned them so extensively that the way they spoke them became what children heard most? This, after all, is how creoles come to be. It is also why Swahili, used as a second language more than as a first one for centuries, is significantly more user-friendly than other Bantu languages. It is even why, in some linguists' opinion (including mine) English is the only Indo-European language in Europe without pesky gender of the LE BATEAU/LA LUNE sort.

Of course, I can only venture this as a nervy guess at this point. But the evidence is interesting indeed.

The skeletons were unearthed in western Flores, while Ke'o and Ngadha are spoken somewhat eastward, in the South Central part. But there are two things. First, the language of western Flores is Manggarai, and while it has a little scattering of affixes, even it is "naked" enough that when I read a description of it last summer, long before the "little people" had been reported, I wondered just what was up even with it.

But second, not only the Manggarai but also the Ngadha people have legends about little people who once lived among them until as late as the 1500s. It may well be that "little people" skeletons have yet to be unearthed in the Ngadha area, since Flores is very small.

And in any case, the legends say that the little people spoke in an incomprehensible babble but couldn't repeat back in the Homo sapiens' language. This can't be taken as evidence that the little people did not have language, since the "babbling" impression is a typical judgment of foreigners' language by people unschooled in the esoterica of modern linguistics. And wouldn't you know that two weeks ago we learned that the "little people"'s brain case suggests advanced cognition -- just as does their hunting and tool-making, which, in the analysis of Homo sapiens, is regularly treated as evidence that natural language had arisen.

Then there is one more thing. Many of the languages of Flores are barely documented, and this includes various ones spoken between Manggarai and Ngadha. But documentation is beginning for one of them, Rongga, which sits right between the other two. And it turns out to be one more language with, mysteriously, no prefixes or suffixes.

So -- a preliminary hypothesis is that when a descendant of the ancestral Proto-Austronesian language came to Flores, which archaeology and comparative linguistic reconstruction suggest was between 4000 and 4500 years ago, its speakers encountered "little people" already there, speaking their own language. These would not have been the only people around, as Homo sapiens is thought to have gotten to the Flores region about 50,000 years ago.

But we might suppose that the "little people," perhaps because of their smallness and less "advanced" society, were incorporated into the newcomers' society at some point, possibly by force. Their non-native rendition of the newcomers' language gradually became the model that all children learned. The result -- "schoolboy Proto-Austronesian," kind of like our version of French or Spanish in middle school. Except in this case, this was refashioned into a full, nuanced language. Full, nuanced language does not require affixes.

There are models for this. For example, Afrikaans in South Africa is a variety of Dutch as filtered through Khoi ("Bushman") servants and nursemaids, the result being the second most streamlined Germanic language after English.

We could also take this hypothesis as support that the "little people" indeed had the language capacities that we do, since it would appear that they acquired the newcomers' language just as successfully -- albeit incompletely -- as Homo sapiens does worldwide in similar situations. They managed a version of Proto-Austronesian (for linguists, technically, Proto-Malayo-Polynesian) robust enough that children could acquire it and use it everyday without surrounding adults conclusively dismissing it as utter gibberish.

Obviously, we need a lot more data before I could go further -- genetic analysis of the skeletal material, documentation of more of the languages of Central Flores, and more thorough searching for fossils (i.e. we have no fossils of "little people" after 13,000 years ago as of yet).

But the sheer weirdness of Ke'o, Ngadha and Rongga strikes me as begging for an explanation beyond ordinary tendencies in how languages change over time when nothing interrupts them -- such as, just maybe, being learned by hobbits.

Posted by John McWhorter at March 15, 2005 01:48 AM