January 04, 2007

Languages with Birthdays

Since the problems with the notion that one language is older than another have come up yet again, I thought I'd mention that there are some exceptions to the principle that all languages are equally old. One sort of exception is that the ancestor of a language may go by another name. There is a sense in which Hittite is older than Lithuanian, namely that we recognize Hittite as a distinct language at an earlier date than Lithuanian. The language that today's Lithuanians were speaking 3,500 years ago was probably something intermediate between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Balto-Slavic. We don't call that Lithuanian because it hadn't yet differentiated into Lithuanian, Latvian, Prussian, Russian, Czech, and so forth, but it was already Lithuanian in the sense that there was no later discrete linguistic event at which this language was replaced by Lithuanian.

That kind of exception is really just a matter of nomenclature. There are some real exceptions, that is, cases in which we really can talk about a language coming into existence at a certain, relatively recent, point in time. The clearest examples of languages with an identifiable beginning are constructed languages like Esperanto and Klingon. We might include in the same category artificially standardized languages, where the basic language already existed but the standardization can be assigned a specific date. Hindi, in the sense of the artificially Sanskritized Standard Hindi promoted by the government of India, can be said to date from 1950 although the Hindustani on which it was based goes back to Proto-Indo-European and beyond.

Another case in which it may make sense to talk about languages coming into existence at a particular time is that of pidgins and creoles. If it is correct to view pidgins and creoles as newly formed languages with no true parents rather than as descendants of the languages from which they derive their vocabularies, as is now widely, but by no means universally, held, they too can be said to have come into existence at a certain time.

Perhaps the most interesting and dramatic case is that of the signed languages which are now known to have been created de novo in recent times, when enough deaf people came together in a certain place to form a community. One such case that is well documented is that of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which came into existence in the 1970s and 1980s.

There is one other sense in which one can talk about one language being older than another, namely when one language separated from the main stock earlier than the other. We might say, for example, that Albanian, which forms a branch of Indo-European by itself, is older than French because it split off earlier. This is, at first blush, like the usage in biology in which, for example, invertebrates are described as older than vertebrates. Professional linguists avoid this usage, though, because there is a crucial difference in this regard between biology and linguistics. In biology the branch said to be "old" is always the one that is more conservative. "Old" species are primitive in the sense that they are of types that arise early in evolution. In linguistics, there is no such relationship between branching and language type because there is no such thing as a primitive language. There presumably was once such a thing, but if it was ever spoken by modern human beings it was so long ago that we have no knowledge of it. There is a real sense in which jellyfish are more primitive than human beings, but there is no sense in which Albanian is more primitive than French.

Posted by Bill Poser at January 4, 2007 04:41 PM