July 01, 2007

Creationist Linguistics

This just in: the new Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, claims that language families are a recent phenomenon, and cites linguists as authorities for this claim. Its display shows language families as rays radiating from a sun labeled BABEL, a reference to the Babel story of Genesis 11.

Here's the entire text of the display item:

The Bible claims that God created a number of human languages at the Tower of Babel "according to their families". Nineteenth-century linguists argued that languages evolved slowly, one by one. Today, linguists recognize languages fall into distinct "families" of recent origin.

This text is one of several on a single display board. The other items also contrast nineteenth-century science with purported modern science -- for instance, "The Bible claims that God destroyed the earth in a worldwide Flood. Nineteenth-century geologists argued that rocks were formed slowly. Today geology confirms that many rock layers wre deposited catastrophically."

The Babel story seems straightforward in its implications, from verse 1 (in the King James version), "And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech", to verse 7, "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech". If you believe the Creationists' Young Earth claim, also derived from Genesis, this is the Biblical authors' way of accounting for the fact that there are thousands of languages on earth today, rather than just one, or at least no more than the languages we could reasonably expect to develop over a period of only four or five thousand years.

Actually, the Bible is rather confusing on the question of when human languages diversified, at Babel or a bit earlier. The quotation "according to their families" in the Creation Museum's text comes from Genesis 10, verse 20 (not from the King James version, but with the same meaning): "They were the sons of Ham, according to their families, according to their tongues, in their lands, in their nations" (and similar text in verse 5). I am not a Biblical scholar, and I don't read either Hebrew or Aramaic, but it seems that the apparent contradiction between Genesis 10, which clearly posits numerous languages and even language families already in existence, and the (supposedly?) later events at Babel in Genesis 11, has bothered at least some devout interpreters (see here, for instance). In any case, the time depth available for the diversification of a single original human language, under a literal interpretation of Genesis, would be no more than a few thousand years.

So who are these modern linguists who "recognize" that languages "fall into distinct `families' of recent origin"? The Creation Museum doesn't say, of course. I can think of three possibilities. First, the recognizing linguists could be mythical, invented by the Creation Museum. Second, they could in fact be linguists, even with Ph.D.s, who are completely innocent of any understanding of historical linguistics. I'd like to think that there are no such linguists; but many linguistics departments nowadays have no historical linguists on the faculty, and some of them don't send their students to anthropology departments or language departments where a few historical linguists might still lurk, so many people with Ph.D.s in linguistics have never been exposed systematically to the study of language change. Even so, they're unlikely to be ignorant enough to subscribe to the Creation Museum's text, so this is the least likely of the three possible sources of that text.

The third possibility is the most interesting one: whoever is responsible for the text on that Creation Museum display might actually have read about recent controversies on establishing language families, and they might have misinterpreted the claim that after enough time has passed (10,000 years is commonly mentioned, as the roughest of rough estimates) it is likely to be impossible to support a hypothesis of relatedness among languages. Among historical linguists and in the popular press, the controversy has focused primarily on the claims of the late Joseph Greenberg and his follower Merritt Ruhlen about much more ancient language families, extending perhaps even to what Greenberg once suggested as "Proto-Sapiens" (see e.g. here for a Language Log post on the subject). Historical linguists' skepticism about such claims stems from the fact that, after some thousands of years have passed, it is likely that too little systematic evidence -- in the form of corresponding sound/meaning pairs of words or other morphemes -- will remain, and without such evidence no hypothesis of relatedness can be tested. We see the decay of the crucial evidence in all well-established language families, and it is certain that more time will mean more decay. A few years ago I posted comments on changing pronoun systems, showing among other things that the words for `I' in three Indo-European languages, though ultimately related, have changed so much in 4,000 (Latin) and 6,000 (Russian, English) years that their connection is no longer recognizable. This sort of example can easily be multiplied, for any language family.

But if language families can't be established beyond a few thousand years, does that mean that all language families arose within the past few thousand years? No, of course not, and that's where the Creation Museum's creators might have misinterpreted the linguists: no one, but no one, believes that an inability to find adequate evidence to support a hypothesis of distant linguistic relationships translates to the non-existence of distant linguistic relationships, including very ancient language families. It is certain that many modern language families are subgroups of more ancient families, but that their historical links are beyond the reach of the well-tested and validated methodologies. It is even quite possible that all human languages arose from a single ancestor. If they did, that ancestor must have existed many thousands of years ago. Twenty-first-century linguists, like nineteenth-century linguists, believe that languages diversify slowly -- that a language family arises when two (or more) subgroups of a single speech community become partly or entirely separated and then, because language change is unpredictable, their dialects inevitably change in different ways, until they have split into separate languages. Depending on external factors such as relative isolation from each other and contacts with unrelated languages, the process of language split might take 500 to 1,000 years. That is, it is gradual. And then you have a language family: a parent language, no longer spoken, and two (or more) daughter languages, split from their common parent.

Regardless of where the Creation Museum got its "information" about a contrast between older linguistics and current linguistics on this subject, the text on language families in their display is completely bogus. It fits well with their other "scientific" claims.

[Thanks to David Brumble, via Dan Everett, for the photograph of the Creation Museum's language-family display item.]

Posted by Sally Thomason at July 1, 2007 12:20 PM