It seems like I waded into the middle of a blog brawl between Razib Khan and his dislike of linguistic anthropologists and linguistic anthropologists. Razib not only commented on this blog but also put a pointer to my entry on the death of the Bo language .
In his entry linking to my article, Razib writes:
“… this experience only reinforces my disrespect for the ‘discourse’ which linguistic anthropologists are introducing into the public domain. There are intellectual reasons to be interested in linguistic isolates not part of the big language families (e.g., Semitic, Indo-European, Niger-Kordofanian, etc.), but no language is “70,000 years old.” The Andaman Islanders are not black-skinned elves, immortals who brought their culture in toto from the ur-heimat of Africa, genetic and cultural fossils who have been in total stasis. Cultural anthropologists presumably understand that all humans are equally ancient, derived from African ancestors, and that all languages and peoples are African (or at least 95% so within the last 100,000 years), but their communication to the public confuses the issue and presents some groups as ‘pristine.’”
I had quoted what the BBC article had reported without being overly skeptical about the details. Based on his comments, I decided to educate myself a little more. A lot of things stuck out as possible outcomes from the quote, different from the one that Razib was quoting. A primary possibility was that the BBC reporter was the culprit, misquoting (I’m not saying deliberately) the linguist in question, Dr. Anvita Abbi. Another puzzling fact was that many, but not all, news outlets quoted that the Bo language was thought to be 70,000 years old. Did they all get it wrong or were they merely picking off a common source ? But, first I wanted to find out the current consensus on when language evolved.
Language is not just a means of communication, but “a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains”, not unlike bipedalism, as the famous linguist, Steven Pinker, put it. Language is also not the same as speech, as evidenced by the presence of sign language. And for those of us who think sign language is a fairly modern invention, a signing form of English, Steven Pinker writes in his bestseller, The Language Instinct: “They [sign languages] are found wherever there is a community of deaf people, and each one is a distinct, full language, using the same kinds of grammatical machinery found worldwide in spoken languages. For example, American Sign Language, used by the deaf community in the United States, does not resemble English, or British Sign Language, but relies on agreement and gender systems in a way that is reminiscent of Navajo and Bantu.” Finally, it is important to remember that there are languages which do not have a written form.
These three points are important to understand how we can approach the question of the origin of language. First, humans had to evolve the appropriate neural circuitry for language and they had to evolve the appropriate physical circuitry for speech. But, these two could evolve separately and distinctly. Finally, non-written languages could have been existence before the first written language or written languages could have existed prior to their being set to writing. The Wikipedia quotes the interesting case of Sanskrit, where the earliest parts of Rigveda are thought to have originated around 1500 BC while the first available written version is in the 11th century A.D.
When I asked Shanthala how old did she think language was, smart as she is, she quickly honed in on the question of how could we determine the ages of purely oral languages. If oral languages leave no fossils behind and written languages came much after oral, how can we determine when language evolved ?
We can attempt to answer the question of origin only obliquely, and with an uncertainty that only gets larger as we probe at the edges of the homo lineage. Based on fossil evidence, the oldest modern homo sapiens are dated at about 200,000 years and thought to have migrated out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. The consensus, as far as I can tell from reading the data that I could find, seems to be that human language came into existence somewhere around this period. The idea as stated by Pinker is that all branches of humanity that spread out of Africa evolved language and therefore it must have been around already when the migrations began. Debate about whether a proto language existed before then is the subject of continuing debate. The Wikipedia and especially books such as Pinker’s and Christine Kennealy’s “The First Word” are superb references for those wishing to dig deeper.
Still, is it absurd to say that a language is 70,000 years old ? Languages naturally evolve and it should at least strike one’s skeptical bone that a language could be that old. Even on the extremely remote off chance that this one didn’t, what evidence did they have to speculate its age ? I contacted Dr. Abbi to check if she had indeed said that the Bo language was that old or was the reporter misquoting her. She responded promptly:
“Yes the press has made a mistake. No language in its present form can be claimed to be that old. Linguists can reconstruct with some surety upto 10,000 years and in cases of isolated languages much longer, but certainly not beyond 15000.“