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Proto-World theory? A discussion of languages and their families

Part of what fascinates me about languages, is learning about where certain parts of language have originated from.

It wasn’t until beginning my MA though, that I had ever really considered the origins of languages themselves, a topic which I have now discovered is quite controversial.

According to mainstream linguistic theories, human language is thought to have originated between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. Many argue in favour of a Proto-World or a Proto-Human language, which is the most recent common ancestor of all the languages in the world.

The theory constructed is based on the hypothesis that all languages have developed from one original language. Some theorists believe that this ancestor language would have been spoken around 200,000 years ago. However, others believe that language as it is spoken today developed from a proto-language (which was spoken for an indeterminate amount of time) roughly 50,000 years ago.

The problem with the Proto-World theory is that linguists are not able to trace far enough back in history to confirm any theories with solid facts. This opens the theory up to widespread cynicism among supporters of the polygenesis theory – where languages are deemed to come from various independent languages.

According to studies done by John Bengtson and Merritt Ruhlen there are root words in the Proto-language, to which modern words can be traced back. This has been done through the comparison of words across the world in order to establish patterns and trace them back to a common root.

Languages such as Afroasiatic, Indo-Pacific and Amerind are just a few that have been compared. Following this research it was proposed that there are certain root words that link together these various language threads, albeit tentatively. The word “who” has been traced back to the root “ku” based on equivalents in the various languages. For example, kune in Amerind language, !kū in the Khoisan language and so on.

This is done with large numbers of languages and conclusions about common roots are drawn for various words. One most noteable is water because this occurs as k’’ā in Khoisan, in Amerind it is akwā and in Eurasiatic it is akwā. These patterns are hard to ignore and with the three languages being quite far apart – Khoisan in Tanzania, Amerind in the Americas and Eurasiatic in Northern Eurasia – it is clear to see why scholars argue for this theory. However, it seems that there are more critics than converts.

It is argued that these links between the languages are tenuous at best and that they do not really show a common ancestry. It is more widely supported that words have developed due to languages using sound and onomatopoeia. There are also arguments that the words which have been compared can be traced back in a way that does not lead to a common root. It is agreed that there are language families such as Indo-European languages, a family which covers Germanic and Romance languages among many others. However, any further back than this and everything gets very hypothetical.

What do you think about the Proto-World theory? Do you believe that languages all originated from one ancestor language? If so, this could surely lead back to further support for the events at Babel in the bible.

We love learning more about languages here at Lingua Translations. For more information on the diverse range of languages we work with please visit our languages page.

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About Sharon Stephens

Sharon Stephens is Operations Director of Lingua Translation. With a First Class Honours Degree in Translation and a University Lecturer in Translation (Masters), she is a self confessed language geek! Bringing the academic principles of translation and business together Sharon offers a quality-driven and needs centric translation and interpreting service - like no other.

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