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Proto-Human language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Proto-Human language (also Proto-Sapiens, Proto-World) is the hypothetical direct genetic predecessor of the world's languages.

The concept is purely speculative and not amenable to analysis in historical linguistics. It presupposes a monogenetic origin of language, i.e. the derivation of all natural languages from a single origin, presumably at some point of the Middle Paleolithic. As the predecessor of all extant languages, it would not necessarily be ancestral to a hypothetical Neanderthal language.

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  • ✪ Proto-World and the Origin of Language
  • ✪ What Did the First Human Language Sound Like?
  • ✪ Tower of Babel vs Linguistics - the quest for the first language
  • ✪ Proto-nostratic language
  • ✪ Robin Dunbar, Time budgets and the evolution of language


So, quick recap: Languages can be genetically related. This isn’t like human familial relationships where two parents produce children one at a time but continue to exist themselves. With languages what happens is the language will expand, either by the people who speak it spreading out or by outsiders learning the language, and then in different places they’ll talk more and more differently from each other over time until they can’t understand each other anymore. It’s not a perfect analogy, but, when this happens we say that the resulting languages are “descended” from the original language, called a proto-language, and that they’re “genetically” related to each other. We’ve seen this happen in history, with sanskrit branching into the modern Indian languages or Latin branching into the romance languages. From these known examples we can figure out what it looks like when a group of languages are related, and we can then seek to identify those same patterns in other languages and determine whether or not they’re related too, even if we don’t have any written records of the parent language. The method linguists use to do this is called the “comparative method,” and it’s yielded some cool results, linking together huge groups of languages into giant genetic groups like Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, Austronesian and plenty of others. But can we go bigger? Can we group languages into even bigger and bigger groups? Or, here’s the real question: could linguists prove that all the worlds languages are related to each other? Before Latin, before Proto-Indo-European, was there ever a proto-World? Well, maybe, but the normal comparative method isn’t going to do us any good here. It works mostly by comparing the vocabularies of languages and looking for regular patterns between them. Like, where Spanish has the “ch” sound in its word for a thing, Portuguese will usually have a “t” sound in its word for that same thing, suggesting that maybe they had a common ancestor with the “ch” sound and in Portuguese it changed to a “t” sound. Or maybe the other way around, this is too little to tell. Point is, if you find enough of these regular correspondences then at some point you have to say, ok, this is too much to be a coincidence, these languages are probably related. Thing is, though, this method works best at short time-scales, when the changes languages have gone through are the simplest and easiest to figure out. At longer time-scales the changes start to pile up and get more and more complicated, and it gets harder and harder to tell if these are actually regular correspondences or if it’s just a random coincidence. Not only that, but any time the meanings of words change in addition to how their pronounced that’s also another piece of evidence lost, and given enough time more and more words will start to mean different things than they used to. Because of this, the comparative method can only really show us if languages are related if they diverged from each other fewer then, like, five-thousand years ago or so, and human language is way, way older than that. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t a proto-world, though! Maybe there was, maybe at some point humans started speaking for the first time, creating the first ever language, and from there it spread out and diversified and diverged until all the daughter languages were so different that we can’t tell anymore. Or, maybe not: maybe language was invented multiple times independently, and modern languages are descended from different first languages. Thing is, we don’t really know how language first happened. Like, we’re the only animal on the planet that can really use language. Gorillas using sign language and Parrots repeating words and phrases is cool, but for reasons I’ll get into some other time the stuff they do never gets nearly as complicated or sophisticated as what humans do, no matter how hard we try to train them. So at some point we must have evolved the ability to speak, but we don’t really know how that happened. Did we evolve the physical ability to speak and then the mental capacity for language, or the other way around, with the mental capacity evolving and then the physical ability? Who knows! Did we start speaking immediately after we evolved the ability to speak, or did it take a while before we invented language? Who knows. Did our ability to speak evolve slowly, bit by bit, involving progressively more complicated systems of communication, or was there some single mutation that suddenly gave us the ability to use language all at once? Who knows. Did language happen when we started using the cries and yelps and grunts and other vocal signals that Chimpanzees also use to communicate more precisely? Or maybe we actually evolved sign language first, and only started using our mouthes when we evolved the necessary equipment in our throats? Or maybe language is just it’s own, completely separate thing that didn’t develop directly from anything simpler. No one has any idea. And how would they? You can’t really look at fossils and tell whether or not the creature they used to be inside of used language, let alone what that language was like. Maybe eventually neuroscientists and geneticists will piece together exactly what order we evolved what in, and maybe from that we’ll be able to figure out how language happened, but for now we’re kind of in the dark, and there’s not much that traditional linguistics can do to solve any of these problems. So, as far as I can tell, that ignorance basically leaves us with three possibilities concerning Proto-World: One: proto-world did in fact exist and all of the world’s languages are genetically related. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Proto-World was the first language. Maybe the most recent common ancestor of all modern languages existed at the same time as a bunch of other languages, but now all those other languages are extinct. Or maybe it was the first language ever, but either way, possibility one is that proto-world was a thing that existed. Two: proto-world sort of existed. Like, let’s say language evolved really slowly out of the simpler, non-language forms of communication our ancestors used. In-between they would have used some sort of communication that was more sophisticated than what chimpanzees do but less sophisticated than real language. Like, maybe they developed some sort of complicated system of vocal signals that signaled for different stuff but that they couldn’t put together into complex sentences, or maybe they had some sort of sign-language-like system supplemented by vocal signals. Maybe names were the first linguistic signs to develop and we used them to get each other’s attention, or maybe we used singing and nursery-rime-like stuff to socialize with each other and language developed out of that. Point is, there’s a lot of possible things that language might have first developed out of but that wasn’t itself quite language yet. So, maybe all of the world’s languages are descended from one of those pre-language systems, in which case there was sort of a proto-world, it just wasn’t technically a language yet. Three: proto-world didn’t exist at all. Like, maybe whatever genetic mutations allowed humans to speak spread through the population, and then, after the fact, language was invented multiple times, and those different initial languages eventually evolved into different groups of modern languages. We have no way of knowing which of these three possibilities was what actually happened. But the idea that proto-world might have existed is really interesting, so, let’s assume for a second that it did exist. Can we know anything about it? Well, besides a few fringe linguists who claim to be able to reconstruct some of it, the general consensus seems to be: a little bit but not a lot. Like, until about a hundred thousand years ago all humans lived in Africa, and after that they spread out across the world, so we can be reasonably sure that it would have been spoken in Africa sometime earlier than about a hundred thousand years ago. We also think that humans diverged from chimpanzees around seven million years ago, so unless that common ancestor could talk and chimpanzees lost the ability to speak, proto-world would have had to exist sometime after that. Besides that, well, I mean, we can look at all the languages in the world and ask ourselves “what do all of these things have in common” and then we can assume that proto-world also had those traits, but we don’t find a whole lot when we do that. Like, human languages can be really different from each other, so all you can really say is, like “it probably had both consonants and vowels, it probably had between ten and a hundred phonemes, you probably had to use your tongue to speak it,” you know, stuff like that. And that’s kind of it. Beyond that we don’t really know anything about Proto-World and we probably never will, including whether or not it existed. I hope you found it kind fun to think about though. See you soon for more linguistics videos!



There is no generally accepted term for this concept. Most treatments of the subject do not include a name for the language under consideration (e.g. Bengtson and Ruhlen 1994). The terms Proto-World and Proto-Human[1] are in occasional use. Merritt Ruhlen has been using the term Proto-Sapiens.

History of the idea

The first serious scientific attempt to establish the reality of monogenesis was that of Alfredo Trombetti, in his book L'unità d'origine del linguaggio, published in 1905 (cf. Ruhlen 1994:263). Trombetti estimated that the common ancestor of existing languages had been spoken between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago (1922:315).

Monogenesis was dismissed by many linguists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the doctrine of the polygenesis of the human races and their languages was widely popular (e.g. Saussure 1986/1916:190).

The best-known supporter of monogenesis in America in the mid-20th century was Morris Swadesh (cf. Ruhlen 1994:215). He pioneered two important methods for investigating deep relationships between languages, lexicostatistics and glottochronology.

In the second half of the 20th century, Joseph Greenberg produced a series of large-scale classifications of the world's languages. These were and are controversial but widely discussed. Although Greenberg did not produce an explicit argument for monogenesis, all of his classification work was geared toward this end. As he stated (1987:337): "The ultimate goal is a comprehensive classification of what is very likely a single language family."

Notable American advocates of linguistic monogenesis include Merritt Ruhlen, John Bengtson, and Harold Fleming.

Date and location

The first concrete attempt to estimate the date of the hypothetical ancestor language was that of Alfredo Trombetti (1922:315), who concluded it was spoken between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, or close to the first emergence of Homo sapiens.

It is uncertain or disputed whether the earliest members of Homo sapiens had fully developed language. Some scholars link the emergence of language proper (out of a proto-linguistic stage that may have lasted considerably longer) to the development of behavioral modernity towards the end of the Middle Paleolithic or at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, roughly 50,000 years ago. Thus, in the opinion of Richard Klein, the ability to produce complex speech only developed some 50,000 years ago (with the appearance of modern humans or Cro-Magnons). Johanna Nichols (1998) argued that vocal languages must have begun diversifying in our species at least 100,000 years ago.[2]

In a 2012 study, an estimate on the time of the first emergence of human language was based on phonemic diversity. This is based on the assumption that phonemic diversity evolves much more slowly than grammar or vocabulary, slowly increasing over time (but reduced among small founding populations). African languages today have some of the largest phonemic inventories in the world, while the smallest inventories are found in South America and Oceania, some of the last regions of the globe to be colonized. The authors used data from the colonization of Southeast Asia to estimate the rate of increase in phonemic diversity. Applying this rate to African languages, they arrived at an estimated age of 150,000 to 350,000 years, compatible with the emergence and early dispersal of H. sapiens.[3] The validity of this approach has been criticized as flawed.[4]


Speculation as to "characteristics" of Proto-World is limited to linguistic typology, i.e. the identification of universal features shared by all human languages, such as grammar (in the sense of "fixed or preferred sequences of linguistic elements"), and recursion ("clauses [or phrases] embedded in other clauses [or phrases]"), but that beyond this nothing can be known of it (Campbell and Poser 2008:391).

Christopher Ehret has hypothesized that Proto-Human had a very complex consonant system, including clicks.[5]

A few linguists, such as Merritt Ruhlen, have suggested the application of mass comparison and internal reconstruction (cf. Babaev 2008). A number of linguists have attempted to reconstruct the language, while many others[who?] reject this as fringe science.[6][unreliable source?]

According to Murray Gell-Mann and Merritt Ruhlen (2011), the ancestral language would have had a basic order of Subject (S) - Object (O) - Verb (V) or SOV.[7]


Ruhlen tentatively traces a number of words back to the ancestral language, based on the occurrence of similar sound-and-meaning forms in languages across the globe. Bengtson and Ruhlen (1994) identify 27 "global etymologies". The following table, adapted from Ruhlen (1994b), lists a selection of these forms:

Language Who? What? Two Water One/Finger Arm-1 Arm-2 Bend/Knee Hair Vulva/Vagina Smell/Nose
Khoisan !kū ma /kam k´´ā //kɔnu //kū ≠hā //gom /ʼū !kwai č’ū
Nilo-Saharan na de ball nki tok kani boko kutu sum buti čona
Niger–Congo nani ni bala engi dike kono boko boŋgo butu
Afroasiatic k(w) ma bwVr ak’wa tak ganA bunqe somm put suna
Kartvelian min ma yor rts’q’a ert t’ot’ qe muql toma putʼ sun
Dravidian yāv iraṇṭu nīru birelu kaŋ kay meṇḍa pūṭa počču čuṇṭu
Eurasiatic kwi mi pālā akwā tik konV bhāghu(s) bük(ä) punče p’ut’V snā
Dené–Caucasian kwi ma gnyis ʔoχwa tok kan boq pjut tshām putʼi suŋ
Austric o-ko-e m-anu ʔ(m)bar namaw ntoʔ xeen baγa buku śyām betik iǰuŋ
Indo-Pacific mina boula okho dik akan ben buku utu sɨnna
Australian ŋaani minha bula gugu kuman mala pajing buŋku puda mura
Amerind kune mana p’āl akwā dɨk’i kano boko buka summe butie čuna
Source: Ruhlen 1994b:103. The symbol V stands for "a vowel whose precise character is unknown" (ib. 105).

Based on these correspondences, Ruhlen (1994b:105) lists these roots for the ancestor language:

  • ku = 'who'
  • ma = 'what'
  • pal = 'two'
  • akwa = 'water'
  • tik = 'finger'
  • kanV = 'arm'
  • boko = 'arm'
  • buŋku = 'knee'
  • sum = 'hair'
  • putV = 'vulva'
  • čuna = 'nose, smell'


In a 2011 paper, Murray Gell-Mann and Merritt Ruhlen argued that the ancestral language had subject–object–verb (SOV) word order.[8] The reason for thinking so is that in the world's natural language families, it is typical for the original language to have an SOV word order, and languages that evolve from it sometimes deviate. Their proposal develops an earlier one made by Talmy Givón (1979:271–309).[how?]

Languages with SOV word order have a strong tendency to have other word orders in common, such as:[9]

  • Adjectives precede the nouns they modify.
  • Dependent genitives precede the nouns they modify.
  • "Prepositions" are really "postpositions", following the nouns they refer to.

For example, instead of saying The man goes to the wide river, as in English, Ruhlen's Proto-Human speakers would have said Man wide river to goes. However, half of all current languages have SOV order, and historically languages cycle between word orders, so finding evidence of this order in the reconstructions of many families may reflect no more than this general tendency, rather than reflecting a common ancestral form.


Many linguists reject the methods used to determine these forms. Several areas of criticism are raised with the methods Ruhlen and Gell-Mann employ. The essential basis of these criticisms is that the words being compared do not show common ancestry; the reasons for this vary. One is onomatopoeia: for example, the suggested root for 'smell' listed above, *čuna, may simply be a result of many languages employing an onomatopoeic word that sounds like sniffing, snuffling, or smelling. Another is the taboo quality of certain words. Lyle Campbell points out that many established proto-languages do not contain an equivalent word for *putV 'vulva' because of how often such taboo words are replaced in the lexicon, and notes that it "strains credibility to imagine" that a proto-World form of such a word would survive in many languages.

Using the criteria that Bengtson and Ruhlen employ to find cognates to their proposed roots, Lyle Campbell finds seven possible matches to their root for woman *kuna in Spanish, including cónyuge 'wife, spouse', chica 'girl', and cana 'old woman (adjective)'. He then goes on to show how what Bengtson and Ruhlen would identify as reflexes of *kuna cannot possibly be related to a proto-World word for woman. Cónyuge, for example, comes from the Latin root meaning 'to join', so its origin had nothing to do with the word 'woman'; chica is a feminine adjective coming from a Latin noun meaning 'worthless object'; cana comes from the Latin word for 'white', and again shows a history unrelated to the word 'woman' (Campbell and Poser 2008:370–372). Campbell's assertion is that these types of problems are endemic to the methods used by Ruhlen and others.

There are some linguists who question the very possibility of tracing language elements so far back into the past. Campbell notes that given the time elapsed since the origin of human language, every word from that time would have been replaced or changed beyond recognition in all languages today. Campbell harshly criticizes efforts to reconstruct a Proto-human language, saying "the search for global etymologies is at best a hopeless waste of time, at worst an embarrassment to linguistics as a discipline, unfortunately confusing and misleading to those who might look to linguistics for understanding in this area." (Campbell and Poser 2008:393)

See also



  1. ^ Used by the Harold Fleming (2003) and John Bengtson (2007).
  2. ^ Johanna Nichols, 1998. The origin and dispersal of languages: Linguistic evidence. In Nina Jablonski and Leslie C. Aiello, eds., The Origin and Diversification of Language, pp. 127-70. (Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences, 24.) San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences.
  3. ^ Perreault, C.; Mathew, S. (2012). "Dating the origin of language using phonemic diversity". PLoS ONE. 7 (4): e35289. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035289. PMC 3338724. PMID 22558135.
  4. ^ Hunley, Keith; Bowern, Claire; Healy, Meghan (2 January 2012). "Rejection of a serial founder effects model of genetic and linguistic coevolution". Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
    Bowern, Claire (November 2011). "Out of Africa? The logic of phoneme inventories and founder effects". Linguistic Typology. 15 (2): 207–216. doi:10.1515/lity.2011.015. ISSN 1613-415X.
  5. ^ CARTA: The Origin of Us -- Christopher Ehret: Relationships of Ancient African Languages. August 1, 2013.
  6. ^ "Linguists seek a time when we spoke as one". Christian Science Monitor. 19 July 2007. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  7. ^ Gell-Mann, Murray; Ruhlen, Merritt (August 26, 2011). "The Origin and Evolution of Word Order" (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (42): 17290–5. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113716108. PMC 3198322. PMID 21987807.
  8. ^ Gell-Mann, Murray; Ruhlen, Merritt (2011). "The origin and evolution of word order". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (42): 17290–17295. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113716108. PMC 3198322. PMID 21987807. Retrieved June 30, 2014.
  9. ^ Gell-Mann & Ruhlen (2003:3–4)


  • Bengtson, John D. and Merritt Ruhlen. 1994. "Global etymologies". In Ruhlen 1994a, pp. 277–336.
  • Bengtson, John D. 2007. "On fossil dinosaurs and fossil words". (Also: HTML version.)
  • Campbell, Lyle, and William J. Poser. 2008. Language Classification: History and Method. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Edgar, Blake (March–April 2008). "Letter from South Africa". Archaeology. 61 (2). Retrieved 5 November 2018.
  • Gell-Mann, Murray and Merritt Ruhlen. 2003. "The origin and evolution of syntax"[dead link]. (Also: HTML version[dead link].)
  • Givón, Talmy. 1979. On Understanding Grammar. New York: Academic Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph. 1963. "Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements". In Universals of Language, edited by Joseph Greenberg, Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 58–90. (In second edition of Universals of Language, 1966: pp. 73–113.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. The Languages of Africa, revised edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (Published simultaneously at The Hague by Mouton & Co.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1971. "The Indo-Pacific hypothesis". Reprinted in Joseph H. Greenberg, Genetic Linguistics: Essays on Theory and Method, edited by William Croft, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 2000–2002. Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family. Volume 1: Grammar. Volume 2: Lexicon. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Klein, Richard G. and Blake Edgar. 2002. The Dawn of Human Culture. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • McDougall, Ian; Brown, Francis H.; Fleagle, John G. (2005). "Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia". Nature. 433 (7027): 733–736. doi:10.1038/nature03258. PMID 15716951.
  • Nandi, Owi Ivar. 2012. Human Language Evolution, as Coframed by Behavioral and Psychological Universalisms, Bloomington: iUniverse Publishers.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1994a. On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1994b. The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1986. Course in General Linguistics, translated by Roy Harris. Chicago: Open Court. (English translation of 1972 edition of Cours de linguistique générale, originally published in 1916.)
  • Trombetti, Alfredo. 1905. L'unità d'origine del linguaggio. Bologna: Luigi Beltrami.
  • Trombetti, Alfredo. 1922–1923. Elementi di glottologia. 2 volumes. Bologna: Zanichelli.
  • Wells, Spencer. 2007. Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.
  • White, Tim D.; Asfaw, B.; DeGusta, D.; Gilbert, H.; Richards, G.D.; Suwa, G.; Howell, F.C. (2003). "Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia". Nature. 423 (6941): 742–747. doi:10.1038/nature01669. PMID 12802332.

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