Proto-World and the Origin 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!

100 Replies to “Proto-World and the Origin of Language

  1. Have you ever read Talking Hands? Read Talking Hands. We know a bunch more about the origin of language than you’d realize.
    For example, human language definitely didn’t come from sign language, according to the development of human language in children, we are intrinsically hardwired to use subject-object-verb grammar. We know from observing sign language that language can generate spontaneously with isolated people and no prior exposure to language, though you need to be around other people. By observing isolated indigenous populations, we can infer that the first colors people differentiate linguistically were dark and light, then red. It really is amazing what we know. Read the book.

  2. I think we began makeing nosies and we learned to communicate with them and the humans that could make more and clearer noise survived more an had more offspring with that genetic trait till we got to modern vocal speach

  3. Proto-language theory bothers me because because proto Indo European origins are in Europe. And the origins of everyone but Africa problem with neadtrahals are thought to not have complex speech and neandrathal DNA is only found in Asian and Europeans defendants So either the proto Indo-European language had to have originated in Africa or neanderthals can talk.

  4. Many animals today have some ways of communicating. I think the mystery will be solved now that people are accepting the language abilities of what were once dismissed as "lower animals"

  5. I have seen a lot of Tower of Babylon material related to proto-language. But then I look at Chinese and it's like they all use the same writing language, but how they speak it(Mandarin and Cantonese) are almost like completely different languages. It's like saying apple, manzana, pomme(which all means apple in English, Spanish, and French), but writing it as apple. Can you imagine completely different pronunciations for the written word apple? But I guess that's because Chinese is more pictographic, or more accurately, logographic(with more focus on the meaning than sounds). Scramble tongues, but communicating through pictures/emojis(which is also technically pictures representing emotions).

  6. In ancient turkic: Yabiz (thief, criminal, foul person)
    Turkish: Yavuz (patriot, strong, powerful)

    Wtf great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandad???

  7. 3:10 i've heard somewhere that we started to speak when we were smart enoug to make our food easier to eat with tools, for example cutting it with knifes. It hapend becouse shape of our mouths have started to chane.

  8. Maybe it started as sign language with arms and then an ape decided that "if I make a noise like h ( or something) that means ____" and that evolved into variations of that noise such as making it less loud or making it more loud to mean a multitude of things. Eventually they couldn't get enough variations because the differences were hard to distinguish so they began doing different sounds. Eventually though they couldn't get enough out of those sounds so a human decided to put the sounds together to form a language. It probably began pretty simple like "k-g" and then those evolved and then it got more complicated with more letters and regions became diverse with more letters being put together and eventually it became what we have today. That's just my theory though.

  9. I got the sense from something you said that you were familiar with thinking about a protolanguage that was equally a proto music (there's a university school in Sweden dedicated to 'evolutionary biomusicology'). There is also the idea of protolanguage developing through sexual selection working on vocal display in courtship. This comes with the very powerful idea that the fundamental element of the evolution of the human was bipedalism, not brain volume, because it was bipedalism that changed neck/throat geometry to give voice; then vocal behaviour could have driven brain growth through sexual selection

  10. I find a proto world incredibly unlikely tbh. Writing systems we know arose independently in China, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica.

    Language is a bit different because we have a firmer grasp on the innate aspects of it, and it directly precedes writing, but otherwise I imagine there were multiple events

  11. In Latin there are the words noctis (genitive), octus (accusative) and multus (acc.). In Portuguese, wherever there was a consonant before t, that consonant became an i (y sound). This is called palatization. Another form of the same phenomenon happened to Spanish: the whole consonant cluster became an ch sound. Again in Portuguese, the only expection I can remember is fruta (fruit), that was naturally fruita (from fructa), but lost the i. In some rural areas you can still hear 'fruita'.

  12. I love the video, but I want to point out that Portuguese pronounces the te as chi when it's at the end, so noite sounds like noichi

  13. Porto world did not exist
    Many types of languages are different to each other
    Protoindoeuropean languages are very similar in their form as they at have letters that are based on different sounds that our mouths can make and those letters make up words etc

    Look at Chinese, it was developed as pictures/images to represent things etc

    There are many other examples such as the ancient myan languages etc that show that all of these languages are different

  14. It has to exist. No language is made up out of thin air. Under what conditions would a group of humans start using a whole new language unrelated to any other?

  15. Actually animals have ways of communicating pretty sophisticated ideas – Ravens can warn ravens from other parts of the same city about a specific intruder including some physical description. Whales sing to each other which might involve more sophisticated ideas than "hey girl how u doin", many animals communicate to a simpler level using smells or body language, bees literally describe where the best honey is using some sort of dance-like thing and smells, ant signal to each other their working status so they could fill up any roles that are vacant, and those are only the examples I remember over the top of my head.
    it's fascinating.
    No need to be the Hubris Human just because we don't understand what and how other animals communicate.
    Is it simpler and as far as we can tell very little of them it at all have "archaic" non-physical concepts? yeah. But it is a form of language, primitive as it is.

  16. Other animals make noises to communicate. What makes our noises language and other animal noises not language? The animals understand each other

  17. Look up the cognitive trade off if you want to look into how we can talk but other animals can't, it's not a full explanation but it helps

  18. I saw a Vsause episode where he dives into the cognitive trade of hypothisis, showing evidence that our ability to speak may have came at a cost. Developing the ability to speak we simultaneously lost the ability of extremely fast short term memory, this would have taken time!

  19. Most of the modern Indian languages are descended from Prakrit, which is itself a descendant of vedic Sanskrit, which had two descendants: Classical Sanskrit for the Royal and priestly classes and Prakrit for the commoners.

  20. People in Asia didn't invent a language from scratch, we had languages before we left Africa you camel nosed prick

  21. probably not. language was probably developed many times separately and can be totally unrelated. I don't think you'll find a genetic link between Dakota and indo-european

  22. sanscrit is't an indian proto language, can you stop making videos when your knowledge is spare! senscrit is spred trough out northern india, afghanistan, tajikistan, iran and tibet.

  23. Proto-World is probably just a bunch of random words that apes used to use to point out what they wanted lmao

    dun listen to me I'm not a linguist

  24. We just need to invent a telescope that can see in detail 100k light-years away, and develop FTL travel to take that telescope 100k light-years away from the earth instantly and look at proto humans, ez pz

  25. While I love this video and Proto-World is a fun thought-experiment, I personally love the Isolate theory far more, not only because I feel it is much more consistent with current understanding than the idealized Greenberg-y Babel-theory (that would practically require language to come from a single Adam and Eve, which is just not realistic), but also because it would mean that language diversity would have been indefinitely higher in pre-history. This would have been due to the small and isolated hunter-gatherer tribes of humans dappled all over the globe and not really coming into contact much for the vast majority of the history of our species (and likely even before that), which is just far more interesting than every language coming from a single ancestor. I love language family trees as much as the next guy, but isolates don't get enough love. They show so many possibilities about human speech that we wouldn't even consider if we just looked at the few huge language families that are slowly sucking up all that diversity into a melting pot and called it a day. Isolates and tiny language families are often treated as the exception, even though at least 2/3 of all existing language families have less than 6 members, often only 2 or 3, and more than 150 CURRENTLY KNOWN languages (not counting extinct ones) are considered complete isolates. In reality, those huge families like PIE, Semitic and so on, are far more of an exception, or rather a comparatively recent phenomenon that arose through conquest, migration and colonialisation. I know you have an irregular schedule, but I would love to see a video that touches on this topic. Spread the word!

  26. " have yet to make that video about why animals can't talk"

    1. We are an Animal.

    2. Gorillas can Learn sign language.

    3. Talking is due to a mix of us evolving the capability for complex call patterns (Gorillas don't have this) due to being highly social animals (the origin our musical ability, the Original communication method before language diverged) and the evolution of the ability to interpret social meaning (Gorillas also have this). We make a few random complex noises and then assign meaning and rules (also part of social evolution. Gorillas also have this) to it, boom language.

    TL:DR It's due to our nature, evolution, and instincts, as any animal.

  27. I imagine if proto world exists it is defended from baby babbling. It makes sense considering babies are common and we are all babies at some point so we are all capable of making those consonants.

  28. Actually I had done reseaech in it and results are shocking .The result is there is no proto language humanoid group homosapiens envade other humanoid groups like nendethrals and other groups and mixed with them the homosapiens developed there own proto language and learn there proto language also .Atleast 5-6 protolanguages was developed around 50000 years of time as these humanoid group evolved at different timeline and later come in contacts with each other. It means there is no single protolanguages from which all proto language that we know get developed.

  29. This is obvious. The world of the pre mega society age had multiples of separate languages. as we are programmed to have languages. Children who live in isolation develop their own langauge. At the dawn of the mega society age some groups expended, uprooting the multiplicity of languages of the people they have come to dominate. These languages became the proto languages of today.


  31. I had to give a presentation on the various theories about proto-language. One person suggested that sentence structure would have The verb second since most languages have it that way. The most compelling argument was that our ancestors used clicking much like the Khoisan do.

  32. The Japanese and Polish words for "old wo/man"/"grandfather/mother" are really weirdly similar. In Japanese they're "baba" and "jiji" (thus "obaachan" and "ojisan"), and in Polish, "baba" and "dziadzia", pronounced "jaja" (cf. Russian "babushka").

    Whether this means anything is debatable, but it's pretty weird given Polish and Japanese have no common ancestor language that we know of.

  33. Oldest spoken language in the world is TIFINAGH its a berber language founded in north africa ( ALGERIA).

  34. My theory is that when humans first started talking, no one really spoke an entire language, everyone only spoke several words, however the words used heavily differed from group to group and region to region, but as time went on though people from one group met people from other groups and discovered the words each other were using, later many series of words got unified and became bigger and bigger

  35. I once knew a builder that pronounced the words
    "Historical Society" as
    "Stoss Sydey".
    As in: he would never bid on work for a house that was protected by the Stoss Sydey because they don't let you do anything!
    He just talked too fast and didn't bother with enunciation at all.
    It seems like a pretty good isolated example of how easily language can change.
    But man…that marble mouthed asshole used to really irritate the hell out of me.

  36. Communication likely starts out fairly complex already with gestures, facial expressions, and conveying direction with the arms, hands, or fingers before spoken sentences arrive, all of which require local context to interpret. Meanwhile, mothers begin to hum and shush their crying children, singing the songs passed from their mothers for untold ages. People during a pre-sentence time could still communicate complex ideas with sound, using context from body language, status, location, and time of day. Concepts like fun, confusion, satisfaction, request, dismissal, acceptance, refusal, concern, appreciation/gratitude, invitation, and intimidation. Over time there were names and simple sounds (think sound effects) used to describe objects, people, the environment, past, present, or future, and personal names, and combining them to give other people new ideas, make plans, and describe new sources of food and water. And then we could tell stories. And with every new generation, better and more impressive ways to talk came, and language took off. (I got tired this is too deep)

  37. dude just stop comparing humans to monkeys, and think of a reason for Creation first.

    also, go search something about Atrahasis (means "Exidingly Wise")
    (tho you better learn him from Abrahamic sources, because he was his sider)

  38. I think it did exist cause
    1: humans have a part of our brain dedicated to launguage
    2: human anatomy has existed exactly like this for 150k years-ish
    3: we only started migrating out of where we were all started 50k-ish years ago,
    4:conclusion, we had 100k-ish years to develop launguage before splitting
    apart, and I’d say we could do it cause those humans had a launguage part of thier brain and it existing at all is clear evedencw of this
    (I made this theory up on my own, sorry if I got something wrong but I do know everything about what I said before 4 was right)

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