Merritt Ruhlen’s The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue

Being the purist that I am, I wince when people talk about the evolution of this, the evolution of that – evolution has nothing to do with automobile design or cell phones or political systems. It is, however, a legitimate concept when discussing language: language does change over time, languages do descend from common ancestors, and there are exchanges and mutations of “genetic material” – words. Merritt Ruhlen, a prominent linguist, has, in The Origin of Language, given us a fascinating, hands-on investigation of that evolution. He also gives us a history of linguistics and in particular, brings us up to date on developments in historical linguistics over the past fifty years.

The prologue discusses briefly what is meant by “the origin of language,” and the ways in which, for example physical anthropologists and linguists might interpret it differently. Ruhlen goes into the origins of language, and points out that we really have no way of knowing our ancestors’ linguistic capacities. He then discusses linguistic taxonomy, demonstrating how languages are classified, providing also an explanation of the structure of the book, which is a series of hands-on examples that demonstrate the affinities between different languages and point to language families. In the first four chapters, Ruhlen gives a series of cognate and near-cognate words from several different languages and asks the reader to determine which ones are related. He is not just giving a series of little practice sessions for budding linguists: he is building an argument, and it is more than helpful to be able to duplicate his reasoning on your own. In time, he has covered the Indo-European languages, showing their relationships and letting us discover proto-Indo-European, and taken us back to Eurasiatic, the parent of Indo-European and a number of north Asian and Palearctic languages, and then back to Eurasian, which includes the Afro-Asiatic group, Dravidian, from the Indian subcontinent, and Amerind, the major family of North American languages. He does the same for the major African, American, Asian, and Pacific groups, winding up finally with the Mother Tongue, which he calls Proto-Sapiens and credits as the parent of all living (and quite a few extinct) languages (yes, even Basque)..

He then gets technical – Chapter 5, subtitled “Are There Global Cognates?” is not much more than large groups of cognates of four stems from a host of different languages. It is fairly repetitive, and for popular purposes, amounts to overkill – I don’t really need to know all the words and stems relating to water and wetness in the Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, and Amerindian languages. Much more interesting are his discussions of such topics as classification versus reconstruction, the development of Joseph Greenberg’s classification of African languages, which offended the entire school of British Bantuists; Greenberg’s further work with American languages, which in turn offended the American specialists; the politics of linguistics (this is academic politics, not international diplomacy), the problem of time in relation to linguistics studies, and a number of other topics.

Make no mistake: Ruhlen has an agenda, and indeed, has worked with Greenberg, probably the foremost of the taxonomic “clumpers” in linguistics. There is huge controversy over Greenberg and Ruhlen’s theories of the descent of language, and Ruhlen revels in making monkeys (if I may say so) out of scholars such as the Curator of Languages at the Smithsonian Institution. Ruhlen makes a very convincing argument, which in this case certainly does not suffer from the reader’s participation. He is also a good writer, which is depressingly rare among scholars; many of the issues he presents are quite complex, and his discussions are clear and intelligent. Aside from the diagrams showing connections between language families and tables of words, the book includes maps showing distribution of languages and language families which are highly instructive. He also traces the major theories of human origins and distribution, and brings in the work of scientists from other disciplines, such as anthropologist Luca Cavalli-Sforza and geneticist Christy Turner, whose results mesh quite beautifully with his and Greenberg’s theories, as well as with those of other workers in these fields.

It is his final chapter, “The Emerging Synthesis: On the Origin of Modern Humans,” that tackles the big questions. Describing the “Emerging Synthesis,” he points out how linguists, geneticists, and archaeologists and paleoanthropologists have come up with the same answers to some of the basic questions of human origins and migration. He also traces the origins of the “Mother Tongue.” It is truly fascinating reading, and a well-reasoned argument. (Reviewer’s note: Given that evidence from mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited directly from the mother, indicates that we are all descended from a group of women living in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, it seems obvious that there would be a single origin for the languages we as a species have spoken since.)

Language is still one of our defining characteristics as human beings. This is not only a fascinating popularization, but also one that points out from still another scientific discipline the essential oneness of humanity. There is a fair amount of polemic here, but academic tempests can be highly entertaining. For those of you interested in the history of language – and for those who are fascinated by puzzles – I highly recommend The Origins of Language.

(Wiley, 1996)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.