2 May 2018

Celtic *duno- and *duro- in connection with Akkadian

It is generally accepted that *duno and *duro, and their corresponding variants, are some of the most common and productive elements in ancient Celtic toponymy, with examples that can be found throughout Europe and Asia Minor. Among them, Camulodunum (Britain), Cambodunum (France), Singidunum (Serbia), Durovernum (Britain) or Boiodurum (Germany). In the picture, an inscription from Carnuntum, in Austria, with the word CAMVLODVNI.
What is the meaning of these elements? *duno is generally interpreted as 'enclosure' or 'fort'; *duro as 'gated fort', 'yard' or 'forum'. The problem is that there is no clear explanation for the etymology of these words. Pokorny's dictionary hints at some possible links with PIE roots. For *duno, a possible connection with the root *dheu-2, dhu̯-ēi- is given. This is a verbal element, with the meaning 'to vanish , faint', from where Latin funus would stem. Personally, I can't see the connection between a funeral, or a funerary memorial monument, and a fortified place. Delamarre (2003:155) offers another possible explanation, also based on some very weak arguments. For *duro, a connection with *dhu̯ē̆r-, dhu̯ō̆r-, dhur-, dhu̯r̥- is proposed. The meaning of the root, attested in many IE languages, is 'door', so the idea is that the meaning of 'fortress' developed from it.

In my opinion, the possible links with IE roots are not conclusive, so maybe another kind of explanation could be proposed. The other day, browsing an online Akkadian dictionary, I came across a couple of interesting words. Let's remember that Akkadian is a Semitic language that flourished in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE. The words I found are these:

- duru: 'city wall, fortress'.
- dunnunu: (adj, used for fortifications): 'solid, very strong'.

The parallelism with the supposed meanings of Celtic *duno and *duro is striking. Does it make sense to think of a borrowing from Akkadian that spread thorughout Asia Minor and Europe at an early date? One thing is for sure: the earliest examples of walled cities and citadels are found in Mesopotamia, so it's quite logical to suppose that some of the words connected with these concepts spread beyond the Middle East.

Obviously, these two Akkadian words produced a considerable amount of placenames in their homeland, Mesopotamia. Trevor Bryce (2009: 203ff) mentions three examples of Dunnum and many more with the element Dur: Dur-Katlimmu, Dur-Kurigalzu (photo), Dur-Yakin, etc. Examples can be found in many areas of present-day Irak and Iran (e.g. Dur Untash).

I don't know if this possible connection between 'Celtic' placenames and Akkadian has been proposed by any expert in the field. After some research, I haven't found any such proposal. I'm not an expert myself, so let's say what I've written here is basically an intuitive idea that would require more serious research.

In any case, I'm glad to be back at the blog with this article!

- Bryce, T. (2009). The Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia. Routledge.
- Delamarre, X. (2003). Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise. Éditions Errance.
- Sims-Williams, P. (2006). Ancient Celtic Place-Names in Europe and Asia Minor. Blackwell.

30 April 2018

It's been a long time...

I started this blog in 2008, but I haven't published any posts here in five years. Certainly, it's been a long time. The news is that I'm currently preparing a new article, which I hope to write in a matter of days. It will be about Celtic languages and toponymy.

Now, what have I been up to all this time? I haven't done much in the area of historical linguistics or the theory of language origins. Instead, I have focused on my literary side and my love for ancient history. As a result, I have written and published a couple of historical novels, both in Spanish: the first one is called Monte Alma (2016), the second Principes Mundi (2018). For the moment, they're not translated into any other language.

You can find more information about my novels in my literary blog, which I sign with my pen name, (Tadeus Calinca).

So yes, ten years later I come back to this blog. The search for an understanding of the ancient world goes on, in a variety of ways.

27 January 2013

Going to places

Well yes, Language Continuity is still alive but not as it used to be, when I posted regularly about comparative philology, Iberian studies or the origins of language. My life is a bit different now, and I don't have so much time to keep updated on those topics. A turning point was when I decided not to continue with my PhD dissertation: somehow, I was opting for a different way of doing things, and indeed that's what's happened. And I'm happy about the changes. I'll probably go on with the blog, but it certainly won't be like in the old days.

One of the main changes is that now I travel more. Definitely, I needed a lot of travelling. And the funny thing is that, in some cases, my trips are a little bit Language-Continuity-oriented. Many of my posts had left me with a feeling of "I want to go there one day", and that's actually what I'm doing now.

A few weeks I went to Monteagudo, a town near Murcia, in the southeast of Spain. We visited the impressive castle of Ibn Mardanis, the Wolf King (see picture on the right). Ibn Mardanis was a powerful ruler of the taifa kingdom of Murcia, and also an interesting historical figure, as I explained some years ago in this post. The other day I finally had the chance to visit the place where his palace and fortress once stood.

Caves with prehistoric paintings are also in my travelling agenda. During the Christmas holidays I visited the beautifuil town of Albarracín and its sorrounding area, where I had the chance of enjoying some fine prehistoric art. As an example, this little white fox painted on a wall at the Abrigo de las Tajadas, near Bezas (Teruel). The photo can also be seen in my Flickr page, here.

So yes, time for travelling and also for other things. Las summer, for example, I made a film-directing course in Valencia and I actually had the chance of shooting my first short film, which I signed with my pen-name, Tadeus Calinca. When I wrote the script I was not thinking of linguistics or human language or communication, usual themes in my blog. However, somehow the film is about language, or rather about communication, or lack of it. Anyway, here's the link so you can judge for themselves. I hope you like it!

10 October 2012

A song in Iberian

It's true, I haven't published any posts in the last few months, and the main reason is that I've been busy with other things. For example, I've written and directed my first short film, and now I'm starting the production of a play that I wrote some years ago. But anyway, I'm back on Language Continuity. My re-activation coincides with an interesting event that will take place in my city (Valencia), from the 24 to 26 of October: the IX International Conference on pre-Roman Languages and Cultures of the Iberian Peninsula (you can find the programme here). I'll be busy at work those days, but I'll try to attend as many lectures as possible. Among the participants, some of the most prestigious experts in the field. The readers of this blog might be familiar with some of the names: Xaverio Ballester, Eugenio Luján, Eduardo Blasco-Ferrer, Joan Ferrer i Jané, Joseba Lakarra, Eduardo Orduña, Javier Velaza, Nemí Moncunill, Martín Almagro-Gorbea and John T. Koch.

The speeches on Saturday 26, including Koch's, will be held at the Archaeological Museum of Llíria, a town near Valencia with some interesting pre-Roman and Roman sites. The finest examples of Iberian painted pottery have been found there. Some time ago I visited Edeta, a very well preserved pre-Roman site, and I was just impressed. Edeta is strategically placed on top of a mountain, overlooking the fertile plain around Llíria and the mountains beyond. This is one of the photos I took that day:
The venue for Thursday the 25th is the Museum of Prehistory of Valencia, which is also worth a visit. In the evening, during one of the breaks, there will be a music performance by a band called Ovidi Twins. What's peculiar about this band is that they actually have a song in Iberian! It is called Irriké, and its text is adapted from a well-known inscription that was found in Alcoi (plomo de la Serreta de Alcoi). As far as I know, it's the only Iberian song ever recorded. You can listen to it here. The song is included in a beautifully edited CD-book called Montgòlia (2011).

If you prefer, you can also take a look at the following video, where the members of the band present the song in Valencian. This is one of the things they say:
            - "(Iberian) is a language that can be read, but not understood."
           - "Like French".

6 May 2012

Blogging for a theory of language origins

I started Language Continuity in May 2008, that is four years ago. As you know, this blog is about linguistics, and my posts have covered a variety of areas: historical linguistics, Indo-European studies, theoretical linguistics, language origins,... Now, what are the most popular posts so far? Before I answer this question with some statistics, I'd like to offer my own view, because I do have my own favourites. The posts that I really enjoy writing are the ones about Origins of Language. And my favourite one is this: The birth of grammar. Maybe one day I'll use these posts to write a book about my views on language origins. I don't know when, but I think I will. But before writing, there's a lot of reading for me to do. For example, this recently published handbook.

What about my readers' actual preferences? According to Blogger stats, these are the top-three posts of all time, in order of popularity:

The Franco-Iberian refuge
Colin Renfrew. The Anatolian hypothesis
Celtic from the West

Another interesting question: where do my readers come from? In this case, there's a clear winner: the USA. A high percentage of the visits I get are from that country. Let's see the top-five (below you can see a map depicting the global audience for my blog, from Blogger Stats): 1. USA; 2. Spain; 3. Netherlands; 4. United Kingdom; 5. Australia.

18 April 2012

Languages, genes and cultures

As you may know, in this blog I have often criticised many aspects of traditional historical linguistics, e.g. the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European (PIE), including the imaginary set of laryngeals (one of my 'favourite' topics indeed) or the generally accepted chronology of IE expansion. I have written many posts criticizing these things, inspired by the work of some authors, like Mario Alinei and Xaverio Ballester, who oppose the traditional assumptions held in mainstream Indo-European (IE) studies. The good news is that now a major scholarly work, led by Francisco Villar, seems to support these ideas!

Francisco Villar is a renowned expert in Indo-European, and also in the languages of Pre-Roman Iberia. As we saw in this post, one of his theories is that the study of ancient toponyms, especially hydronyms, shows that the oldest languages spoken in the Iberian Peninsula were IE. Any other type of language (Basque, Iberian) appeared later (Villar, 2000). In his last research work (Villar et al 2011), carried out in collaboration with Blanca Prósper, Carlos Jordán and María Pilar Fernández Álvarez, he continues his previous research, comparing the linguistic data with the archaeological and genetic evidence that's now available. I will comment on the results in a series of posts, starting with this one. For the moment, I'll try to summarize some of the main points.

In their research, they focus on the ancient hydronyms of Europe and southwest Asia. The choice of material is relevant: hydronyms usually retain signs of archaic linguistic layers. Analysing these toponyms, they identify a series of components that are significantly present in those areas, e.g. *aisko/isko-, *ab-, or *balso-. Not only that: they also demonstrate, using phonological and lexicological criteria, that these components are IE, with no exception.

The aim of the research is to to try to correlate this set of data with the currently available theories of IE origin and expansion into Europe. The novelty is that the authors take into account Alinei's Paleolithic Paradigm  as one of the possible scenarios. Putting together linguistic, archaeological and genetic data, they reach the conclusion that the distribution of these toponyms correlates basically with two main events: the Mesolithic population expansion from the Glacial refugia of southern Europe, and the expansion of agriculture in the Neolithic. Both events involve IE languages. This is important. If the Mesolithic populations that migrated north were already carrying IE languages with them, then  those languages were there already in the Paleolithic. In order words, the Paleolithic Continuity Paradigm (PCP).

Of course, some may think: "Ok, there were IE language in Europe at that early age, but then there was another wave of IE dispersal at the bronze age which brought the IE languages as we know them today and historically". The authors admit this possibility, but also say that it is quite unlikely. As they say, and as I have insisted in this blog many times, there is no evidence of any sort of relevant population movement in the Bronze Age that could even remotely support this theory, usually known as the Kurgan theory.

As I said, I'll publish more posts getting into the details of this important research work. For example, I'll talk about their criticism of some aspects of traditional IE reconstruction, e.g. the reconstruction of PIE phonology. Let's see some excerpts (the highlighting is mine):

(p. 724-725): "Ciertas líneas de investigación han tendido a limitar el sistema vocálico indoeuropeo a dos vocales /e/ y /o/ e incluso a una sola (...). Tal reconstrucción, que no vamos a criticar aquí en detalle, desemboca en sistemas vocálicos irreales, inexistentes en las lenguas del mundo, sea cual sea la familia lingüística en la que busquemos. El testimonio de los arqueo-hidro-topónimos lleva la reconstrucción profunda del vocalismo indoeuropeo por derroteros muy diferentes. En las series vocálicas de nuestras arqueo-raíces la /e/ y la /o/ se manifiestan como variantes triviales y en parte locales de las respectivas formas básicas /i/, /u/ y /a/ (...). De ese modo, el sistema vocálico que se dibuja en el estadio cero es de tres miembros (a, i, u)".

(p. 726): "al pretender, como se ha hecho tradicionalmente, explicar la supuesta lengua común como un sistema cerrado en sí mismo, sin un origen y un devenir, se ha incurrido en simplificaciones, distorsiones e invenciones tendentes a buscar regularidades artificiales en terreno de la fonética, la morfología y la semántica".

The authors use cautious language, but this is actually a complete demolition of the many aspects of traditional PIE reconstruction, including laryngeals and other inventions.

NOTE (Apr 22, 2012): I have translated the quotes into English. See comments.
- VILLAR, Francisco (2000). Indoeuropeos y No-Indoeuropeos en la Hispania Prerromana. Salamanca, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca.
- VILLAR, F., B. PRÓSPER, C. JORDÁN, and  M.P. FERNÁNDEZ ÁLVAREZ (2011). Lenguas, genes y culturas en la prehistoria de Europa y Asia suroccidental. Salamanca, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca.

7 April 2012

Language in the dark

We, humans, are a diurnal primate species. Even though our modern life allows us to be more active in the dark hours, it is obvious that our species is adapted to the natural light-dark cycle: we are more active during the day, and sleep at night. This is true for both industrial and pre-industrial societies (Anch et al 1988; Siegmund et al 1998). On the other hand, human adults sleep about eight hours a day, a pattern that is similar to the one observed in chimpanzees, our closest relatives. According to Elaine N. Videan (2005), adult chimpanzees sleep 8.83 hours on average. As for the other primate species, there is a variety of sleeping patterns, depending on the type of adaptation (see table in Videan, 2005:10).

Chimpanzees live in equatorial and tropical Africa, i.e. the place where the first humans developed as a species. The map on the right (source) shows the different distribution of daylight hours in the world depending on the time of year. At the Equator, there is a balance of 12h of daylight and 12h of dark throughout the year, and in the adjoining areas the variation is low. The further we go north or south, the variation is higher. The extreme situation is obviously in the Poles, with either constant day or constant night.

It is difficult to know the sleeping patterns of extinct hominid species. If we think of Neanderthals, who were adapted to cold weather in the northern hemisphere, we might expect some kind of biological adaptation to the new environment. For us, humans the story is quite different, as our adaptation to those habitats is mainly a result of our technical ability (use of fire, clothing, etc.). Millions of humans live today in areas that we were not originally designed to inhabit. Our body and biological rhythm correspond to an equatorial or tropical environment.

Now, what does all this have to do with language? Let's see.

In previous posts, I have suggested that language was born in the context of a complex communication system that already had its own grammar. Maybe it was born as just a complement in an already rich communicative environment, but it certainly developed into something that gained relevance in human societies, as we can see today. Languages are at the centre of any human group, and are perceived as an independent communicative system. How did this happen? Obviously, using oral communication has some advantage of its own, as many authors have pointed out. One of these advantages is the fact that it can be used at night, i.e. in the absence of the whole world of perceptive stimuli and visual references that can be found in daylight. Communicating in the dark requires some additional effort, and it looks like vocal speech might be the best solution to overcome the difficulties.

Now, if you live near the Equator, as our ancestors did, you are possibly not much worried about how you fill your night time hours. There are about twelve of them each day, and you spend most of that time just sleeping. This is how our ancestors experienced life. Communication, including language, evolved in this scenario of balance. There was no special pressure for oral speech to surface as a particularly crucial element. It did evolve, but maybe at a slow pace.

From my Flickr photostream
Let's think of the first humans who ventured north. They occupied vast territories in Eurasia where they had to experience something new: winter days with less than ten hours of daylight. If you live in an environment like this, with endless nights of fourteen or more hours, you necessarily have to do something about it. Your body is not going to change: you will sleep the average eight hours no matter what you do. You won't hibernate either, because your species was not designed for this environment. But you have some tools to overcome the silent night: you can use fire, and you can also use complex communication. In the long dark hours there's only one way to describe the world around you: making language a more sophisticated tool, creating a more elaborate lexicon and more flexible ways of expressing meaning.

Maybe the new conditions found by humans at northern latitudes added new pressures to the development of language. If we look at the languages of the world, we can see an enormous discontinuity. The languages of central and southern Africa look extremely different from the languages of Eurasia. Some examples of these radical differences can be seen in The World Atlas of Language Structures, available online. Fusional languages like the ones in the Indo-European or Afro-Asian groups seem to have taken the concept of language to a degree of formal complexity that is not present in many sub-Saharan languages. A lot of research should be carried out before any solid conclusion may be drawn, and also to avoid overgeneralizations, but I think it is not absurd to hypothesize that Eurasia was an innovative area in terms of language, and that these innovations may have spread to other parts of the world, including Africa. The distribution of day/night hours may have played its role in the accumulation of pressure for these developments to take place.

- Anch, AM et al (1988). Sleep: a Scientific Perspective. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Siegmund, R. et al (1998). "Activity monitoring of the inhabitants in Tauwema, a traditional Melanesian village: rest/activity behaviour of Trobriand islanders". In Biological Rhythm Research, 29:49-59. (abstract).
- Videan, E.N. (2005). Sleep and Sleep-Related Behaviors in Chimpanzee. Dissertation.

4 February 2012

Dictada Occitana

Last Saturday I participated in the Trobada Occitana at Burjassot (a town in the Valencia Metropolitan Area). As you can see in the bilingual programme (picture on the right), the event included a series of activities around the Occitan language: a speech, live music in Occitan, and obviously, the Dictada itself, i.e. a dictation where the participants have to show their level of proficiency in Occitan. This type of events are held once a year in many places around the Catalan/Occitan world, and they work as a way of showing support for the Occitan language.

So there we were, ready for the dictation. The singer of the band (Primaël) read out the lyrics of one of his songs (Companh), which were used as the text for the dication. I had hardly ever written any Occitan before, like most of the people there, but the words of the lyrics were easy to understand. Below you can see a photo of the three winners, and the funny thing is that the second from the right is actually ... me!
How is it possible for some Catalan/Valencian speakers like ourselves to be able to understand and write in Occitan at a more or less decent level, without having learnt or practiced any Occitan before? The answer is easy: both languages are closely related. Some authors have gone beyond that idea, proposing that Catalan and Occitan are, grossly speaking, two varieties of the same language. The truth is that centuries of separation, and a series of historical events, particularly the expansion of Spanish and French in the corresponding territories, have created a linguistic scenario that differs strongly from Medieval times. In fact, the number of people who speak Occitan in France is low, and declining, and the language has no official status. However, the idea of an Occitan/Catalan unity is at least a beautiful dream,  a mirage, one that would include a vast area with cities like Bordeaux, Marseille, Clermont-Ferrand, Toulouse, Barcelona or Valencia.

In any case, going to that Occitan dictation was such a cool thing to do! And I even got a prize.

10 January 2012


Can we walk on four legs? We might try to do it, using our legs and arms, but even in that case, are we truly walking on four legs like horses or cats do? In fact, we are not. Our species has evolved towards bipedalism, and our whole body is designed for the upright position. When we try to walk on four legs we are merely imitating what other animals do. That's what it is: an imitation.

In some posts I've talked about the speech faculty and the origins of human language. As I said then, the fundamental change took place in the brain. Our capacity for symbolic thought gave us the grounds to develop our peculiar way of communicating, which makes us different from other known species. I used some examples from the animal world, especially the language used by bees. Now, can we communicate like bees? Can we go back to a stage where communication is not produced the way it is usually produced between humans? Can we communicate in a non-human way, i.e. expressing content without symbolic notions like 'imperative' or 'narrative'? Can we forget about ourselves and try to reach some kind of primeval or animalistic type of communication? The answer, in my opinion, is no. We can of course try to imitate 'animal' communication, as we can also imitate the way a tiger moves, but that's just an imitation. There's no way our brain can be told to work differently in terms of communication or logical thought. We are trapped inside our brains. It is indeed a beautiful cage, but that's what it is. We can only be human. But what does that exactly mean? Let's see.

If you take a look at the Task Manager in your computer, you'll probably notice that there is a program called explorer.exe. At the beginning I thought it was the Internet Explorer application, taking up a lot of my RAM memory, but then I discovered that it is actually an important component of Windows, responsible for controlling how the whole system works. I like this concept of permanent exploration, and I think it applies to the human mind too.

We are all born with a full set of physical features, including our brain, and an inborn impulse to explore the possibilities offered by these features. This exploration starts at birth, and continues to operate throughout our lives, like the explorer.exe file in our computers. There's no way we can exist without having some kind of curiosity about the possibilities that lie within ourselves. It is obvious that the exploratory instinct is more active during childhood, for obvious reasons. However, this exploration is always guided by the other people: our parents, our brothers or sisters, our teachers, and it is modelled to suit the social and communicative networks that we are born into, including language. There's no way to know how a child would develop its inner world without this human environment; in fact, a newborn baby would die in a matter of minutes without the help of other people, as happens to other mammals and other species. Our personal exploration is limited, guided, directed towards a socially efficient network that we necessarily have to belong to. There's no other way. There's no other possible model for us. With the end of childhood, our exploratory instinct falls into a secondary role that is progressively reduced as we get older. But it never really disappears. There's always something inside us that tries to keep on exploring. Some people are particularly keen on developing this inborn utility. They want to create beauty, they want to transcend our ordinary world in unexpected ways, they create art, they make things that are apparently useless, like poems, or a statue, and the incredible thing is that all of us tend to appreciate these exercises of creativity, we like it when an unexpetced connection is found between two words, or two ideas, or a given combination of colours. The concept of beauty itself, or art, shows that there's some part of us that goes beyond the usual codes by which our society is built. We are not just passive agents in a world of solid structures: we are active explorers in a world that must somehow transcend us, that's why we appreciate art, that's why we're so fond of beauty, that's why we cannot be human unless we continue the search or at least admire those whose exploratory efforts fill our own needs.

Human language is just a convenient social construct that uses a tiny percentage of the possibilities offered by our bodies and minds, a useful tool composed of a finite set of phonemes and lexical items, plus a set of syntactic relationships based on human logic. But there's much more in ourselves, as can be seen in music, in art, in literature, in many aspects of our everyday life. A typical question in books about prehistory is: 'When did art begin?' The answer is usually connected with the appearance of 'artistic' objects in the archaeological record. I see it differently: human art started as soon as a hominid was born with the chance of exploring a complex brain. Art is exploration. Art is the need for exploration.

Top: Triumph of Venus, Roman mosaic at Bulla Regia, Tunisia.
Bottom: detail from Ara Pacis, in Rome.

3 November 2011

Meet the Iberians

The Iberian lynx is a rare sight nowadays. It is actually the most endangered feline species in the world, and the few remaining individuals can only be found in some areas of western Andalusia (south of Spain). They are called Iberian for obvious geographic reasons. The Iberian Peninsula (Spain + Portugal) is named after the term Iberia, used by the Greeks and the Romans to refer to the peoples that they met on the Mediterranean coast. In fact, it was originally the name of a river (Iberos, nowadays Ebro). Through time, Iberia acquired its modern meaning, grossly equivalent to ancient Hispania. But the ethnonym Iberian is also an archaeological term, referring to a given pre-Roman material culture, associated with a language (still undeciphered) that can be read in a series of inscriptions. The meaning of ethnonyms and ancient languages is usually quite inaccurate and often misleading, and the term Iberian is no exception. However, we can be quite certain that around the east and south of Sapin there was a cultural continuum, including inscriptions and characteristic place-names, apart from a given set of settlement structures, that is generally labelled Iberian. In contrast to this, the rest of pre-Roman Spain is thought to be Celtic. Now, let's go back to the rare Iberian lynx: how Iberian is it actually? The territory where it is presently found is not at all the heart of the Iberian world. The Iberian lynx is probably more Tartessian than Iberian. The Tartessians are also quite a mysterious people themselves. For some authors (see e.g. here), they would be connected to the Celts, though this theory is far from being generally accepted.

So where do you have to go if you want to meet the real Iberians? A good place to go is Medierranean Spain, the area where I live. One of my hobbies is to visit the archaeological sites in the Valencia area; I've seen many of them, and I'm planning more tours in the future. The other day, I even had the chance to meet some ancient Iberians! I went to a site in Caudete de las Fuentes, supposed to be the ancient Kelin, a name that has been preserved in coins. Let's see some pictures from that day:

There I was with an Iberian lady who welcomed us in the museum (picture on the left) and listening to some merchants (right), in this beautiful reenactment organized by the University of Valencia. This type of events really helps you get closer to the ancient world. They are not just a show for families or some kind of touristy entertainment. Archaeology is more than just stones or abstractions, archaeology is something that can (or must) be felt, looked at, measured. Let's see another picture:

This is me at Puntal dels Llops (the Hill of Wolves), an Iberian site in Olocau, near Valencia. I went up there last year, and the most impressive thing about it is that, when you look around, you can locate other ancient sites and some relevant geographic features, and this gives you the right perspective. It makes sense. It looks real.

A couple of years ago I started my PhD dissertation, focused on the ancient languages of Britain. Some lines of my research are outlined in my blog, and they obviously include a good deal of arcchaeology. Now, there's a problem here. I haven't been to Britain in many years, and I don't have any direct experience of British archaeology: I haven't visited any of the main sites, which means I don't have a personal perspective of places, distances, the real size and look of ancient artifacts. To put it simple: I haven't touched British past. It is impossible to do research from simple abstractions, or from books. If you do something in life, try to make it real. That's why I think I won't finish my dissertation.

8 September 2011

The speech faculty

There's one obvious thing about human language: we speak the way we do because we have the physical capacity to do it. It's hard to imagine a dog or a chimpanzee pronouncing human words with some degree of intelligibility. This fact has led some people to see a correlation between the evolution of our vocal tract and the emergence of language. Their hypothesis would run as follows: "We started to 'speak' when we had the right anatomy to do it". The argument looks convincing at first sight, but I think it's quite weak. Let's see why. First, a video:

This is the Italian soprano Luciana Serra singing an aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. Wonderful, isn't it? Now, the question is: did we evolve to produce this kind of performance?

In another video (sorry, embedding disabled), we can see an example of throat singing from a region in Central Asia called Tuva. This man is able to produce different types of voices using the overtones created in his throat. It looks incredible, but it's possible. In other words: at least in some of us, if not in the vast majority of us, there is a potential for this kind of thing. If you talk to people who do yoga or meditation, or other sorts of physical or mental exercise, they will often tell you that they have discovered something inside them that they didn't know existed. Humans are full of all kinds of potential, including the vocal ones, but our languages only use a very small portion of these possibilities, disregarding the rest as irrelevant. The principle of economy works here: in fact, learning to pronounce the phonetic repertoire of a language requires great effort, and some people are never completely able to master the whole set. The problem gets much worse when we get older and try to learn a second language. By then, we have lost most of the mental flexibility or predisposition that we had as children and find it really hard to produce or imitate the new sounds. The story is well known, and we can find examples everywhere everyday. I know poeple who have learnt Spanish at extraordinary levels of proficiency but who still have problems pronouncing words like piscina or decisión, or find it hard to distinguish between caro and carro.

Children are not born speaking a language. They are born with the mental ability to see the logic of human communication, and during the learning process they have to explore the vocal possibilities offered by their own bodies. But it is only some of these vocal possibilities, in fact a finite set of vowel and consonant sounds (plus suprasegmental elements), that are selected and promoted in each case.

Let's imagine another hominid species with a poorer repertoire of possible vocalizations. Even if their imagianry IPA chart were ten times smaller than ours,  they would still have at their disposal a considerable amount of elements to choose from. It's not just what you have but how you exploit the potential that you have. It comes as an obvious conclusion that other hominid species could very well have developed verbal language even if their vocal tract was quite different from ours. The only requisite is that they had the kind of logical thought that leads to human communication.

Some people say language is what makes us human. I think language is just a secondary factor in a much wider scenario: the one created by our minds. Maybe that's why there are so many people doing yoga, or experimenting with sounds or trying to break communicative barriers. They want to break away from the boundaries of finite sets. They want to get a sample of a more global type of human interaction.

Or just to have fun:

4 September 2011

Grammar as an app

With or without the use of words, human communication has a syntax of its own, i.e. we can use all kinds of communicative tools (face gestures, calls, whistles, clicks, facial gestures, etc.) to create meaning: to tell a story, to refer to the present or past, to talk about possession, to point to an agent in the story, to urge the others to do something, to present information as a finished event, to describe an action that is happening simultaneously, to negate, to exclamate, to express admiration, doubt, prohibition, permission, lack of obligation, possibility, certainty, uncertainty. We have a brain endowed with the ability to generate these contrastive meanings and we use communicative elements accordingly.

Many different scenarios have been proposed for the emergence of human language. In one of them, it is thought that at the beginning there were a series of words that were used without a particular syntax. I think this idea is wrong. Words were born in a context that was already meaningful in terms of communication, or syntax. From the very start, their meaning was connected to their function.

I am aware that the term syntax is traditionally used as one of the main parts of grammar, alongside morphology and semantics. This traditional meaning should not be confused with the one I have described above.

On the other hand, I define grammar as the application of our logical thought to a specific subset of communicative elements: the verbal ones.

The gramamrs of the various human languages bear strong similarities with each other, and this peculiarity has led some people to think that there is some kind of universal grammar from which subsequent ones would have generated. I think this idea is completely absurd. The similarities arise from two main factors:

1) all human languages and their grammars are based on the logical structure and symbolic possiblities of the human brain, which are to be understood as universal.

2) grammars do not emerge in complete isolation: there is a high degree of convergence between them.

Another aspect to consider is the role of our speech capacity, i.e. our capacity to produce sounds. I'll be talking about this in a forthcoming post.